Senior clinical therapist Jonathan Mitchell has been working with adolescent boys and their families at Open Sky since 2009, with years of field guiding experience prior to that. Among his many areas of clinical expertise, oppositional defiance is high on the list. Here, Jonathan explains what defiance is and how parents can effectively respond to their child’s defiant behavior and support them in taking accountability.
Defiance, which can look like resistance or outright disobedience, is an exaggerated expression of independence or differentiation from the family. By pushing against something, adolescents and young adults are trying to figure out who they are and define themselves in their own identity. Some degree of defiant behavior is normal and can even be healthy in adolescence. Defiance, however, can be taken too far and stem from attempts to meet the need for power and control in unhealthy ways.
Some indicators that defiance and opposition are becoming an issue for a young person are pretty obvious: getting into trouble at school, experiencing turmoil in peer relationships, or arguing with family. In other ways, it can be a little more insidious; perhaps a young person is just exhibiting an unusual behavior. One way to distinguish if there is an issue or problem is to consider the gravity of the consequences of the child’s behavior. Observing how young people respond to consequences can help parents and therapists assess the level of defiance and the level of difficulty that the child is going through. Sometimes, it’s only by looking at the consequences of a teen’s choices that we can distinguish how significant an issue the defiance is.
For example, if a child brings cannabis to school and receives a one-day suspension, they could respond by experiencing a wake-up call and changing their behavior as they move forward. Or they could respond as if they don’t care and continue to do whatever they got into trouble for in the first place. Defiance becomes concerning when the young person is not learning from their consequences and remedying their behavior.
Defiant teenagers often push against or away from people because they are hurting, feeling insecure, or scared of something. In teenagers, defiance often comes from a place of powerlessness and a feeling of not being seen and heard by the world around them. Defiant teenagers also tend to be angry. Anger can feel powerful and even addicting in the moment, but it’s also very isolating; defiant kids are often lonely. The double-edged sword of defiance is that yes, it’s powerful, but it ostracizes us from our relationships and the world around us. We’re not connected to people when we’re defiant. When parenting or counseling defiant teens, we want to help kids feel powerful and in control of different aspects of their lives, but to do so in a healthy, relational way.
If you want your child to shift their defiant behavior and to accept your support, deal with your own upset and anger first. Do your own work by reaching out to a spouse, therapist, or support network. Then come to your child with a clean slate, as much as you can, ready to support them. Also, consider your own relationship with defiance. Were you a defiant teenager? Where did that behavior come from? If you can’t relate to your own defiance, you’re naturally going to judge it in somebody else. Practice humility. This will help you to better relate to a child who is defiant.
The antidote to defiance is relationship. Any time a child can feel like they have trust in their relationships, they will be more likely to pivot into changing their behavior; they feel safe enough in those relationships to do something differently. It’s important to note that a lot of this is up to the child to take that risk. What parents can do is open that avenue of communication and create an atmosphere where it’s okay for their child to say what they want to say. Your child might say things like, “I’m really mad at you” or, “I’m annoyed that you’re breathing down my neck all the time.” As a parent, don’t take the bait or engage in power struggles. Instead, respond with something like, “You know, I really hear you. That makes sense.” Be patient. Hear what your child is saying and acknowledge their experience.
The tendency to want to fix or problem solve is a natural impulse, especially when the people we care about are in high stress situations. The goal for a parent in the initial stages of conversation with a defiant child is not to create remedies, but to rather show up in a curious, non-judgmental way and seek to understand what your child is going through. Maybe they feel powerless at school. Maybe they don’t have many friends. Maybe they feel like everyone’s against them. Encourage your child to tell you more. Ask them things like, “What does that feel like?” or “What did the teacher say to you? What happened next?” Resist the temptation to ask things like, “Well, what can you do?” or “Have you tried talking to them?” That’s problem-solving and comes in a later stage.
Everyone wants to feel understood. It’s a core human need that is especially important to teenagers. Aim to understand what your child is going through. Once they feel expressed, you can enter the conversation about their accountability. This can sometimes be tricky because your child may not understand what’s going on themselves. They may not be able to tell you a whole lot at first. That’s where people like therapists and other professionals come in.
Once you have listened and sought to understand your child’s experience, you can move onto the next stage of supporting them in taking accountability. Sometimes supporting taking accountability and ownership might come in the form of setting boundaries. Your child might lose some privileges. You might set an earlier curfew or limit the time they spend with friends or on the phone and video games. Some teenagers need boundaries in order to understand things; limiting independence allows them time and space to reflect. Support can also mean having regular check-ins with your child, meeting with a therapist, having a mentor they can connect with, and doing positive things outside with the family. Remember, defiance comes from a place of powerlessness and not feeling seen and heard, so these healthy and productive activities can help teenagers get to a point of insight and gradually take ownership for mistakes they may have made.
Sometimes, it just takes someone other than a parent to call out a child in a way that they can hear it. It’s one of the major, and often comedic, challenges of being a parent. Find someone who you can have in your corner who you know is going to be appropriately confronting your child, especially when they’re dealing with defiant behavior. Therapists are excellent resources. Other times, kids really listen to uncles, aunts, or other extended family members who can step in and say what needs to be said in a way that the child can hear. Parenting the defiant teen requires expansiveness beyond the parent. In other words, it takes a village!