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Active Listening: Best Parenting Practices for Raising Defiant Teens

Some behaviors of defiant teenagers are bids for attention, while others are expressions of frustration at not feeling understood. Moms and dads will be able to reduce problem behaviors when the adolescent feels genuinely cared about, understood, and paid attention to. The best way to accomplish this is through “active listening” – a simple, yet highly under-rated parenting strategy.

Active listening is hard work, and takes energy and practice. This is why most parents don’t do it (a BIG parenting mistake!). It can’t be done when thinking about - or attending to - other things, or when distractions occur. Active listening doesn’t have to last a long time, but attention must be focused completely on the adolescent, and the message must be communicated back to the adolescent in the parent’s own words in a way that lets the adolescent know he or she was really heard. Tone of voice, respect for personal space, facial expressions, eye contact, choices of words, and body language are all important in communicating the desired message. It may take a few attempts to really understand the message, but that is O.K. (as long as it is finally understood accurately).

To know how to really listen to your child, think about how you would want to be listened to. Greater communication brings greater parent-child bonding. Moms and dads listening to their teenagers helps build their self-esteem. It makes them feel worthy, appreciated, interesting and respected. When we as parents really listen to our children, we foster this skill in them by acting as a model for positive and effective communication.

While the ideas around active listening are largely intuitive, it might actually take some practice to develop (or re-develop) the skill. Here’s what good listeners know – and what you as a parent of a defiant teenager should know too:

1. Active listening is a model for respect and understanding. You are gaining information and perspective. You add nothing by attacking your adolescent or otherwise putting him or her down. So treat your child in a way that you think he or she would want to be treated. Be candid, open, and honest in your response. Also, assert your opinions respectfully.

2. As you work on developing your listening skills, you may feel a bit panicky when there is a natural pause in the parent-child conversation. What should you say next? Will you make a bad problem worse by responding in a certain way? Learn to settle into the silence, and use it to better understand your child’s point of view.

3. Avoid letting your adolescent know how you handled a similar situation. Unless he or she specifically asks for advice, assume your teen just needs to talk it out.

4. Be deliberate with your listening and remind yourself frequently that your goal is to truly hear what your teenager is saying – even if he or she is angry at the time. Set aside all other thoughts and behaviors and concentrate on the message. Ask questions, reflect and paraphrase to ensure you understand the message. If you don't, then you'll find that what your adolescent actually says - and what you hear - are two different things.

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

5. Even if your adolescent is launching a complaint against you, wait until he or she finishes before you defend yourself. Your adolescent will feel as though his or her point had been made. He or she won’t feel the need to repeat it, and you’ll know the whole argument before you respond.

6. Face your adolescent. Sit up straight or lean forward slightly to show your attentiveness through body language.

7. Remember that non-verbal communication also "speaks" loudly too: (a) notice your adolescent's body language; (b) avoid being distracted by environmental factors (e.g., side conversations); (c) don't mentally prepare a rebuttal; (d) look at your adolescent directly; and (e) put aside distracting thoughts.

8. If you find yourself responding emotionally to what your adolescent said, say so, and ask for more information (e.g., "I may not understand you correctly, and I find myself taking what you said personally. What I thought you just said is ________. Is that what you meant?").

9. Interrupting will make a bad problem worse. It frustrates your adolescent and limits full understanding of the message. So don't interrupt with counter arguments, and allow your adolescent to finish each point before asking questions (notice I said “asking questions” instead of defending yourself).

10. Minimize external distractions. Turn off the TV. Put down your book or magazine, and ask your adolescent to do the same.

11. Minimize internal distractions. If your own thoughts keep horning in, simply let them go and continue to re-focus your attention on your adolescent’ message (similar to what you would do during meditation).

12. Our personal filters, assumptions, judgments and beliefs often distort what we hear. As a parent, your mission is to truly understand what your child is trying to convey. This may require you to reflect what is being said and ask questions: (a) ask questions to clarify certain points (e.g., "What do you mean when you say ___?"); (b) reflect what has been said by paraphrasing (e.g., "What I'm hearing is ___.); and (c) summarize your adolescent's comments periodically.

