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Techniques for Working with Defiant Teens

Looking for help with defiant teens or how to manage defiant teens? Parenting troubled teenagers can be difficult, but here are some techniques we have found that help for working with defiant teens:

1. Tolerating Behavior - When establishing a relationship or dealing with multiple behaviors in defiant teens, it may be necessary to tolerate some behaviors temporarily. This is a purposeful, thought-out choice on the part of the parent based upon priorities, values, relationship, age and developmental level of youth involved, current situation, and specific treatment issues. This is not to be confused with passivity, avoiding conflict, letting defiant teens "do whatever they want," inconsistently enforcing expectations or other methods of working with defiant teens that don't work.

2. Ignoring Behavior - Parents of defiant teens may consciously decide to ignore certain behaviors at times in an effort to extinguish the behavior by not reacting to it. The behavior may be inconsequential, may be designed just to "get a reaction," or may be masking another, more important, issue which is what really needs attention. Ignoring a behavior should not stop communication or relationship building. It is a specific behavior that is being ignored, not the person. Examples might include using certain words, attempts to provoke or annoy parents, making personal comment to or about parents, saying "I won't" or "you can't make me," etc.

3. Active Listening - Some behaviors of defiant teens are bids for attention or expressions of frustration at not feeling understood. Parents can reduce problem behaviors when each defiant child feels genuinely cared about, understood, and paid attention to. Active listening is hard work and takes energy and practice. It cannot be done when thinking about or attending to other things, or when distractions occur. Active listening need not last a long time, but attention must be focused completely on the youth and the message must be communicated back to them in the listeners own words in a way that lets them know they really were heard. Body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, eye contact, respect for personal space, and choices of words are all important in communicating the desired message. It may take two or three attempts to really understand the message, and that is okay, as long as it is finally understood accurately and that is clearly demonstrated. A few brief exchanges of this sort for each child every day are necessary.

4. Observing and Commenting - Parents of defiant teens may choose to comment on a behavior in a non-threatening, non-judgmental way to bring it to the attention of the child. This may be new information for the youth to think about. What they choose to do with that feedback will provide further opportunities for discussion and teaching. For instance, "I notice you tend to be critical of others when they are talking about a success" or "You seem to only break the rules when you are in a group" etc.

5. Redirecting - Commonly used with younger defiant children or defiant teens with short attention spans, this technique simply stops one behavior by substituting another or diverting the attention of the youth or group to a different subject or activity.

6. Physical Proximity - Sometimes defiant teens who are beginning to become anxious, irritable or overly active will be calmed down by eye contact, a special "look" or signal, moving next to them or a reassuring hand on the arm or shoulder. Along with physical proximity it is important to be calm and reassuring.

7. Requesting - When there is a good relationship between the parent and child, a simple request to do, or stop doing, something or a re-stating of the expectations is often enough. If over-used, however, it may become less effective, may be experienced by the child as overly controlling, or can slow the process of responsible growth and decision-making skills. Example: "Michelle, we don't use that type of language here, could you please find a different word?"

8. Sequencing - Desirable behaviors in defiant teens can be used as motivating for less desirable ones. For example - "You may watch one hour of approved TV as soon as your book report is satisfactorily completed" or "you may make that phone call as soon as you have finished cleaning up the kitchen." This type of statement helps the Parent avoid power struggles because they did not say, "no." It puts the struggle and control back with the child, where it belongs. They can then choose whether or not they will watch TV today and when (within limits). A version of this can be re-stated calmly and compassionately as often as necessary while the child struggles with their choice.

9. Encouraging/Coaching - Encouragement, praise, and coaching are all effective ways to make pro-social behaviors in defiant teens more likely and more frequent. The stronger the relationship between parent and a given child, the more powerful this method becomes.

10. Shaping - Shaping behaviors is an approach with defiant teens that breaks skills down into steps and rewards small movements in the right direction. For instance, if you are trying to teach the skill of greeting a visitor, you would ultimately want the youth to go through the following series of behaviors: stop what they are doing, stand up, look at the visitor, walk over to them, make eye contact, smile, say "hello," extend their right hand to shake, say "my name is.," etc. To ask for all of that from someone who has never done it before, or who is shy, is asking too much. So at first they would be rewarded if they momentarily stopped what they were doing when someone new came in. After a few times they would need to stop what they were doing, stand up and look in the direction of the visitor in order to be praised, and so on. In other words, new skills in defiant teens are not all or nothing but are a series of steps to be learned.

11. Rewarding/Reinforcing - Rewarding positive behavior is the best way to ensure its continuation in defiant teens. A common error in parenting troubled teenagers is to spend so much time and energy dealing with crises and negative behaviors, that children who are being responsible can either get "lost" or are tempted to act less responsible to become part of the action. Rewards can take many forms from simple a comment: "I noticed that you..." or "I really appreciated it when you..." to special time and attention or more concrete things such as a special treat or privilege. For every negative interaction defiant teens experience, it takes four positive interaction to overcome the effects. Parents need to be very deliberate about maintaining at least a 4:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions every day with every youth.

12. Consequenting - Consequences may be used to discourage unacceptable behavior of defiant teenagers. Usually this will occur after other techniques have been tried unsuccessfully with the defiant teens. Consequences should not be confused with punishment; nor should they ever be given in anger. They should be applied consistently. That means that the behavior consequented today, will again be consequented next week. Also, behavior consequented for one youth will not be allowed for others. This consistency lowers anxiety by making the environment predictable. Consequences are given to help defiant teens establish boundaries. Consequences should be clearly explained, related to the behavior, and completed as soon as possible. A parent who is angry with a youth should calm down before deciding a consequence and if applicable should consult with the other parent before doing so. Consequences are more effective when discussed matter-of-factly from a caring and controlled point of view. Parents should regularly discuss the effectiveness of consequences for the specific youth and should always support each other in the positive discipline process of their defiant teens.

