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Defiance: A Comprehensive Guide for Parents

When your child is struggling with behavior issues, it may feel like you are walking on a tightrope, trying to get to the other side without causing more problems. Finding help for your defiant teen can feel like a constant power struggle. They may not actively be breaking rules or doing risky things, but you may find it hard to have a conversation without them back-talking, eye-rolling, purposefully not listening to parts of what you’re trying to say. Calling them out for lying or being disrespectful may only escalate arguments.

As a parent of a teenager, it is important to be equipped and prepared to handle defiant behaviors. Being overly reactive and responding in an angry outburst will only make matters worse. Come up with a plan to address the situation in a meaningful way that is seeking the best interest of your teen.

The guide is meant to be comprehensive, but as such, not every section will be applicable to everyone. Instead, we invite you to click on the links in the table of contents to jump to the sections that most interest you.

1. What is Defiance?

A lot of teens intentionally bend or break rules with the hope that their parents will never find out. Defiance becomes a problem for families when it becomes ongoing or disruptive to the family unit. Defiance doesn’t refer to making bad choices and ignoring parents’ expectations, it usually involves the relational piece of being defensive or disrespectful in conversations with others. Many defiant teens struggle to pick their battles and can turn many smaller conversations into a confrontation.

Is Defiance Just Teenage Rebellion?

While adolescence may just be “a phase” of your child’s lifespan, their behaviors during this period influence their coping mechanisms, interests, and relationships throughout their lifetime. Many parents are concerned that they are being overprotective by worrying about their teen’s behavior issues and believe that they’ll age out of experimenting with substances, sneaking out, and breaking house rules. If your teen is struggling with defiance, early intervention for their behavior issues is never “too early.”

Characteristics of Oppositional Defiance Disorder

Signs of Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD) vary depending on what is developmentally appropriate. Oppositional Defiant Disorder is characterized by patterns of hostile, defiant behavior towards parents and other authority figures. It sometimes co-occurs with or is misdiagnosed as ADHD or depression. If your teen’s defiance is unpredictable, explosive, or regularly becomes violent, it may be related to other conduct issues. To fit the diagnosis of Oppositional Defiant Disorder, a person must have exhibited some of the following symptoms for at least six months:

  • Easily losing one’s temper
  • Arguing
  • Refusing to follow rules
  • Blaming others
  • Being unwilling to compromise or negotiate
  • Repeated disobedience
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Failure to think before speaking
  • Difficulty making friends

What Degree of Defiance is Normal?

One of the most challenging and important developmental tasks of adolescence is forming one’s own identity and practicing autonomy. This might mean becoming more private, questioning old limits and rules or debating parents’ rules. This transition, while normal, is new and therefore awkward territory. Sometimes, any kind of resistant behavior can feel like defiance, leading to parental frustration and adolescent resentment and guilt. But as long as there is open communication between family members during this process, some degree of conflict and even low-grade defiance is normal.

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Consequences of Teen Defiance 

Contrary to stereotypes of the “cool kids” in high school, teens who struggle with oppositional defiance are more likely to struggle with developing meaningful relationships, feeling socially isolated, and adjusting to an academic environment. If untreated, oppositional defiance disorder can lead to significant consequences in adulthood, where the authority figures they may be pushing back against may be law enforcement, not their parents.

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2. Why is My Teen Defiant?

  • Wanting More Autonomy. It is natural for teens to want to experience more freedom. Most parents look forward to the day where they can take a step back and let their child make more decisions for themselves. Adolescence is an awkward period of testing those boundaries where there’s often a gap between how teens think their choices will work out and what that actually looks like. Yet, teens feel like they’ve outgrown letting other people make decisions for them. 
  • Problems with Authority Figures. As your teen tries to explore their independence, they may be resistant to any advice they are given or any perceived attempts to undermine them as an authority on their own life. For some, this is related to family conflict that began when they entered adolescence. Others have struggled with authority figures since they were younger and have had trouble following instructions in a classroom setting. Defiant behavior may seem particularly common among teens with divorced parents, as they are more likely to have a history of attachment issues. 
  • Impulsivity. There’s a good chance they truly don’t intend to come off as defiant. Many teens with ADHD struggle with oppositional defiance and conduct disorders due to problems with and self-regulation. Boredom and restlessness often leads to impulsive or risk-taking behaviors for teens with ADHD, which may explain why they are more likely to be seen as defiant
attachment in teenage years

3. When Does Your Teen Need Treatment for Defiance?

While teen angst is relatively normal, it can be difficult for a parent to discern between regular angst and signs of mental health issues, like oppositional defiant disorder. Many parents focus on their teen’s behavior as the problems, but the bigger issue is their child’s relationship to problem behaviors and the purpose they serve in their lives. Often, defiance may start off as a way for teens to claim or reclaim control in their lives, but their defiant behavior can quickly become out of control if they feel unheard or misunderstood. If your teen’s defiance is becoming a barrier to daily life and getting in the way of their relationships, you may want to look into treatment for oppositional defiance. 

What Doesn’t Work When Talking to Defiant Teens?

