Teenagers can be incredibly combative and defiant. In this article, I will break down how to deal with a defiant teenager. These defiant teenager strategies will help you approach any difficult conversation with a difficult teen.
But before we talk specifically about how to deal with a defiant teenager, let’s cover a concept called self-relevance. The trick to getting any teen to pay attention to you and accept what you say is to make your words relevant to his or her life. Otherwise, the gut reaction is going to be “ugh, you just don’t get it!”
So the defiant teenager strategies I’ll cover in this article are designed to make teens feel like what you’re saying is relevant to them. The main way to do this is by framing your message in terms of a value that is already important to the teenager.
The Science of Core Values
Your teen might enjoy playing baseball, chewing bubble gum, and break dancing. But these are activities, not core values. Core values are the why behind everything that your teen does, says, and thinks. All of the defiant teenager strategies on this site hinge on you being able to identify what your teen’s core value is.
There’s a great book called Start With Why by Simon Sinek and the thesis is that we need to get better at communicating in terms of why rather than how and what. Similarly, I’ve found that when you talk to teens, the trick is to frame your message in terms of their values. That is how to deal with a defiant teenager effectively.
My Own Core Value
Last weekend I was visiting my parents’ house and staying in my childhood bedroom and I came across a project I had made when I was 7 years old. I was already working on this article about defiant teenager strategies at the time so one thing stood our immediately.
On a page of this project I had written about the age I was most excited to be and I chose 23 because that was the year I would have graduated from college and wouldn’t have people telling me what to do anymore for the first time in my life.
Yes, at seven years old I was already thinking about when I would be free.
My core value is independence. I love the feeling of being free and able to do whatever I want; not allowing people to boss me around. That 7-year-old project was a perfect example of the fact that this has been my why for my whole life.
Before an important talk, most parents spend a lot of time thinking about what they want to teach their teen. But from my experience that’s not really how to deal with a defiant teenager.
You should actually spend more time thinking about your teen before you talk, not thinking about what you want to say. Think about core values.
Identifying Core Values
Of course, the natural question at this point is: how do you identify your teen’s core value? To help you out with this I have put together a list of the most common core values I’ve observed in the thousands of teenagers I’ve worked with.
About 99% of the time your teen will fall into one of these categories. Before you can learn how to deal with a defiant teenager you have to be able to identify which value your teen holds.
If you have any trouble deciding on a value, there are two defiant teenager strategies you can use.
First, observe your teen’s close friends. Studies show we associate with people we see as being similar to us. So notice trends among your teen’s friends. For instance, most of my friends in high school were kids who defied society’s expectations and did their own thing.
This is a red flag that independence is a core value.
The second one of the defiant teenager strategies I would recommend is asking your teen to name some of his or her heroes. This can be slipped into a casual conversation. Just try to get a few names of people who your teen looks up to. Celebrities. Politicians. People at school.
It doesn’t matter. Try to get a list of 4-5 heroes.
Now, after completing these two steps, read the descriptions below and select the value that your teen seems to hold as his or her core value.
When it comes to how to deal with a defiant teenager strategies are all over the place. I’m recommending these ones because they are actually based in science.
Teens with this value are attracted to activities like student government, theater/drama, performance arts like live music or reading poetry, mentoring younger students, speech and debate, and certain forms of athletics that allow them to shine. These students love to feel like others look up to them, love them, want to be like them, or are impressed by them.
If your teen seems to be the ring leader of his or her peer group, has a lot of followers on social media, or seems to have friends that treat him or her deferentially, then admiration may be a core value. Also, teens may find admiration in romantic relationships by selecting partners who frequently compliment them and say flattering things or give gifts. Teens who subscribe to this core value will generally choose heroes that are beloved by large numbers of people. Actors, models, musicians, reality TV stars, social media celebrities, etc.
If your teen seems to pride him- or herself on doing things differently than others or on finding a new way to accomplish something, creativity might be a core value. Teens who value creativity may be into any number of different activities from calculus to photography to computer programming.
But these teens aren’t satisfied just simply doing these activities exactly as they are taught without questioning it. They love being the student who is told “I’ve never seen it done that way before” by their teachers. Creative teens will tend to select heroes who are somewhat iconoclastic; individuals who have challenged the status quo in some way. Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, Malcolm Gladwell, Martin Luther King Jr., Elon Musk, etc.
This value is often confused with other values. Just because your teen works out a lot or eats healthy food doesn’t necessarily mean health is a core value. For instance, your teen might be working on his or her body in order to gain admiration.
On the other hand, your teen may value power and want to bulk up in order to get more respect from his or her peers. Or your teen might be involved in athletics because they value success, and health might just be important in order to win.
Teens who hold health/fitness as a true core value will be interested in health for its own sake, not as a means to an end. Both might refuse a slice of pie but the first will do so because it “isn’t good for you” whereas the second might do so because it will “make me fat” or “hurt my time at the meet tomorrow.”
All teens value freedom and autonomy to a certain degree, but only some truly hold independence as a core value. These types of teens might use unique clothing, makeup, and hair styles to signal their individuality. They generally like to do things for themselves rather than accepting help and would rather struggle with something on their own than admit defeat and ask for assistance.
In contrast to creative teens, independent teens are less worried about doing things differently than everyone else and are more worried about doing things all by themselves. These teens like to make their own decisions and will often choose the exact opposite of what you want them to do, just to prove that you can’t control them. They will tend to choose heroes who are free spirits or rebels. James Dean, Hunter S. Thompson, Jack Kerouac, etc.
