Understanding the Brain of a Defiant Teenager

Most moms and dads don’t understand why their defiant teens behave in an impulsive, irrational, and sometimes dangerous way. At times, it seems like these young people don’t think things through or fully consider the consequences of their actions. They differ from their "normal" peers in the way they behave, solve problems, and make decisions. There is a biological explanation for this difference.

Researchers have identified a specific region of the brain called the amygdala, which is responsible for instinctual reactions (e.g., fear, aggressive behavior). This region develops early; however, the frontal cortex (i.e., the area of the brain that controls reasoning and helps us think before we act) develops later. This part of the brain is still changing and maturing well into the early- to mid-twenties.

Other specific changes in the brain during the teenage years include a rapid increase in the connections between the brain cells and pruning (i.e., refinement) of brain pathways. Nerve cells develop myelin (i.e., an insulating layer which helps cells communicate). All these changes are crucial for the development of coordinated thought, action, and behavior.

Pictures of the brain in action show that the brain of a teen diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) functions differently than “normal” teens when it comes to decision-making and problem-solving. The ODD teen’s actions are guided more by the amygdala and less by the frontal cortex. Research has also demonstrated that head trauma and exposure to drugs or alcohol interfere with normal brain development during the teenage years.

Based on the stage of their brain development, ODD teens are more likely to misread or misinterpret social cues and emotions, get involved in fights, get suspended or expelled from school, get into accidents of all kinds, engage in dangerous or risky behavior, and act on impulse. These young people are less likely to modify their dangerous or inappropriate behaviors, pause to consider the potential consequences of their actions, or think before they act.

These brain differences don’t mean that ODD teens can’t make good decisions or tell the difference between right and wrong. And it certainly doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be held responsible for their poor choices. But an awareness of these differences can help moms and dads – and teachers – to understand, anticipate, and manage the behavior of these “special needs” teens. 

Watch the video below for a parent-education program designed specifically for parents of defiant teens:


==> My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents

Tips for Parents of "Special Needs" College-Bound Teens

Graduating from high school and planning for life afterwards is an exciting AND challenging time for older teens and their parents. For adolescents with psychiatric diagnoses, it is especially important to plan ahead for a successful "launch” from high school to a university.

All universities are different. It is important to investigate the mental health services and other supports available at each university you are considering.

Some topics to investigate and consider include:
  • Availability of student advocacy groups and outreach services to support students with special needs
  • Can the psychiatric condition be successfully managed on campus, or will additional community resources be required?  Consider ease of access to off-campus providers
  • How are medical and counseling services paid for? Does a student fee cover everything or is your insurance accepted? 
  • The availability of a Counseling Center, Student Health Services, and off-campus mental health resources

Before applying to a university, it is helpful for adolescents and their moms and dads to talk with their physician about the following:
  • Developing realistic expectations and plans about academic workload
  • Educational accommodations that can and should continue in college
  • Organizational skills needed to balance work and social life
  • Treatment needs and additional support after high school

When choosing a university, think about the following: 
  • Distance from home
  • Ease of access to specialized treatment
  • Educational environment (e.g., classroom, online, or a combination)
  • Housing options (e.g., dorms, off-campus living, commuting from home)
  • Local friends and family
  • Total number of students and class size

In order to live independently, college-bound adolescents will need a range of life skills, including:
  • Running errands (e.g., grocery, gasoline)
  • Doing chores (e.g., laundry, cooking, and cleaning)
  • Navigating public transportation and knowing how to get around new areas
  • Money management (e.g., using ATM’s, credit and debit cards, checkbook, online banking)
  • Healthy nutrition and exercise
  • Handling increased social freedom and pressures (e.g., drugs and alcohol, dating and sex)
  • Good sleep habits

 ==> My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents

Universities have more work with less structure. College-bound adolescents need to develop effective study skills such as:
  • Accepting responsibility and consequences for actions (e.g., missing a deadline) and learning how to plan for contingencies
  • Attending educational planning meetings (e.g., 504 plan, IEP, etc.) 
  • Balancing educational and recreational computer use
  • Completing homework, essays, and projects without reminders or involvement from mom or dad, professors, or tutors
  • Knowing schedules for classes
  • Organizing study materials

Moms and dads should encourage independence in healthcare management. Gradually phase in responsibility for: 
  • Knowing and talking about their health history
  • Scheduling, canceling, and keeping medical appointments
  • Storing and keeping medications safely
  • Tracking need for and ordering medication refills

There is more than just one route to a college degree. Other choices include "gap year" programs, part-time work and school, or a community college. Graduating from high school is a momentous occasion. Developing independent life skills and learning to manage mental health issues will help ensure a successful transition.


