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.
Understanding Defiant Behavior in Teens and Young Adults
Getting to the root of defiant 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 problem with defiance is that while it may help us to feel powerful, it simultaneously isolates us from others. 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, generative way.
How far is too far?
Sometimes it is obvious that defiance and opposition are becoming an issue for a teen or young adult: they are getting into trouble at school, experiencing turmoil in peer relationships, or arguing with family. In other ways, the repercussions can be more stealthy; perhaps your loved one is just exhibiting an unusual behavior, but there is something serious looming underneath which needs to be addressed. One way to distinguish if there is an issue or problem is to consider the depth of the consequences of your 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 your child skips class and receives an afternoon of detention, they could respond by changing their behavior and moving forward. Or, they could respond flippantly 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, expressing compassion or understanding for others, and remedying their behavior.
Responding to Defiance: 5 Tips for Parents
1) Learn about your own triggers and responses.
If you want your child to shift their defiant behavior and to accept your support, it’s vital to deal with your own reactions first. Reach out to a spouse, therapist, or support network. Then come to your child with a clean slate, showing compassion and patience for what may arise. It could also be helpful to 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 won’t be able to relate to your child’s.
The antidote to defiance, and most maladaptive behavior for that matter, is connection. When a child can feel like they have trust in their relationships, they will be more likely to respond in relational ways because they feel safe enough in those relationships to do something differently. It’s important to note that just because you change your behavior as an adult and parent, it doesn’t mean your child will necessarily follow suit. All you can do is open that avenue of communication and create an environment 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, “I hear you. I understand why you feel that way.” Be patient and acknowledge your child’s experience.
3) Aim to understand, not to fix.
When the people we care about are in high stress situations, our reflex is often to ‘fix’ or problem-solve. 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, lonely, confused, or sad. Encourage your child to tell you more about what is bothering them. Ask them things like, “What does that feel like?” or “What happened next?” Resist the temptation to ask things like, “What are you going to do about it?” or “Have you tried x,y, or z?” That is fixing, and that should only occur when your child is ready to brainstorm with you.
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 heard, you can enter the conversation about their responsibility in the situation. This can be tricky because your child may not understand what’s going on themselves, hence the defiant behavior. They may not be able to fully express themselves. That’s where people like therapists and other professionals come in.
4) Help them take accountability.
Once you have learned more about 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.
5) Seek outside support.
Parenting the defiant teen requires expansiveness beyond the parent. One of the major challenges of being a parent is that sometimes, it takes someone else to get through to the child. Find someone who you can have in your corner who can appropriately confront your child, especially when they’re dealing with defiant behavior. Therapists are excellent resources. Other times, kids want to 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.
Nothing seems to help… Now what?
If you have tried the suggestions above, and even home therapy doesn’t seem to be garnering much change, it could be time to seek out more in-depth support.
Wilderness Therapy programs like Blue Ridge Therapeutic Wilderness exist to help students and their families break through the shame of defiant behavior, emotional dysregulation, depression, anxiety, adhd, and other mental health challenges to emerge with confidence, emotional resilience, and stronger family bonds.
Seeking a therapeutic program or inpatient treatment does not mean that you have failed as a parent—it means that you acknowledge what might be best for your child and you will do whatever it takes to improve their quality of life.
About Blue Ridge Wilderness
Located in the Blue Ridge mountains of North Georgia and North Carolina, Blue Ridge Wilderness is a short-term nature-based therapeutic program designed to help early adolescents, teens and young adults work through the issues holding them back, while experiencing the healing power of nature, practicing therapeutic techniques, and developing communication skills with their families along the way. At Blue Ridge, each child’s treatment is individualized to their needs. We work with the family in a parallel process to ensure that students’ needs are continually met after leaving the program.
We would love to speak with you about our program. If you have any questions, please visit our website or reach out to an Admissions Director today by calling (888)910-1050 or sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.