You have just told your youngster to do something (e.g., “Michael, turn off the TV and get ready for bed”), and he blatantly responds with something like, “No” or “You can’t make me.”
When defiant kids say, “You can’t make me,” they are asserting their control and challenging yours. They are silently hoping that you will rise to the challenge and try to control them. Like it or not, they are right. Parents can’t make children do anything against their will.
These kids are also upping the ante by challenging parents to come up with some consequence that will mean something to them. The “test” is to show parents their own powerlessness, and these kids will often laugh in the face of any consequences parents might use, even if at a later time they might wish they hadn’t.
How to get kids to cooperate:
1. Kids who ask something like, “What are you going to do about it?” are not so much interested in your answer as they are in trying to prove how incapable you are of controlling their behavior. A good response to this question might be, “You are trying to decide if it’s worth it for you. That lets me know that you are in control and are choosing whether or not to behave. That means you’re also choosing to accept whatever the consequences are.”
2. Rarely, if ever, tell the youngster what the consequences will be for non-compliance, because (a) it generally doesn’t make a difference to them, and (b) vague consequences can serve to keep them emotionally off balance. Kids who are defiant don’t like uncertainty, and they are often more likely to make a decision to control their behavior if they don’t know what will happen. You could say, “Because you are telling me you’re in control, and it sounds like you’re just trying to see what will happen, is it worth it for you to act-up just to see what the outcome will be?”
3. Remain calm. Parents who can't control themselves can’t control the youngster or be in control of a situation. Remember that while your blood is reaching the boiling point, your youngster's may be also. Once that happens your youngster is no longer thinking clearly. Most efforts at talking and teaching will be a waste of time and energy. Defuse the situation as calmly and rationally as possible. To find a compromise with your youngster that will get the situation under control is not giving up control. You don't have to win every battle to win a war. After the situation is finished and everyone is calm, there will be time to talk about the situation and to agree on a consequence for what happened.
4. Acknowledge your child’s upset feelings when he’s mad. For example, the parent can say something like, "Ouch! That hurt my ears. I don't scream at you like that, please don't scream at me. I can see you are really upset to use that tone of voice. What can I do to help you?”
5. You can consciously choose to avoid getting into a power struggle. You might generally agree with the youngster by saying something like, “You are absolutely right. I can’t make you. The only person who can control you is you. I hope you make a good decision for yourself.”
6. Avoid constant arguments and threats by using a system similar to the ones used in residential treatment programs. Set up a board that lists five or more levels of behavior and associated privileges. The middle level should be for acceptable behavior, next level up for effort at improvement, and highest level for exemplary behavior. The level below middle should be for demotion when the youngster misbehaves while the lowest level should be reserved for serious violations of house rules including not complying with the privileges associated with a certain level or demotion for misbehavior after being on the next to lowest level for prolonged periods. Here’s an example of this system:
- Requirements: Helpful without being asked. Follows all rules.
- Privileges: 2 hours TV, 2 points/day, 1 hour video games, 1 hour later bedtime.
- Requirements: Helpful when asked. Follows rules well.
- Privileges: 1½ hours TV, 1 point/day, 3/4 hour video games, 1/2 hour later bedtime.
- Requirements: Good behavior. Needs reminders to complete chores and follow rules.
- Privileges: 1 hour TV, 1/2 hour video games, regular bedtime.
- Requirements: Some misbehavior. Requires frequent reminders to complete chores and follow rules.
- Privileges: 1/2 hour earlier bedtime, 1/2 hour TV, no video games, must complete chores and schoolwork before play.
- Requirements: Severe infraction of rules. Unacceptable behavior. Fighting. Refusal to cooperate after warnings. Not complying with privileges for level.
- Privileges: Grounded. No after school activities. No telephone. No plans with friends. No TV. Lose all points.
My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents with Defiant Teens