How to Reach Out to Your Rebellious Teen

Having been a mother of teens and teacher of teens, and now being a grandmother of teens, may I humbly share with you my reflections on how to reach out to the defiant adolescent in your home.  Certainly there are no fool-proof prescriptions for dealing with children during the transitional years from childhood to adulthood.  And assuredly, I am not addressing those instances where medical or other intervention is advisable.  However, I do believe I have valid insights to give you.   Also, as our society exposes and pushes our children into the adult world at a younger and younger age, you may find the ideas I present helpful even as you interact with your pre-teenagers.

How do you, as a parent, respond to a defiant or rebellious teen?  Do you yell?  Do you deprive?  Do you bargain?  Do you give in?  Do you try to reason?  Do you choose your battles?  Does a minor infraction get the same response from you as a major one?  Are there any “minor” infractions in your view?   Are you ready to throw up your hands and say, “I can’t take this anymore!”?

First recognize that each one of us as parents has been molded by our own early childhood experiences.  Maybe you had a loving, nurturing environment free from physical, sexual or emotional abuse.  Or, maybe you didn’t.  Perhaps you were raised by a mother and a father who loved you and each other deeply.  Or, perhaps that wasn’t true.   Possibly you had four grandparents with long-lasting, loving relationships whom you interacted with on a regular basis.  Or, possibly you had more than four natural or step grandparents.  Or, it could have happened, because of distant homes or distant hearts, that there was only one grandparent in your life.   Our norm is what we grew up with.  And our teen’s norm is what she or he is growing up with.

As I look back upon my childhood I appreciate many good memories of a very stable family life. I had two parents who were married to each other for life–over fifty years to each other. I called my parents “Mom” and “Dad.” Furthermore, I had four grandparents who were married for life–also over fifty years to each other.  I called the parents of my mother “Mom” and “Pop” and the parents of my father “Grammaw” and “Pop.”

In early and middle childhood, as I lived in the inner city and within walking distance of my four grandparents, I saw all of them several times a week.  I remember when my maternal Pop used to walk me several blocks to my elementary school on a daily basis, not taking me all the way to the entrance, but watching from the near-by street corner as I made my way into the building.   Also for a certain period of my life as a child, I remember walking to church on Sundays in a pretty little-girl dress and Sunday shoes with my  paternal Grammaw who also wore her Sunday dress and shoes.  She sometimes had a broche pinned on her shoulder and a small hat covering her head.  Added to that was the tradition of our church which had us both always carrying our Bibles with us.

Moreover I  have a vivid mental picture of my paternal Pop as he and I got down on our knees to enjoy the plants in his small backyard garden, stroking the softness of those little leaves he called “Rabbit Ears.”  And, for the time that my mother was working outside the home in food service in a factory cafeteria, I have special memories of eating breakfast in my maternal Mom’s little kitchen where she served Pop and me bacon, eggs, homemade biscuits, sometimes with gravy, and showed me that jelly was even better when you sprinkled a little sugar on top!

That is just the way it was.  I had no choice over the family I was born into, just as each child who is a rebellious teen had no choice over the family or lack of family he or she was born into.

I believe your child started out as a reflection of a Greater Being which I choose to call God.  From birth through about age six, he or she greatly reflects you or the adult(s) who care for him or her.  From school-age through adolescence, you or his primary caregiver, are still the greatest influence on his life.

As a child, she wants to please you.  She wants to be like you.  When she becomes a teenager, she is seeking her own personal identity and that may or may not be the person you want her to be.  If you brought to your marriage and your parenting the physical, sexual or emotional trauma of your own childhood, or even baggage from an earlier marriage, you need to address those issues before you can effectively deal with the tumultuous relationship between you and your teenager.

How your child speaks to you in rebellion may take different forms.  The first that we think of is the defiant “No!”  The teenager may be bigger physically than the parent and he is asserting his power, and depending on the circumstances, may be saying verbally or non-verbally, “You can’t make me (do whatever).”

Your teenager is smart enough, however, to know that she can say “No!” in seemingly less defiant ways.  One of these is “I can’t.”  Another is “I don’t know how.”  Her tactic is “You can’t expect me to do something I really am not able to do.”

Another way of saying “No!” is “I forgot.”  Her strategy is: “I’m not defying you outright.  I just forgot.  Everybody forgets.  Surely, you can’t punish me for forgetting.”  She may also seemingly comply by saying, “Yeah, I will,” but her body somehow doesn’t have the same internal clock that yours does as to when a particular task is to be completed . . . or even started!

Even when your teenager is seemingly obeying you, his “Okay,” may be followed by “if I have to.”  When the “if I have to” is under his breath or you demand that he get rid of his attitude, you still haven’t squelched his defiance.  He’s doing what you say right now.  But, when he is out of your sight, he will be tempted do what his brain, his desires, his hormones, or his friends tell him to do.