13. Natural Consequences - Sometimes consequences occur for defiant teens through the natural course of events (such as a youth coming home late from school and missing a phone call from a friend). If the natural course of events makes an impact by teaching a lesson, parents need not intervene further. They can be sympathetic to the youth's plight (this must be genuine however, and never patronizing or sarcastic).

14. Logical Consequences - Logical consequences for defiant teens may be necessary when no natural one occurs, or when the natural one is insufficient to make a change in future behavior. An example would be a defiant youth causing a disturbance at an event, not being allowed to attend the next one.

15. RIGHTS - (such as food, clothing, therapy, medical attention, education, and spiritual activities) are NEVER withheld from defiant teens as a consequence. Privileges (such as television, telephone, radio, some activities, free time, visiting with friends, hobbies, walking around the grounds, etc.) may be temporarily withheld as logical consequences and can be powerful incentives for some defiant teens.

16. Temporarily Removing One or More Privileges - It is not meaningful or realistic to "remove all privileges" from defiant teens. This generally leads to resentment towards the adult and a lack of understanding or personal responsibility. When this technique is chosen, 1) it must be made clear to the teen exactly which privileges(s) will be removed, 2) why it is being removed, 3) exactly how it will be handled, 4) and for what time period. If there is something they can do to get the privilege(s) reinstated sooner, that should also be clearly explained. Note: this requires more thought and explanation than simply saying, "You're grounded."

17. Writing Assignments - Education sometimes alters behavior in defiant teens. Examples include researching the long-term effects of smoking or drug usage; talking with teen parents to learn what sacrifices they have made; learning about a particular culture, religion or disability in order to develop understanding or tolerance, etc. Such an assignment should include considerable thinking, learning, and dialogue with parents, rather than simply writing a certain number of words without much independent thought.

18. Role Playing/Rehearsing - This technique can be used to practice for an upcoming situation that may be difficult, foreign, or anxiety producing or to re-create a situation that already occurred to experience alternative responses. Examples should include role-playing a situation in which the youth was angry and became physically or emotionally abusive; or one in which they demanded or sulked instead of negotiating. The purpose of the role-play is to help defiant teens practice more acceptable styles of self-expression while still making their intended point. Practicing of this sort will make the desired responses more likely in future similar situations. Role playing can also be used to practice saying something that is difficult or anticipating a variety of responses in order to reduce anxiety.

19. Role Modeling - Most of what children learn from adults comes from simply observing. All parents are role models to their children (even defiant teens) and need to be very conscious of their own behavior. Children are astute observers of how we treat them, how we relate to each other and how we take care of ourselves.

20. Pre-Teaching - It is easier to prevent negative behaviors in defiant teens than to deal with them after they occur. A very effective tool is to pre-teach behavior prior to an event or potentially vulnerable situation. This involves talking with the person or group in detail about what will be happening, why, and what their role and expected behaviors will be. Pre-teaching reduces anxiety, clarifies expectations, builds confidence, sets up success, and can add to the fun of anticipating an event.

21. Teaching Alternatives - A good way to teach defiant teens personal responsibility is to spend time brainstorming together about all the possible responses, and predicting the reactions to each response. Instead of telling them what to do and what not to do (which can elicit dependency or oppositional responses); it is useful to spend time exploring different options. For example, instead of saying "don't say that to your dad" it is better to say something like "that's one way you could handle it. How do you think he would respond to that?" "Is that the response you want from him?" "How else might you phrase that idea?", etc. If they have trouble coming up with alternatives, you can help out by saying, "Do you want to know what some other people have tried?"

22. Substitution - It is never enough to tell defiant teens what they can't do or what behaviors they must stop doing. We must always add what they CAN do instead. Some examples might be ideas such as, "You cannot hit your roommate when you are angry, but you can go for a brisk walk, write in your journal, talk about how you feel, etc." The goal is to replace or substitute an unacceptable behavior in defiant teens with one that is acceptable and still meets the same need. The message should always be, "your needs and feelings are normal and okay and we are here to help you express them in ways that will allow you to be successful and responsible."

23. Teaching Interactions - Effective parenting of defiant teens requires frequent interactions. Situations, both dramatic and mundane, present themselves continually. Parents of defiant teens, who recognize the golden opportunities in routine living tasks, capitalize upon them by turning them into teaching interactions, build solid relationships, have fewer behavior problems, and receive daily rewards. Problems = teachable moments for defiant teens. Teaching interactions can take several forms such as demonstrating a skill; processing dynamics (such as "have you noticed that when someone doesn't fulfill their responsibility; others become resentful and peopled become irritable with one another?"); teaching a concept (such as negotiation); or others. The point is that on-duty parents of defiant teens should always be interacting with youth, and the nature of those interactions is teaching; rather than lecturing, punishing, judging, criticizing, doing for, or becoming friends with the child. Again, problems = teachable moments for defiant teens.

24. Re-focus - Defiant teens may be asked to spend time thinking about something (such as a recent run-away or self mutilation) and express their feelings and thoughts in some way. This could be writing, poetry, drawing, etc. Whatever format is used, it then needs to be processed with the teen. They can then be assisted in identifying early clues and practicing alternative responses. The purpose of this type of activity is to encourage thinking, self-awareness, communication, and planning for different choices in the future.

If you are still having trouble with your defiant teen, it may be time to turn to schools for troubled teenagers. Take our troubled teen questionnaire to see if a boarding school might be the right fit for your teen.

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