What You'll Learn
- What is defiance?
- How can consequences and positive reinforcement help with defiance?
- What does defiance look like?
Most teens will act defiant toward their parents at some point. But defiance can be tricky to address for parents – punishments can backfire, and the parenting style that once worked might not work anymore.
It is important to understand what defiance is and how to deal with it appropriately.
Defiance is a spectrum of behaviors, from frustrating ones, like refusing to go to bed when a parent tells you to, to more risky behaviors. A child may become argumentative or impatient when it’s time to finish their homework or brush their teeth.
Parents may lose confidence in their abilities to manage their kids. It’s essential that parents keep a cool head, even though defiance can feel like a personal attack.
First, kids need to feel motivated by their relationship with their parents. If the interactions between parents and child are mostly negative, the child may disengage more, leading to more defiant behaviors. Rather than focusing on punishing bad behaviors, parents can use positive reinforcement, like thanking them when they behave appropriately.
And when consequences are necessary, it’s crucial that the punishment matches the crime and that the child can earn back the parents’ trust. That may take time, but trust is critical to the parent-child relationship.
Understanding the function of defiance is key to stopping it. The goal is to understand what the child is trying to get out of the risky behavior and find a more effective method of communicating that goal, perhaps through family therapy.
The child must be motivated to change and have the skills to do so.
While testing boundaries is part of a child figuring out who they are, when behaviors become dangerous, parents may need to strategize how to work with their kids to keep them safe and accountable.
Defiance seems like a rite of passage for teens, much to the disappointment of their families. Even though most parents have to address defiance at some point during their child’s adolescence, many are not confident in their ability or methods of doing so.
“When we think about defiance, we’re really thinking about noncompliance or actively going against the expectations set in that situation,” explains Morgan Eldridge, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. Defiance may look like being argumentative, stubborn, or impatient.
There is a spectrum of defiant behavior — from frustrating behaviors to risk-taking ones. Heather Bernstein, PsyD, a psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, says that these behaviors tend to occur around curfews, homework time, or when screen time is limited.
Parents often lose confidence in their parenting styles when children become teenagers because suddenly what used to work, doesn’t, notes Dr. Eldridge. And when parents are frustrated by a defiant teen they sometimes rely too heavily on punishments, and even shame. “Ultimately that doesn’t lead to long-term progress for the kid.”
Dr. Bernstein notes that it’s hard to respond to defiance without being emotional yourself. Parents may inflict harsh punishment when they see the behavior as an affront. “A parent may think this is an attack against them,” she explains, “and then they respond from a place of retaliation for their hurt.”
Punishment vs. positive reinforcement
Reacting emotionally can backfire when the relationship becomes negative, says Dr. Bernstein: “If the interactions between the kid and their parents are largely negative, that makes it more likely that kids are going to be non-compliant and engaged in defiance. Because they’re not motivated by the relationship.” Instead of focusing too heavily on punishing bad behaviors, she recommends that parents use positive practices as much as possible.
Good behavior can be motivated by rewards, Dr. Bernstein notes, especially having more freedom to do things like go out with friends. And they also respond to appeals to what therapists call “labeled praise,” such as “Thank you so much for coming home on time,” she says.
When rules are broken and consequences are called for, Dr. Bernstein says, it’s important that they match the thing the teen did wrong. For instance, if a teen doesn’t keep their curfew or isn’t where they said they’d be, their parents may track their location for a while, until trust is restored.
“They’re going to have to earn back that trust, so they might need to check in with the parent more frequently,” Dr. Bernstein explains. “It’s about tying the consequence to the concerning behavior.” Rebuilding trust takes time, but it’s crucial for the parent-child relationship.
Understanding where defiance comes from
Even with positive reinforcement, some parents may still struggle to manage their teens’ behavior. One mom, Jess Walsh, is at a crossroads in her parenting. She has three children, ages 11, 14, and 18. After a tough divorce, her 14-year-old son Matthew took her husband’s leaving harder than the other children.
He began to refuse housework, since he considered it “a girl’s job.” In his own way of becoming the man of the house, he started mimicking his father. He requires more time and energy, and keeping him safe consumes a lot of Walsh’s time. “Sometimes I fear that he’ll get physical,” she says.
In a case like this one, Dr. Bernstein says, getting to the bottom of the defiance is important and can often curb risky behavior. “A parent that is relying heavily on punishment is probably not addressing what that kid is really going through,” she says. “It’s going to strain the relationship and then the kid is going to feel hopeless.”
Understanding the function of the defiance is key to finding a way to stop it. “Pushing back against a parent often serves a huge function. So we want to understand what the function is, what is he getting out of this?” Dr. Bernstein explains. “Is there a way that he can get what he wants in a more effective way?”
To get there, though, she says, the child must be motivated to change and have the skills to do so. “If you’re feeling like a kid is really getting dysregulated or is threatening harm to someone else or to themselves, that’s a kid who I would say has a skills deficit. They will probably benefit from treatment or family therapy, where they can communicate their needs in a more effective way.”
Most of the time, defiance isn’t a cause for serious concern. However, parents can’t simply look away from risky behavior that could harm the child or others. Dr. Eldridge explains: “Adolescence is a period of time where kids are testing boundaries, they’re sorting through their values and identity.” When risky behaviors come into play, parents may need to rethink their strategies for keeping their kids safe and holding them accountable.
Here are behaviors that parents should look out for:
- Getting into fights and bullying others
- Decreased academic performance
- Substance use
- Withdrawing from friend groups and activities
“If behaviors get in the way of mental and physical health,” Dr. Eldridge explains, “it puts kids at risk for long-term challenges.” When behavior is troublesome, disruptive, and/or unsafe, Dr. Eldridge recommends parents turn to mental health services, which could include a parent training program. “Parent management training is going to be really important because ultimately, improving the parent-child relationship is a big priority.”
The goal, aside from safety, is to build trust between the parents and child. “Improving that relationship is huge,” says Dr. Eldridge, “and it helps kids to be honest and know they can come to you.”