==> My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents

When Defiant Teens Push Their Parents "Over The Edge"

Let’s be honest here: parenting a defiant, disrespectful teenager can take its toll on any parent, leaving him or her flustered and on edge - day after day - with no relief in sight. After all, a person can only take so much abuse before “cracking.” Anger is a natural emotion, but when it escalates to rage, the result is similar to throwing gas on a fire; it can turn an average argument between parent and child into a “war of wills.”

When dealing with your "difficult" teenager, do you find that your fuse is getting shorter and shorter? Have arguments and fights simply become “a way of life”? Studies have shown that teenagers whose parents often express rage are more likely to be difficult to discipline. So, it will be in your best interest to be in more control of your emotions. Here’s how to accomplish this feat…

How parents can control anger and rage against their defiant teens:

1. Assertiveness training is particularly helpful if you are a person who bottles up rage and then lets it go in an inappropriate way.

2. Be willing to forgive. Resolving conflict is impossible if you’re unwilling or unable to forgive. Resolution lies in releasing the urge to punish, which can never compensate for our losses and only adds to our injury by further depleting and draining our lives.

3. Choose your battles carefully. Conflicts can be draining, so it’s important to consider whether the issue is really worthy of your time and energy. If you pick your battles rather than fighting over everything, your teenager will take you more seriously when you are out-of-sorts.

4. Divide your teenager’s disobedience into "behavior to ignore" (e.g., annoyances), which are not worth the wear and tear of getting angry about, and "misbehavior that needs a consequence" (e.g., destruction of property, lying, stealing, etc.), which requires a response – for your sake and your teen’s.

5. Exercising regularly helps your body release tension.

==> My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents

6. Focus on the physical sensations of rage. While it may seem counter-intuitive, tuning into the way your body feels when you’re getting worked-up often lessens the emotional intensity of your rage.

7. Focus on the present. Once you are in the heat of arguing, it’s easy to start throwing past grievances into the mix. Rather than looking to the past and assigning blame, focus on what you can do in the present to solve the problem.

8. Identify problems in your past that could contribute to present rage. Were you abused or harshly punished as a teen? Do you have difficulty controlling your temper? Do you sense a lack of inner peace? Identify present situations that are making you outraged, (e.g., dissatisfaction with job, spouse, self, teen, etc.). Remember, you mirror your emotions. If your teen sees a chronically mad face and hears an angry voice, that’s the person he is more likely to become.

9. If your rage seems to be spiraling out of control, remove yourself from the situation for a few minutes or for as long as it takes you to cool down. A brisk walk, a trip to the gym, or a few minutes listening to some music should allow you to calm down, release pent up emotion, and then approach the situation with a cooler head.

10. Know when to let something go. If you can’t come to an agreement with your teen, agree to disagree. It takes two people to keep an argument going. If a conflict is going nowhere, you can choose to disengage and move on.

11. Learn a few relaxation exercises. Breathing deeply has a calming effect on the body and mind. Breathe deeply in through your nose, drawing the breath down below your naval, and holding it for a count of 5. Release the breath slowly. Form the habit of doing this several times a day, and learn the feeling of relaxation. Recall this feeling and practice the breathing when you find yourself becoming angry.

12. Put your safety first when emotions are getting real heated. Trust your instincts. If you feel unsafe or threatened in any way by your teen, get away and go somewhere safe.

13. Review your own adolescence. Think about the ways rage was expressed in your family when you were growing up. In some homes, rage is taboo, causing people to suppress their feelings and becoming fearful of expressing rage. For others, rage was expressed at home, in extreme ways. Reflect on how your childhood experiences have influenced how you deal with rage.

14. Set clear boundaries about what you will and will not tolerate.

15. Slowly count to ten. Focus on the counting to let your rational mind catch up with your feelings. If you still feel out of control by the time you reach ten, start counting again.

