How To Deal With A Defiant Teen

My normally cheerful daughter is approaching puberty and is becoming mean, grumpy and defiant.

MOLLY: This question came from a reader based in Los Angeles.

Dr. Susan Rutherford (MOM): This behavior is not uncommon at all. You might even say it’s par for the course.

Physically speaking, the frontal lobes kick into action during pre-puberty and puberty. The frontal lobes are what control rational thought and decision-making. This is when often I’ll hear parents wonder what happened to their sweet, wonderful child who woke up one morning and became unpleasant all the time. A lot of this behavior has to do with the physical maturation process of the frontal lobe of the brain.

As a parent myself, I counsel that parents need a lot of patience and separate time from their kids while this process is carrying out, and the parents should just remember that period will pass.

MOLLY: But, as a parent whose child is acting this way, how do you deal with it at the time?

MOM: I think that when parents get too involved emotionally with the dramas of what’s going on with the child, they can lose themselves in the turmoil caused by the teen. This slide really only makes matters worse.

The better idea is for parents to keep a little bit of emotional distance during this time. It’s not going to last forever, and some humor and perspective can be very helpful for the family to get through it. If the parent has a partner, sharing frustrations with a partner can be extremely helpful to allow the parent to vent privately from the teen. If they don’t have a partner, sharing the experience with friends can help the parent feel less out of control and helpless.

Reach out to other parents because everybody who has a pre-teen or teen-aged child, particularly daughters earlier but also sons a little later in the teens, experiences this to some degree. Sometimes it’s a larger degree than others and finding the right parenting path can be dicey.

MOLLY: How long does this irrational and emotional period last?

MOM: It may be a more individualized thing on a person-by-person basis, but I think parents can count on at least one year. I do think when girls get to be about 15, generally speaking, they settle down and they return to more like they were before they went through this episode. Actually, frontal lobe activity settles down about the age of 25.

MOLLY: Is it worth it to point it out to to the teens while they are acting this way?

MOM: It’s not a bad idea to mention it as you notice your child approaching this time. I think it can be very helpful to educate your child about the frontal lobes and show her where they are located (on the front of your forehead). Then explain exactly what I had just said: that the frontal lobes are developing during this age and it may make somethings seem confused and extra emotional for her, but she will pass through this stage. Giving her some idea what’s ahead of her might be helpful to her to sort out why she might be feeling so intensely sometimes. Teens don’t understand what’s going on inside of them or why they’re so upset or are feeling so grumpy.

What adolescents need most is to have more separate space from their parents in which to grow and start to learn to make their own decisions. This is not to say that parents should be hands-off during these years, but that guidance should replace the constant monitoring needed with younger children. This is part of the maturation process for parents and children, and everyone goes through some version of it.
The job of a teenager, psychologically speaking, is to begin the separation process from his or her parents. For some kids it’s very traumatic and for other kids it’s not such a big deal.

MOLLY: How can parents help that process along?

MOM: I think parents can really help that process when they are able to separate what’s best for them from what their kid needs. What happens to parents at this stage is that they get very nervous about exposure to sex and restricted substances. The natural impulse for parents is to clamp down on their kids and attempt to keep them safe at home where they can be watched. But honesty that’s probably not the best of idea because the kid will fight like crazy against that.

I think that the best approach is for parents to talk with their kid –and by that I mean mostly listen to the teen– and to not come down so hard on the teens but rather give them a little bit more freedom. Does that sound counter-intuitive? Rebellion in teens is an expression of their need to be less tightly tethered to their parents.

In exchange for increased freedom a parent might link the privilege to school performance. A parent can say to the teen, “You’re a smart kid, I expect you to get a 3.0 average in school. We believe you can do this, and we are going to let you be in charge of your life. We will allow you to do x, y, and z, until or unless you show us that you cannot handle it. As long as you manage your time and get your responsibilities done, we’ll continue to give you more and more freedoms as time goes on. We don’t expect perfection, but we expect to see you putting forth the effort to be a trustworthy person who does well in your job, which at this point is school.”