  • Repeating house rules. Reminding them of your expectations may feel repetitive for them or may make them think that some rules are up for discussion. Instead, giving clear directions the first time and following through with “consequence” helps teens recognize that you are serious about the expectations and are committed to holding boundaries. 
  • Asking closed-ended questions. Most of the time when we ask closed-ended questions, we have a desired answer in mind, or at least a narrow one. Asking closed-ended questions is one of the most common reasons that teens get away with lying by omission. Open-ended questions refer to any questions that spark conversation and can’t be answered in a “yes,” “no,” or shrug and walk away.  
  • Being judgmental. It is hard to stay objective when you feel disrespected, but it only adds fuel to the fire to try to argue with your teen’s logic. Instead of jumping to defend yourself, it is sometimes healthier to take a step back and plan to return to the conversation.
  • Insisting that they talk to you. When you try your best and your defiant teen still doesn’t open up, it’s normal to feel defeated. Many parents will push harder in this situation–but this may push them away further. You have to give them the time and space to decide if they want to talk–you can’t force it. Their defiance may not be in response to something you said or be a reflection of your relationship.

How to Respond to Your Defiant Teen 

  • Ask for their input. When coming up with consequences for defiance, it is helpful to talk to your teen about it and work together to come up with fair limits and specific consequences. If your teen feel like they have some input, they may be more motivated to follow through with rules. This may also reduce the amount they blame you if you follow through with the consequences they agreed on.
  • Praise their positive qualities. Many teens believe that their actions determine their self-worth and internalize that making “bad choices” will make them a “bad person.” On the other hand, only praising “good behavior” can set up pressure to succeed without room for failure or give them too much credit for simple responsibilities.  While it may become redundant to compliment them or thank them for every “good thing” they do, it can be impactful to hear why that behavior stood out to you. Instead of saying, “thank you for cleaning your room without being asked,” point out their attention to detail or that they took initiative.
  • Separate their behaviors from their emotions. Behavior issues are often related to emotional issues that teens have trouble expressing effectively. There are usually legitimate reasons that they may act out in relationships, whether or not they are conscious of them. By focusing on problems with their behavior, you may be overlooking underlying issues like low-self esteem, anxiety, or rigid processing. They may be more responsive if you ask them what’s going on and how to support their emotional struggles before pointing out behavioral issues.

Treatment Options for Defiant Teens

  • Outpatient Therapy may be useful for families to talk about conflict arising from their teen’s defiance with a neutral third-party adult. A therapist can help mediate between family members or make suggestions about setting boundaries, but the process of developing mutual respect may feel slow and difficult.
  • Residential Treatment Centers are effective for teens who need more support with other mental health struggles, which are very common in people struggling with Oppositional Defiance Disorder. The focus of these programs is on how defiance has affected their ability to maintain friendships, earn trust from others, and cope with stressors in a healthy way. 
  • Therapeutic Boarding Schools are recommended for teens who have fallen behind in school or are struggling socially as they balance group therapy with academic support in smaller classrooms. While they offer individual and group therapy for mental health issues, their focus is addressing how defiance has affected their academic performance and future goals.
  • Wilderness Therapy is a good fit for defiant teens who are struggling to follow rules and would benefit from a change in their environment to focus on themselves. Group outdoor activities may feel outside of your teen’s comfort zone, but may help them learn the power of collaboration and communication. Adventure-based wilderness programs help teens build confidence and encourage them to connect with others on a deeper level.

Therapeutic Goals

  • Taking responsibility for personal actions and the effect it may have on others
  • Learning how to manage anger and express needs
  • Practicing assertiveness and communication skills
  • Working with others as a team
  • Improving family or social relationships
  • Practicing making healthy independent decisions

4. How Does Wilderness Therapy at blueFire Help Teens Struggling with Defiance?

The best approach to therapy for defiant teens is a multi-modal approach that addresses the issue from a variety of complementary angles. Wilderness programs that transition between different activities provide consistency through a structured schedule, so teens quickly learn behavior expectations. There is a difference between helping them develop routines that teach them accountability and using discipline to take away unstructured time. 

Many parents believe tough-love strategies will give their child a reality check, however, it does not always lead to long-term success. Wilderness therapy programs are a great alternative to boot camps for troubled teens that empower teens to make their own choices by learning the natural consequences of their unhealthy behaviors.  But, changing activities frequently helps teens adjust to different settings and understand how social rules change depending on the context.   

Benefits of Wilderness Therapy Programs

  • Community-Oriented. Teens quickly bond with their leaders and peers in small groups, which creates a support system that encourages their progress. This team-building mindset is powerful for teens who are used to doing what they want on their own timing, as it helps them become more aware of other people’s needs and recognize the importance of group cohesion. This insight can motivate teens to work on rebuilding their family unit.
  • Healthy Risk-Taking Through Adventure Activities. Defiant teens are more likely to take risks, like experimenting with substances or sneaking out of the house, that have potential long-term consequences. Wilderness experiences may teach them that healthy risks, like meeting new people, participating in outdoor activities, and traveling, can meet similar needs in a more sustainable way. Adventure therapy involves a variety of physical activities and team-building initiatives that help young adults develop perceptions of trust, empowerment, and teamwork. The goal of adventure therapy is not mastery of a skill, but rather building confidence in your learning and problem-solving abilities. 
  • Resolving Family Conflict. Some space from family can be helpful for everyone involved when families have reached a moot point in arguments with their teen. blueFire encourages parents to stay involved in a parallel therapeutic process, featuring our Family Spark Workshop near the middle of your child’s stay. In addition to the great work that will be done on-site during this workshop, families enjoy reconnecting with their child and witnessing the changes underway. Our goal is not to blame anyone for problems that have occurred but to help facilitate independence and family reconciliation for defiant teens.