Dear Teen Parenting Coach

Q: How Do I Handle My Teen’s Acts of Daily Defiance and Disrespect?

If your teen makes a rude remark, that’s fairly typical teenage defiance. If she spits in your face, that’s less typical — and may require help from a professional therapist. Here’s how parents can tell the difference between regular mood swings and dangerous behavior, and learn how to smooth some of the everyday disagreements that stem from out-of-control teenage hormones.

Q: “When I ask my child to clean her room, or how her assignments are going, she tells me, ‘It’s none of your business.’ What do I do when she argues with everything I say, or even goes as far as spitting in my face?”

Teens’ oppositional behavior commonly occurs along a continuum. To differentiate typical teenage mood swings from really, truly problematic behavior requiring additional help, think about the:

  • Frequency,
  • Duration, and
  • Severity of temper outbursts.

If variations of your daughter’s most extreme behavior — like spitting in your face — happen often, you should look for outside help from a therapist.

A therapist can act as a mediator. He or she will listen to the child’s point of view and the parent’s point of view, then try to find common ground — acting as a buffer on both sides. Finding the right therapist might be challenging, but the time and energy invested is worth it for solving extreme behavior challenges.

[Free Download: 10 Rules for Parents of Defiant Kids with ADHD]

Adolescents often exhibit Jekyll and Hyde-like behavior. One minute they are calm and rational — in cool cognition. The next, they are screaming, emotional, and irrational — in hot cognition. This is caused by changes in the way neurotransmitters function in the brain during adolescence that have a huge impact on behavior. Dopamine is distributed differently in the brain during puberty, and that can result in mood changes, difficulty with emotional control, and increased risk taking. Adolescents also experience decreases in serotonin, a second neurotransmitter, which results in decreased impulse control. All of that mixes together to create a quickness to anger; intense, sudden mood swings; and poor decision making based on gut feelings.

Teens rely disproportionately on their emotional brain, and have increased hot cognition versus cold cognition. More often than not, they are trying to think under conditions of high arousal and intense emotions. It’s hard to do your best thinking in those circumstances.

If you’re handling extreme mood changes without the help of a therapist, remember not to intervene in the heat of the moment. Come up with a game plan for how you will handle outbursts and set some rules. Let your teen know in advance, “When you swear at me, here’s what I am going to do.”

Use your example as a way to help your teen understand how people might react to her behavior. Have a conversation with your teen and say, “When you do this, this is how I react, and it doesn’t make me feel good. I must do some things that don’t make you feel good. Let’s see if we can put those on the table, and come up with a way to handle our problems that doesn’t involve either of us doing those things that make us both feel bad.”

[Inside Your Teen’s ADHD Mind]

Engage in a collaborative relationship that isn’t just top-down, hierarchical, “You’re going to do this because I tell you to do this.” Approach the conversation as, “Let’s put our heads together. This is what it looks like from my perspective. You tell me what it looks like from your perspective.” Teens will often rise to the occasion when treated as another adult. Ultimately, it’s up to the parents to make decisions, but leading up to the decision, involving your teen can help smooth disagreements without an explosion.

This advice came from “The Teen Brain on ADHD,” a February 2018 ADDitude webinar lead by Peg Dawson, Ed.D., that is now available for free replay here.

Peg Dawson, Ed.D., is a member of the ADDitude ADHD Medical Review Panel.

Do you have a question for ADDitude’s Dear Teen Parenting Coach? Submit your question or challenge here.

The opinions and suggestions presented above are intended for your general knowledge only and are not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease without consulting with a qualified healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your own or your child’s condition.

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