MOLLY: Those freedoms are what specifically?

MOM: They might be what time you come home at night or a curfew…

MOLLY: This is even for a 12 year old?

MOM: No, this is more like 14 and 15 years old. There are more options for a child because their world is smaller.

The key is not to reflexively clamp down really hard on a child when they’re going through adolescence because it will just make matters worse and leave bad feelings on both sides. As the parent in this dynamic, you want to mitigate that potential negativity. Of course, a lot depends on what’s going on and what level the behavior has reached. Everyone will experiment and make mistakes as they go through life, but If your kid continues to act out and escalates the behavior, then we move into another realm of parenting. In this post, we’re talking about kids doing the usual kid things while growing up.

MOLLY: And if the acting out gets worse instead of better with more freedoms?

MOM: My basic motto with kids at this age or any age really is that you trust them until they show you that they’re not trustworthy. Then you have to do something different, but that’s another conversation.

MOLLY: I also think that even when kids show you that they’re not trustworthy, you can’t hold that against them forever.

MOM: I agree with you. Holding grudges doesn’t do anyone any good in any situation. Parents have to grow with their children.

MOLLY: Even if they mess up once, the parent has to be able to move past it and give them another chance, and another, and another…

MOM: Right. Parents have to talk with kids about what happened when they transgress and help them see that maybe there were other ways to handle that situation. This will help them to grow up and become more mature.

MOLLY: Are there long-term effects to consider when you see moody and unpleasant behavior in pre-teens and teens?

MOM: The most devastating long term effects come from when parents clamp down really, really hard and are overly restrictive with the teen. They don’t let them have friends over or to hang out in their own house, they don’t help them attend social events with their peers, and so on. These kids often end up very oppositional and angry with negative feelings toward their parents. They feel misunderstood much of the time and, the truth is, they probably have been misunderstood. This escalates as the child matures and rather than the parent granting freedoms to the child, the child rebels against the parental restrictions. It creates an angry and unpleasant dynamic in the family.

It’s a fine line: successfully raising your kids when they start going through puberty by helping them to learn to become adults rather than holding them back as undeveloped children.

When kids enter adolescence, parents can really set the stage of how it’s going to go for the next few years through high school.

ding 4 comments on “How To Deal With A Defiant Teen

  1. When I decided to practice adolescent medicine I thought I would be able to help all those trouble teens and their families get back on track. I soon learned that by the teen years a kids life habits are pretty much formed; what happens before the teen years is what’s important. I asked hundreds of teens if they felt their parents were stricter than the average parent or more lenient. They either said, “They used to be really easy, but now they are so strict that I can’t even move without being yelled at.” Or they replied, “They were really tough when I was little, but since I became a teenager they’ve really laxed up!” And, those in the first group were the ones who were In trouble. Parenting teens, really begins when they are born, if not before. It seems that today’s parents are so anxious to be friends with their little kids that they forget to be parent. The best parenting is to be the person you want your kid to become!
    As you suggested, middle school is the time kids need to get their life away from their parents. Often parents become upset when I tell their middle school kids, “Your job over the next couple of years is to get your life away from your parents.” Then I ask the child how do they think they can do that. You never know what they’ll say. After some discussion I tell they need to do everything their parents want them to do, just before “They tell you to do it!”
    I understand that stuff about the frontal lobe development, but too often we, or parents, allow kids to use it an as an excuse for bad behavior.
    Anyhow, I enjoy your posts, and want to thank you for all you do for kids and families.

    • Dr. Donahue – I couldn’t agree with you more! Teens are not “blank slates” with no effects from the prior 13 years. It’s hard for parents to look that far ahead, but we need to. Separating from parents in a reasonable way is the name of the game.

      • Thank you Susan! Discussions like this are what made me write parenting books. Now the challenge is to get parent of infants to start thinking positively about the teen years. Any Ideas you have would be appreciated. Send them here, or to my blog site: If you are interesting is seeing reviews of my books, check out “Tools for Effective Parenting,” and / or “Messengers in Denim”.
        Thanks and have a great week!

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