How to Deal with a Defiant Teenager

How to Deal with a Defiant Teenager

The above video is a very small sample of the in-depth principles outlined in my book Waltzing with Wolverines

Tale of the Day:
Responding to Defiance in Teenagers

During the time I spent as a trip leader for a wilderness therapy program for troubled teenagers, I learned first hand how to connect with and lead defiant teenagers. Check out the video above to hear stories of the range of behaviors I encountered, followed by the story of how I made the most common mistake of getting into a power control battle with a defiant teenager. At the end of the video you’ll learn how I found a way to avoid power struggles with teenagers by implementing a key principle for never getting into a power control battle ever again. When you’ve finished watching the video, I hope you explore the tool of the day below.

Tool of the Day:
Seeing all Defiance as an Opportunity to Meet a Need

(By the way, this works with adults and kids as well as teens, so whether you are a parent, a teacher, or just an ex-teen, you’ll be able to practice this tool with anyone expressing defiance—whether at the work-place, out on the streets, or back at home.)

Exercise 1: For 1 week, pretend that you completely believe that all defiance is an expression of some hidden need that is not being met, and be curious to discover what this need is. If a teen says, “Why bother telling you how my day was, what do you care?” it’s easy to get triggered into defense mode. But instead of defending, see what happens when you ask about their underlying need: “What is it you need or want right now that you’re not getting?” To gain even more rapport (especially if they can’t answer the first question), step into their shoes and see if you can guess their needs correctly: “It sounds like you only want to tell people about your day when you know they really care, is that right?” Then wait to see if you get confirmation of your guess, “Yeah, you’re always on your phone when you ask me how my day was,” or a correction about what the need really is, “No, I just want some space right now.” Realize that acknowledging a need does not mean you need to satisfy it in any particular way, rather it is the first step to rapport even if you can’t satisfy the need, and it gives you the opportunity to explore ways of satisfying the need that will also work well for your needs. For example: “Are you wanting more independence in being able to use the car when you want to visit your friends?” “Yes!” “Ok, well I certainly understand that. I want you to have more independence too, and the more independent you are with your chores and responsibilities, the more I’ll feel good about supporting your independence of using the car when your dad and I don’t need it.”

Exercise 2: Think of a teen’s defiant behavior that you’ve experienced that you want more choices for how to deal with. Imagine them in front of you doing the defiant behavior. Then literally turn around 180 degrees and step into the space where you imagine them doing the defiance. Having stepped into their shoes, imagine being them and do the defiant behavior just the way they do it. Then step back out again and be you, and respond from the underlying assumption that this teen in front of you is expressing some unmet need. Repeat this process and come up with a different response each time, noticing how the teen would likely react to each of your responses.

Exercise 2.5: If you have several friends who are all interested in developing more flexibility in responding to defiance from teens, even better. Take turns thinking of a teen’s defiant behavior and briefly setting the context so the others in your group understand (for example, “When I ask my teen to take out the garbage, he rolls his eyes and says, ‘yeah, yeah, I’ll do it,’ but then he never does it.”). Once you’ve set the context for the others, you play the teen, stepping into their shoes as best you can. Take their posture and expression and voice tone as you say, “Yeah, yeah, I’ll do it.” Then let the others in your group generate possible responses from the assumption that you (the teen) have some need that isn’t being met, and here’s an opportunity to meet it: “From your voice tone it sounds like you don’t want to take out the garbage.” “I’m guessing you’d rather just play your video games, is that right?” Then notice how you respond from the role of the teenager, and repeat so your friends can generate more possibilities.

You: “Yeah, yeah, I’ll do it.”
Friend: “It sounds like you’re unhappy doing the garbage, is there a different way you’d like to do it?”
Other friend: “Is something the matter? Do you want to talk?”

Repeat this mini role-play enough times to allow the others to offer lots of different possible responses, and notice which ones you respond to positively from the role of the teenager.

Dive deeper into the nuances of how to support and connect with your teen, while keeping appropriate boundaries to keep them safe and healthy, by signing up for a coaching session with Mark at or call 303-810-9611 for a free 15-minute consult.

Increase your flexibility through upcoming NLP Trainings:
Ultimate NLP Practitioner Training
Santa Cruz, CA (possibly including an online webinar version)
NLP of the Rockies Practitioner Training
Winter Park, CO

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