Oppositional Defiant Teenagers

An Oppositional Defiant (OD) teenager is an interesting conundrum.

In this case, we are using the example of a boy but it can be both boys and girls – though it is more often boys:

– He pushes back against rules and structure, yet typically responds well when he knows where the limits are.

– He feels powerless and uses arguing as a maladaptive tool to give him a semblance of control.

– He feels “if I can win this argument, I am in charge.” We know that the petty arguments that drive an OD teenager typically result in him losing control and having fewer choices, yet they persist in this method.

He feels powerless and uses arguing as a maladaptive tool to give him a semblance of control.”

Allow me give you an example. Years ago, while I was working with an OD young man, he came to my office when he turned 18 and told me he would be dropping out of school. When I asked him why, he responded that he was tired of “people in my face telling me what to do all the time, I’m tired of rules and all this BS.”

I responded by saying “Ok, what is your plan, what are you going to do?”

This was his response:  “I AM GOING TO JOIN THE ARMY!”

My sarcasm got the best of me and I said, “oh yeah, no one will tell you what to do in the army!”

This young man was craving structure, but didn’t know how to ask for it. Understanding this dynamic is crucial for parents and educators. We must respond to what the child needs, not what they say they want. By setting clear limits and giving OD teenagers appropriate choices, we can help them get themselves out of the corner and into productive dialog. The young man in the example above wanted structure, but only on his terms. It was his choice to join the army, and that’s why it appealed to him.

When faced with a potential difficult interaction with an oppositional defiant teenager, you should think about what you are willing to concede before the conversation. Also, check your emotions at the door, as getting upset usually only fuels the OD fire. Once you become irrational he has “won” in his mind.

Instead, try and label what he wants. Let’s look at curfew as a possible place for a conflict. What if you said to the OD young man,

“It sounds like you really want to be in charge of what time you come home at night. Are you willing to work with me on what that time is?”

Remember, the curfew isn’t the issue; instead it is that your son is safe when he is out late at night. Let him set the curfew, in exchange for you setting the boundaries on his behavior. How about telling him, “I am OK with that curfew, if you agree to make good decisions and not drink or use substances.” If he agrees, then set the parameters around consequences. “Thanks for agreeing to be safe, how should I respond if you do not keep your agreement?” Again, you are asking, not telling. At this point he will likely want to argue about how you don’t trust him. Let him know you do, as evidenced by allowing him to create his own curfew. Let him suggest some consequences. Even if they are not what you have come up with, you have both successfully avoided a major blowup as well as have set clear parameters for him. He may choose to make good choices “just to prove to you I can.”

Let him “win” by making good decisions!



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