16. Spending time outdoors in natural environments is a great stress-reducer.

17. Stretch or massage areas of tension. Roll your shoulders if you are tensing them, for example, or gently massage your neck and scalp.

18. Use your senses. Take advantage of the relaxing power of your sense of sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste. Also, you might try listening to music or picturing yourself in a favorite place.

19. Yoga classes are a good way to learn some calming techniques.

20. You may want to work with a therapist who can help you effectively parent your defiant teen without getting angry. Seeking professional help is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, it’s a sign of strength and pragmatism and can improve your quality of life.

==> My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents

Best Comment:

Anonymous said...  Yesterday was one of THOSE days. I have had your Defiant Teen ebook for a week and was able to keep the situation from going over the edge:   When my son refused to turn down the volume on the PC and also threw some insults at me on top of it...... I calmly turned off the PC... unplugged the keyboard, put it in the backseat of my truck, and left on an errand... returning an hour later to a quiet house.  Thank you so much for your ebook... It is awesome :) 

When Your Teenager is a Compulsive Liar: Advice for Parents

“I'm at my wits end with my 16-year old daughter. She lies constantly and not just about big things--- small things too. If I keep asking questions when things don't add up and only when she knows she's busted, she'll finally admit to it. She's very convincing when she's lying because she says it so matter-of-factly and initially when caught, she'll begin an Oscar-winning performance declaring her innocence. :eyeroll: I've tried so many things like taking away TV, phone and computer, adding extra chores, having her write sentences of repetition or writing me reports on honesty – but NOTHING is working! I've explained the repercussions to her that when someone lies all the time, they are not considered trustworthy and people will begin to doubt everything that person says. I told her that her friends may even start to doubt what she says at times. (sigh) I'm totally out of ideas! I would really appreciate any suggestions.”

If you are raising an adolescent, and you have noticed that she has been lying profusely about her recent activities and whereabouts, then this article is for you. Compulsive lying in your adolescent can be dealt with effectively if you establish a strong honest relationship with her. It can be very difficult to get your adolescent to discuss her problems with you freely; however, the tips discussed in this post will help you establish an honest open relationship with your adolescent, which will hopefully encourage her to stop lying all together. But first, let’s look at the warning signs of compulsive lying…

There are warning signs that can help moms and dads determine whether or not their adolescent is a compulsive liar:
  • Is there a consistency in what your adolescent says about the same topic? It’s difficult for a true compulsive liar to keep her details straight, because she has already put in so many lies into what she has already narrated to other people.
  • See if your adolescent appears nervous or uncomfortable, especially when you know that she is lying. If she feels or looks more at ease when lying compared to telling the truth, then she is likely to be a compulsive liar (where she considers lying as a natural gesture).
  • See if your adolescent recognizes her behavior or if she even realizes what she is doing every time she lies. Because lying is already a built-in practice for a compulsive liar, the teen naturally denies that she has done wrong.
  • Observe how often your adolescent lies. Compulsive liars habitually lie on an ongoing and regular basis. They often lie about anything – big or small.
  • Compulsive liars lie out of habit, not because it benefits them or they can get out of an awkward situation. Rather, they often lie in order to get attention, which makes them appear much better in everything (an obvious sign of low self-esteem).
  • Compulsive liars look for the thrill of misleading others; they love the reaction they get from peers and adults (especially parents) and want to see how far they can get with their lies. They also have the need to seek admiration from others, to increase their self-esteem, to control situations or desires, and to hide their own failures.

 ==> My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents

Occasional lying is common among teens, and deserves an immediate consequence. But if you have a compulsive liar on your hands, you will need to take a different approach. When a teenager starts lying compulsively, the parent’s first inclination is to issue some form of discipline, or at the very least, make an attempt to “reason with” the teenager. But what the parent doesn’t realize is that it took years for the teen to get to this point – and – the teen has probably been lying for a long time. She’s only been revealed as a compulsive liar recently.

If it took years for the lying to get this elaborate and sophisticated, it’s going to take at least a few months to get the lying-behavior mitigated. There is NO quick fix for compulsive lying in teens. What’s needed instead is what I call a “bonding do-over.” In other words, you have to go back and rebuild the relationship-bridge between parent and child. In fact, you have to develop such a close relationship with your child that lying becomes more painful than telling the truth – not because there is a negative consequence waiting for the teen – but because her guilt-button gets pushed whenever she lies (i.e., she feels so uncomfortable after telling a lie that it literally causes her to experience a significant degree of emotional pain – the same feeling you get when you accidently run over a squirrel in the road).

