Raising teenagers can be a particularly stressful time for parents. Along with the physical changes, social complications, and everyday struggles today’s kids deal with, teenagers often bring with them a rebellious, defiant nature that can be difficult to manage. While oppositional behaviors can be difficult for parents to deal with no matter the age of their child, it can seem amplified when they are older. It is important to note that oppositional behavior is normal for nearly all teens…even if you’ve had a child who was a perfect angel through their teen years. While it may not seem normal or even helpful to hear that, keep in mind you’re not alone.

As a parent, it is hard to not take the behaviors personally. Remember these behaviors are usually targeted at you because parents are the safest people to be frustrated within a teen’s/tween’s life. Approach them with empathy and understanding. Kids develop and go through these stages for many years and on their own schedule, not just 9-12 as “tweens” are formally defined. This is often a tough time for kids and the kids don’t know why they are frustrated and angry most of the time. Every child and every circumstance are unique.

Extended periods of or constant defiance may be indicative of a more serious issue. Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) is a formal mental health diagnosable type of behavior disorder that is primarily identified in youth.  Children with ODD can appear uncooperative, defiant, and sometimes hostile toward peers, parents, teachers, and other authority figures. A diagnosis of this type indicates an intense and chronic condition often going beyond your child simply being difficult on occasion.

Sometimes consistent irritability can also be a sign of depression in teens. Teens/Tweens don’t necessarily respond to depression like adults, with textbook symptoms of lethargy and sadness. A child experiencing some symptoms of depression may not be clinically depressed.  It is important for parents to monitor what is happening in their life at that time – are they struggling in school? Are they having trouble with friend groups? Did a key friendship go south or in a different direction? Are they feeling pressure to fit in?  Are they getting negative feedback from peers (may not always reach the level of bullying, but can be hurtful)? Did they not make a sports team or get the role they wanted in the school play? Even as adults, we would be sad about some of these things happening to us. When this sadness or irritability is present with consistency over a period of time or MOST of the time (i.e. half the time teens are awake or more), it’s time to talk to the pediatrician.  If your child ever expresses hopelessness or talks about self-harm, seek support immediately.  This does not mean your child is suicidal but means that your child is reaching out for help to you.  It’s a good time to seek professional support.

Here are some tips for parents of a tween/teen struggling with cranky/moody/oppositional behaviors:

  • ‘Time In’ where you avoid all questioning and intel seeking about life, school, friends – ask the child to play music that they like, ask them about their favorites (food, movie, ice cream flavor, etc.).  Ask them to tell you a joke or tell them one.  Going in the “side door” to interact with them can open other doors. If your child talks about life and other things while you are together, simply listen.
  • Work to demonstrate that you understand that they may not know why they feel the way they do. They may not be able to identify the feeling b/c it is complex.  Channel empathy and make statements such as, “I can see that feeling this way is probably really hard for you”.
  • Use a tool like the “how are you feeling today” poster – have them point to the feeling picture that seems to fit best and even invite them to choose more than one if they want (you can find these on the internet).  This can give you important information about where they stand with feelings at the moment.  You can help name and frame the feelings for them by affirming what they choose by repeating the name back to them and normalizing the feeling as one that many people experience – great teaching moments.

Need more guidance? Schedule a Parent Coaching session with one of our Parenting Specialists.

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Watch this Ted Talk about the teenage brain: