Caring for adolescents can be challenging, especially when using traditional care approaches where the adult is in charge and the minor is to obey. Adolescents do not like being told what to do; in fact they are likely to do the opposite of what they are being asked to do if the message is not delivered appropriately. It can feel counterintuitive to treat defiant adolescents with much respect and to allow them to have choices but it is truly an effective way to care for them.
Defiance is normal
Accepting that adolescents are going to be defiant sometimes or a lot of times is a good way to begin dealing appropriately with the ups and downs of this stage. Adolescents’ defiance is part of normal development. When parents contact me asking for support with their defiant adolescents, I tell them that its great news that their adolescents are acting up. This means that the adolescent is on track with his/her normal development! Not to say that all acting up behavior should be taken as normal and natural. When the defiance has increased to the level that it interferes with major areas of daily functioning such as school, family, and friends a more serious issue may be present. Acting up behaviors are frequently the first sign that something is not right. Many adolescents who experience maltreatment, abuse, have a mental health disorder, a learning disability, or any other type of challenge begin to misbehave. As hard as it is to live and to try to support acting up adolescents, it is important to remember that it is a good thing when they act up. Their difficult behavior lets us know that something is not right and that they need our help.
Support their independence
Adolescents may be facing a wide variety of issues that can rage from difficult peer relations to chronic mental illness. Regardless of the root of the problem, it is crucial to remember that adolescents are living a phase of development where they want to exercise their independence. They want to show adults that they are their own being, their own person, and their own boss. Allow adolescents to be independent! As caring adults in their lives, we can support adolescents by including them in making decisions, especially those about them. We can support them by assigning chores, homework time, restricting time with friends, social media, etc. The key is to allow adolescents to pick and choose. Try these:
- When would you like to take the trash out, right now or after you finish watching that movie?
- Would you like to hang out with your friends from 1-3 pm this Saturday or do you prefer to hang out on Sunday from 9 – 11 am?
- Your video game looks like so much fun! Are you going to play it for 1 hour or 1.5 hours?
Above all… remain sane
The more you practice letting go of small issues and ignoring minor acting up behavior, the easier it will be to care for an adolescent. Do not accept the invitation to every argument that you are invited to join. Learn to differentiate minor behavior from serious acting up behavior so that you can intervene appropriately. Remember that your own values and the way you were raised will play a significant role in helping you or preventing you from being able to support your adolescent. For example you may take it as normative not to say much when things are good or when things are bad because you grew up in a family where no much was ever said. This family practice may interfere with your ability to see that your adolescent is not saying much not because he/she wants to follow the family practice but because there is something happening that he/she may be too afraid to share.
Seek professional support when the problem is getting too big for you to handle. Trained professionals will help you maintain your sanity and help your adolescent thrive.