Having said the above, rather than discussing “how to punish” your teen for lying, we need to talk about “how to bond” with her. You will be able to fix the lying issue, but only by going in the back door. 

Here are some important steps to take in order to accomplish this:

1. After your adolescent finishes a task, or at least shows that she really tried, make sure you recognize her effort. This recognition provides the motivation for her to continue doing the right thing. However, make the recognition fit the teen (e.g., don't try to push hugs on an adolescent who doesn’t like physical affection from the parent; instead, give her a high five).

2. Avoid getting angry when your adolescent admits that she did something wrong. Obviously, if you get upset when she speaks freely with you, she will avoid talking to you in the future. She needs to feel comfortable talking to you – about ANYTHING! In order to help her feel comfortable with you, relate to her in some way (e.g., think back on the days when you used to be an adolescent, and share some of the stories of your rebellious antics).

3. Avoid judgment or criticism. An atmosphere of shame or blame is certain to jeopardize your attempts to bond. Don't offer your opinion or advice unless she asks. If she wants your advice, she'll ask for it. Avoid the lectures and attempts to use logic.

4. Be empathic. By showing empathy for the tribulations of adolescent life, you can help your teenager feel understood, which will strengthen your bond. Remember what it was like for you as an adolescent. Don't belittle her struggles when she confides in you. Instead, respond with compassion by using reflective listening skills (e.g., "I can understand how that would really upset you …I'm sorry that happened").

==> My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents

5. Find common ground. Perhaps you share a secret interest or hobby with your teenager and you don't even know it. Ask her what activities she enjoys. Talk about your own passions. Show interest in her extracurricular activities (e.g., if she plays on a school sports team, attend her games).

6. Find time to check in and chat with your teenager each day, even if it's just about topics like her day at school or trivial occurrences in the news. Chat while doing the chores or preparing dinner. Inquire about her opinions or ask for input (e.g., "What should we make for dinner tonight?"). Look for everyday opportunities to connect with your teenager.

7. Household chores are a great way to get younger children involved with daily family life, but when parenting adolescents, you need to understand that they require a higher level of involvement and responsibility. They need the chance to help with family decision-making. It can be as simple as asking your adolescent, “Where do you think we should go on our next family vacation?” If you want her to help you make a decision about a new purchase, give her the criteria she needs to make an informed opinion (e.g., if she's going to research a new cell phone for you, tell her what features you’re looking for, and ask her to show you how to use the phone). Is she's pushing for the chance to buy her own clothes? Teach her how to budget for what she needs to buy. Give your adolescent the scaffolding so that she will have the skills for that particular decision-making involvement.

8. Let your teenager know that you love her for who she is, not what she does or how she looks. Adolescent girls are particularly vulnerable to low self-esteem due to peer pressure, the media and comparisons with celebrities. By letting her know that you see who she really is underneath appearances and achievements, you simultaneously support your bond and increase her self-esteem.

9. Participate in fun, enjoyable activities together. Ask her what activities she might like to share with you. Suggest seeing a movie, taking a drive or going shopping after school. Let her know your relationship doesn't always have to be serious. Show her your lighthearted side.

10. Resolve conflicts soon after they occur. Allowing hurt to fester for too long can turn into a more serious wound and might lead to grudges. Let some time pass so you can both cool down, then open up a constructive dialogue. Apologize if you were wrong. Acknowledging your wrongdoings and apologizing immediately when you hurt your teenager's feelings can restore your bond and help her see that you're only human.

While it may not be easy for your adolescent to accept that there is indeed a problem, it will help if you support her as she goes through the tough changes associated with adolescence. Put yourself in her shoes. See the world from her viewpoint. 

Even though you will be addressing the lying issue indirectly (rather than using punishment), by implementing the strategies listed above, you should be able to resolve the problem over time. It’s going to take at least a few months before the parent-child bond is restored, but once this objective is accomplished, your child will lose the desire to lie. Lying will no longer have the payoff that it once had.


==> My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents

How do I get my over-achieving daughter to slow down?

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