  1. The most important thing you can do is to direct him or her to a moral compass or a North Star.   If spirituality or religion is important to you, bring your child up in your church, synagogue or temple.  Such upbringing will serve him or her well in laying down principles to live by.  Your child will have plenty of time to take what is taught and decide if these are the tenets to be accepted for life, modified or discarded.  Rarely are lessons learned early in life completely thrown away later.  Whether you choose a spiritual North Star or one based on what you perceive as “doing the right thing” or adherence to military duty or adherence to honor–whatever you choose–make sure you are a good example for what you teach.
  2. Use deprivation as a means of correction. Take away or restrict TV.  Take away or restrict phone privileges.  Take away or restrict computer/electronic device use.  Take away or restrict going to a friend’s house.  Take away allowance.  Restrict what allowance may be spent for.  Don’t give money for snacks.  Don’t be fooled into thinking that your teen doesn’t care what you take away.  He may say, “I don’t care” but he does, or if you take away enough, he will.  Don’t, however, take away church, Scouts, community youth programs or other positive activities.  Also set a specific period of time for taking away or restricting.  Don’t make it so long that your child has a sense of hopelessness or despair.
  3. Try to make discipline a logical consequence whenever possible; but be sure that your teenager understands ahead of time what behavior/job he must accomplish in order to get a certain privilege/reward. You are not teaching the principle of fairness if you arbitrarily snatch away something your teen thought he or she was going to be able to do by saying, “Well, you didn’t do . . . (such and such), so now you’re not going to get to  . . . (do so and so).”
  4. Limit your teenager’s exposure to undesirable friends. If there is a friend you know who is smoking, drinking, doing drugs, having sex, lying, stealing, or having a bad mouth, you don’t have to allow your teen to have time with that person on a one-on-one basis.  If they see each other at school, that is out of your control.  But your teen doesn’t have to go to that person’s house or go out with that person.  Anyway, it is always better to let your house be the one where friends come when you are there.   Thus, you will be in control of what is seen, heard, said, and done.
  5. Give your child the respect he deserves as a human being.   If you were brought up in an atmosphere where children were yelled at, called names, smacked, and the prevailing parenting exchange with children was, “Sit down!” and “Shut up!” and you have carried those traits over into your own parenting, what makes you think your child won’t rebel?  Children learn to give respect to parents as parents have given respect to them.
  6. Never attack your child verbally. Never say:  “You’re a jerk!”  “You’re a liar!”  “You’re good for nothing!”  “You’ll never amount to anything!”  “I can’t wait until you’re old enough to be out of here!”  “I hope your kids drive you crazy the way you’re driving me crazy!”  Attack what your teenager is doing, not who she is, which is what you do when you say:   “You’re a (fill in the blank) . . .”  But you may say:  “I know you’re lying.”  “You’ve made a big mistake.”  “You’re headed down the wrong road.”  “You need to rethink the way you are behaving.”  “It takes a bigger person to lead your friends rather than to follow them.”  “I can’t control what you say when you are not with me; but in my presence, you will not say that word.”
  7. Choose your battles. What is it going to profit you if you win a particular battle but lose the war?  If you can give a little on the hair or the clothes, do.  If you can tolerate the music (providing it’s not profane or vulgar or loud enough to injure hearing), do.  If the bedroom is not perfect, close the door or say it must be neat on one particular day of the week.  Don’t demand that your teenager use a certain tone of voice with you.  If there’s a grumble in his voice when he’s doing what you are asking, ignore it.  Don’t demand apologies.  If a teenager’s apology doesn’t come from his heart, it doesn’t mean anything.  It just makes the parent feel better.   Control the tone of your voice as well.  If you are always demanding and your attitude is primarily negative, your teenager has an excellent negative copy to model.
  8. Do not make ultimatums which you can’t keep or which will not be agreed upon by the child’s other parent or your partner. If you need to, make some reference of disapproval for the behavior and say that you will discuss consequences later, giving you time to reflect, run the situation by an older or respected  person, and/or time to talk to your spouse or partner and agree upon a plan of action.
  9. If you scream all the time, you will not get your child’s attention. You know you talk loudly but perhaps you don’t think you scream.  Get a reality check here.  It’s better to speak softly and carry a big stick of consistent logical consequences that you and your partner have agreed upon than to yell your commands or displeasure.  And, by “big stick” I don’t mean corporal punishment.
  10. Explain to your children.  Talk to your children.  Try to reason with your children.  Don’t push them to their limits and exasperate them to the point of greater rebellion or to the point of hurting themselves or others.  However, in the end, be the parent–but make sure it is a parent who is following a North Star.    
  11. Realize that just when you think you are making progress in your relationship with your teenager, there will be relapses.  Three or four steps forward.  Two steps back.  Expect it.  Many teenagers rebel, even those from so-called “good” homes.  Don’t let yourself feel defeated by guilt and grief.
  12. Finally, realize that you alone cannot change a teenager’s head or heart; but be consistent in your teaching and discipline and in the way you conduct your own life.  Then maybe one day in the not too distant future, that seemingly stubborn teen will turn into an adult who says to you, “You know, Mom (or Dad), I hate to admit it, but I’m becoming more and more like you!”

By Connie Carlisle Polley, 2018-2019

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