HELP FOR PARENTS WITH STRONG-WILLED, OUT-OF-CONTROL CHILDREN AND ADOLESCENTS

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Helping Your Teen To Be Less Oppositional

During adolescence, young people are busy trying to make sense of the physical changes happening to them, changes in their feelings, sexual attraction, and the desire to be in control. Just like other feelings, some oppositional behavior is perfectly normal for teenagers – after all, it’s one of the main ways that assert their independence. However, oppositional behavior can be hurtful and destructive when taken to an extreme.

Just like physical pain, oppositional behavior itself can have an important function to tell the teenager that what is happening is not acceptable and that something needs to change. Having a strong desire to rebel against parents can be an early warning sign that important needs are not being met. For teens, oppositional behavior is a push towards making changes, a way of showing parents how they feel, and what they need to happen.

Often times, adolescents push their parents too far, and the resulting arguments and conflict seem like childish temper tantrums. When teenagers have strong feelings, they are not able to think straight or listen to reason. They get flooded with feelings. What they need is to express their feelings safely and to calm down enough to sort out the problem.

Your adolescent's oppositional behavior will often be directed at you, and she may want you to listen to her and do something. But, sometimes she is upset and angry about issues which have little to do with you. The problem could have been started by an argument she is having with a peer at school, and she may think you are interfering. Listen and take responsibility for things your teen may want differently from you, but don't get angry back. Don’t let her oppositional behavior become your oppositional behavior (e.g., engaging in a war-of-wills or power struggles), as strong feelings can be infectious.

Make it your starting point to understand your teen rather than having a need to win the argument or make him behave. Listen to the tune – not the words. So for example, instead of hearing, “I hate you! Why don't you leave me the F*** alone?” …you hear, “I'm really hurting right now. I'm trying to manage on my own, and it feels like you don't love me or trust me!”

By trying to understand what is really going on beneath what your teenager is saying, you can help her work out what she is really feeling – and what it is she needs. Just the act of listening helps to lower strong emotions and can bring her back into balance. It can also help to name what you think your teen could be feeling (e.g., in the face of oppositional behavior, you can say something like, “You sound really upset about something” …or “It sounds as if you're feeling afraid”). By naming the feeling, you can help your adolescent work out what she wants or needs.

Understanding your adolescent's feelings and needs and why he acts the way he does is not the same as condoning or accepting some behavior. Once you have calmed your teenager down by listening and restoring the thinking/feeling balance, you can then set limits on his behavior while helping him find ways to solve his problem (e.g., you could say something like, “I'd like you to find a way of dealing with this issue without yelling at me and throwing things. What do you think would help?”).

The bottom line is this: In the face of oppositional behavior, you need to let the initial flush of “hot” feelings cool down. Then when calm is restored, be sure to acknowledge the painful and strong feelings your adolescent has been experiencing. Help her work out how she was feeling, what she needed, what she can do to express such feelings more appropriately in the future, and get what she needs without displaying hostile, oppositional behavior. Sometimes, simply recognizing and accepting your teen’s feelings and needs is enough. Other times, you may need to help her work out what she is going to do. “Moving on” may mean having to accept there is nothing she can do to change a situation, but she can always change how she acts or feels about it.

My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents

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