Two teen boys sit on a curb in an outdoor location. They are both looking at cell phones.

Five Tips to Encourage Cooperation with Defiant Kids and Teens

We’re nearing the end of an extraordinary school year, filled with highs, lows, and more than its fair share of uncertainty and change. For many children, the transition to summer is an unstable time — and for families with a more defiant child, this time of year can mean an uptick in behaviors. In this month’s column, Sheryl Bott, LISW, offers five tips to encourage a more cooperative relationship with your defiant child or teen.

1. Check Your Nonverbal Communication

Kids pick up on more than we think — especially our tone and body language. When your child responds to you you with refusal or other defiant behavior, it’s easy to get swept up in the emotions surrounding that behavior. Instead of responding with anger, sarcasm, or a counter-attack, take a moment to calm yourself and reflect on your tone and body language. When you are ready, respond with a calm voice and neutral posture. For example:

CHILD (shouting at adult): “You’re always telling me to clean up my room! Well guess what?! It’s MY room and I don’t care if it’s dirty or not!”

ADULT (takes deep breath and places hands at sides in a neutral posture): “I’d like to think about what you said. Let’s talk about this after we’ve both had a chance to calm down.”

2. Use Fewer Words

Sometimes just hearing an adult voice can be a trigger for defiant kids and teens. Rather than launching into an explanation or justifying your position, focus on making your communication as simple as possible. In the example above, the adult diffuses any escalation and models calming tools with just a few words to the child. Here’s another example:

CHILD: “I ALWAYS have to wash the dishes! I’m NOT doing them – it’s David’s turn!!”

ADULT: “Tonight is your dish night. It’s David’s night to dry.”

3. Use Positive Instructions

It’s easy to fall into the trap of telling our kids what not to do. “Don’t leave your dirty dish in the living room” and “no phone time until you’ve finished your homework” are both easy to say and get your point across. But for defiant kids, hearing the word “no” can connect with a loss of control. When faced with a loss of control, kids who are more defiant may tend to “dig in,” making a difficult situation harder to escape.

As adults, we can still say “no” without using the word. For example, “please put your dirty dish in the sink” and “you can text your friend as soon as you finish this homework,” are both ways of communicating the same needs from above positively.

You can also say “no” without using the word when you use win-win choices. Instead of “you’re not going to bed without a shower!” offer a choice where you win no matter what your child chooses (“would you like to take your shower before dinner or after?”).

4. Pick Your Battles

Your teen just arrived home from her job at the local grocery store. She slips her shoes off at the door and flops onto the couch with her phone without so much as a hello. You’ve had a number of disagreements with her lately about leaving her things laying around and feel like the shoes are the latest log on the fire.

There are a lot of good reasons to tell your teen to put her shoes away right now, but there are some good reasons to “pick your battles” too. She may have had a text message from her friend on her mind all the way home and couldn’t wait to respond (in other words, the shoes weren’t even on her mental radar). By confronting her now, you will have caught her off guard and may be more likely to have a defiant reaction.

When we pick our battles carefully, we also choose the times when we have the best chances for a positive outcome. Instead of asking a tired, distracted teen to pick up her shoes the minute she gets in the door, ask her to help tidy up before dinner (after she’s had a chance to send that text message!).

5. Reinforce Expected Behavior with Positive Feedback

Everyone likes to be noticed for doing something well — including defiant kids. The next time you catch your child or teen “getting it right,” make sure to let them know. When offering positive feedback, it’s important to be authentic (kids know if you’re loading on praise to get what you want). It’s also important to make sure that the feedback fits the act. So if your defiant child holds the door for you when he would normally run into the house and straight to his video games, you don’t need to throw him a ticker-tape parade. Just recognize his kind act and tell him you appreciate it.

Finally, make sure that your positive feedback stays positive. It’s enough to say, “your room looks great. Thank you for cleaning up.” Adding in commentary like, “don’t you feel better that it’s not a pig-stye anymore?” demeans the positive praise you gave by bringing up the mistakes your child worked to correct.