There are different types of power; physical power, political power, social power, financial power. If your teen seems to really notice or care about any one of these then power might be a core value. Have you ever caught your teen bullying other kids at school or at home? Does your teen enjoy situations that allow him or her to boss others around or be in control of others?
Notice, this is different from independence because it involves control over others whereas independence involves control over your own life. Similarly, this can seem similar to admiration because it can involve similar activities like student government. However, teens who value power care more about status and influence than about actually being liked and admired by others. These teens often have a strong desire to be wealthy and successful when they grow up and tend to admire people like politicians and CEOs.
If your teen is outspoken about issues of fairness and helping others who are in need, then social justice is likely a core value. These types of teens generally care about things like the environment, poverty, inequality, genocide, natural disasters, and refugee crises. They may chastise you for failing to buy organic or free trade products at the supermarket.
Generally, teens with this core value are involved in at least one club or organization that focuses on service of some kind. When asked to list their heroes, these types of teens tend to choose people who have won the Nobel Peace Prize or who are making a positive difference in the community.
Like fitness, spirituality is somewhat rare among today’s teens and can be easy to confuse with something else. For instance, teens may attend church every weekend because they enjoy the social justice components, or because they have an exceptional voice and love getting praise from other members of their congregation. The way to distinguish between true spirituality and false spirituality is by watching closely to see whether your teen prays or meditates or reads the holy book when he or she thinks you aren’t watching.
Wait, haven’t we already covered success? Sort of. We saw that teens who value admiration love success because it brings them more esteem in the eyes of others. And that teens who hold power as a core value also love success because it can increase their status and allow them to dominate others.
But there are also teens who simply value success for its own sake. These types of teens are often fascinated by puzzles, games, and riddles, and love the satisfaction of figuring out a complicated problem. They also often get good grades and tend to have friends who also do well in school.
One thing to look for is a sense of self-worth that is tied to performance. Does your teen make comments about not being good enough after performing poorly on a quiz or in a sporting event? Does your teen also seem to feel exceptionally proud after doing well on something? These kinds of fluctuations in self-worth, when tied to performance, are symptoms that success is a core value.
Teens who value wisdom love knowing how things work and what is happening in the world. They generally enjoy reading and can spend a lot of time reading books or browsing the internet. Importantly, these teens might like school but they also might find their classes severely boring if they aren’t properly challenged.
You might find them correcting you on facts or on current events.
Don’t Challenge the Values!
The goal of my defiant teenager strategies is to identify your teen’s core values, not to change your teen’s values. In fact, getting someone to shift their values is very difficult and generally takes a lot of time. Studies show that when parents challenge a teen’s identity the teen will actually strengthen the identity even further (For more information on persuasion, click here to hear my interview with Jake Teeny).
Instead of trying to change your teen’s core values, think about how the topics you want to discuss with your teen might relate to these values.
Defiant Teenager Strategies
OK, so once we’ve identified core values we’re finally ready to actually talk about how to deal with a defiant teenager. Before you sit down with your teen, try to think of a few ways in which the message you want to communicate is related to the core value.
The industrial strength pesticides and fertilizers used by big growers pollute the environment (social justice) and are worse for your body than cigarettes (health).
Teens who smoke pot lose motivation and can end up getting stuck working a crappy job (independence) and being bossed around for the rest of their lives (power).
Texting dirty pictures seems like a way to get attention (admiration) but when these pictures get circulated on social media you can get a reputation as “slutty”
Sex is a sacred act between two people who share a deep emotional connection (spirituality)
Drinking is for teens who follow the crowd (creativity) and are willing to sacrifice the health of their developing brain in order to fit in (health)
The teenage years are when higher-level thinking and reasoning skills develop in the brain (wisdom), and alcohol impairs this growth
The point of these defiant teenager strategies isn’t to try and trick your teen or outsmart your teen. My assumption is that you as a parent have some important information and you just need help figuring out how to deal with a defiant teenager in a way that lets you get this information through.
How to Deal with a Defiant Teenager
As I discuss in my article on the teenage brain, teenagers have trouble thinking beyond immediate rewards. Parents often try to talk about how certain behaviors will affect a teen’s future but teenagers are hard-wired to tune this kind of thing out so that’s not how to deal with a defiant teenager if you want to get results.
These defiant teenager strategies will get your teen to listen up:
1. Identify a core value
2. Think about how your message relates to the value
3. Communicate in terms of the value
Word-for-word examples of what to say to A Defiant teen
1. When your teen wants to break the rules, affirm their autonomy but hold firm:
“Sure, you can use your phone whenever you want. As soon as your room is clean, like we agreed. You’re 14 now so I can’t physically force you to do anything but those are the rules. As an adult I don’t have to go to work. But if I don’t, there will be consequences. So I’m going to treat you like an adult and leave the final decision up to you.”
2. How to affirm a teen who is highly defiant:
3. When your teen comes home high:
4. Before you give your teen advice, affirm their autonomy:
5. When your teen wants to make a big decision, it’s an opportunity to give them more responsibility:
6. What to say when your teen isn’t taking “no” for an answer:
7. Voice a common feeling to connect with your teen:
8. Address reactance head-on with an autonomy affirmation:
9. What to say when your teen calls you the WORST:
10. Hold your teen responsible without blaming them: