Dr Asha Pemberton
Parenting teenagers oscillates through experiences of joy and stress. Along with the physical changes, social dynamics and evolving changes that they must manage, teenagers often bring with them a rebellious, defiant nature which can be difficult to understand. While oppositional behaviours occur throughout childhood, they seem amplified in adolescence. Teenagers will be louder, more confrontational and more defiant than younger children. As a parent, it is hard to not take these behaviours personally or consider them failures of parenting abilities. It is important to remember that these behaviours are usually targeted at you because parents are the safest people to demonstrate frustration or challenge to within a teen’s/tween’s life. That said, teenagers need to know that there are acceptable standards of behaviour that must comply with. We recognise that they will test the boundaries, but yet there must be rules.
Examples of defiant behaviour range through normal and typical patterns to frank refusal to obey authority – and even criminal behaviour. Teenagers, will at some time delay completing chores, prolong responding to requests or demonstrate their annoyance through eye rolling, back-chatting or stony silence. These are universal. Behaviours that demonstrate more concern and potential need for intervention include:
-Significant drops in grades and/or a refusal to complete homework or study
-Missing school, which is becoming more prevalent in our current online education environment
-Complete avoidance of chores
-Refusal to participate in family activities
-Zero concern for authority or consequences
-Inability to regulate emotions or control temper
-Intentional teasing or instigating conflict
-Physical threats or violence to siblings or parents
-Antisocial behaviour, property destruction or theft
-Impulsive behaviours, substance use and sexual activity
Extended periods of defiance may be indicative of a more serious issue. Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) is a formal mental health disorder that is primarily identified in youth. Affected adolescents appear uncooperative, aggressive, and hostile toward peers, parents, teachers, and other authority figures. A diagnosis of this type indicates an intense and chronic condition going beyond simply “being difficult” on occasion. In addition, specialist support for the young person and their parents are essential to consistent behaviour change and overall improvement.
Sometimes consistent irritability can be a sign of depression in teens, or an indication of another struggle in their lives to which their parents are unaware. Issues including difficulties with friends, ended teen relationships, struggles with identity of sexuality or gender, or social exclusion are common experiences that adolescents may hide from their parents while still generating significant distress. It is important to remember that the primary role of parenting is nurturing and support. As such, when teen behaviours change, the first step is to quietly but consistently aim to support and understand the context of your teen’s life. While definitely frustrating, parents are required to be mindful of their own responses, demonstrate patience and model the appropriate behaviours they want for their teens. Adding more conflict to their defiance simply makes everything worse.
On a positive note, the defiance and rebellion of the adolescent brain support the youth-driven passion toward social justice and autonomy. Teenage rebellion can be virtuous – even wholesome – depending on the situation. Youth today, like youth of all prior generations are responsible for protests, marches and opinions that challenge the status quo and demand changes for the good of all. Movements including those of women’s rights, racial equality, environmental protection and human rights, all started with the energy of young people determined to defy the rules of the time and take action for change. When considered in this way, young people should not be discouraged from having opinions that differ from their parents, but yet must recognise that the rules of the universe and society apply to all. Through consistent, rules, boundaries, open communication and acceptance, parents can navigate this challenging aspect of adolescent behaviour and mentor young people to positive and productive adulthood.