13. Try not to think about what you are going to say next. The conversation will follow a logical flow after your adolescent makes his or her point.

14. Use your own body language and gestures to convey your attention: (a) encourage your adolescent to continue talking by using your small verbal comments (e.g., “yes” and “I see”); (b) nod occasionally; (c) note your posture and make sure it is open and inviting; and (d) smile and use other facial expressions.

15. Wait until your adolescent is finished before deciding that you disagree. Try not to make assumptions about what he or she is thinking. Research shows that, on average, we can hear four times faster than we can talk, so we have the ability to sort ideas as they come in – and be ready for more.

Active listening is a crucial technique to parenting a defiant teen. Active listening involves focusing on the speaker. Active listening manifests itself by asking good questions, paraphrasing what the speaker has said, and showing empathy. Once your teen sees that you understand what he or she is trying to say, your teen will most likely show some interest in what YOU have to say (which is the all-important end-point that you are trying to get to).


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

The Best Intervention for Defiant Behavior

Researchers have known for a long time that the use of positive reinforcement for appropriate behaviors is a key element in effective interventions for defiant behavior in kids and teens. If the majority of parent-child interactions are focused around correcting misbehavior, a cycle of negative interactions is created where the youngster expects attention after misbehaving.

On the other hand, positive reinforcement not only builds a youngster's self-esteem, but also serves to strengthen the parent-child bond. To accomplish this, positive reinforcement should occur immediately after the youngster has exhibited an appropriate behavior.

There are many different types of reinforcers that can be used to increase desired behaviors, but the type of reinforcer used depends on the child’s personality, age, and the particular circumstance (e.g., while tokens might be very effective reinforcement for a 6-year-old child, they are not going to have the same effect with a teenager):
  • Token reinforcers are points or tokens that are awarded for performing certain actions. These tokens can then be exchanged for something of value.
  • Tangible reinforcers involve the presentation of an actual, physical reward (e.g., candy, treats, toys, money, games, etc.). While these types of rewards can be powerfully motivating, they should be used sparingly and with caution.
  • Social reinforcers involve expressing approval of a behavior (e.g., the parent saying or writing "good job" or "excellent work").
  • Natural reinforcers are those that occur directly as a result of the behavior (e.g., a child studies hard, pays attention in class, and does his homework, then as a result, he gets excellent grades).

When used correctly, positive reinforcement can be very effective – especially when it occurs immediately after the desired behavior. The shorter the amount of time between a desired behavior and positive reinforcement, the stronger the connection will be. If a long period of time elapses between the behavior and the reinforcement, the weaker the connection will be. It also becomes more likely that intervening misbehavior might accidentally be reinforced.

The following tend to be the best positive reinforcers for defiant children in the classroom:
  • Activity reinforcers are special activities awarded to a child who exhibits exceptional behavior. An example of activity reinforcement is extra time in a play area, or special time set aside for a computer game. Activities can take many forms to suit the dynamic of the classroom environment. These reinforcers are also referred to as natural reinforcers because the activities are tasks that are enjoyable and come naturally to a child, not an assignment.
  • Social reinforcement comes from the teacher and other children. Offering a smile or simple encouragement such as "good job" are both examples of social reinforcement. Social reinforcement is most effective when the action being praised is clearly communicated.
  • Tangibles are gifts given to children as rewards for good behavior. The most effective tangible reinforcements are award certificates and letters brought home commending a child's progress. Tangibles also take the form of classroom items (e.g., colorful folders, pens, pencils, etc). However, I would caution against using this method of reinforcement on a regular basis since it may cause other children to be envious.
  • Token reinforcement is a form of positive reinforcement that awards a child with points or tokens in exchange for appropriate behavior. Tokens can take the form of gold stars or extra points on a grade (e.g., a gold star given to a child who listened well to instructions on a task, extra points to a child who has shown great improvement, etc.).

Other approaches to the treatment of defiant behavior in children include cognitive behavioral therapy, family therapy, individual psychotherapy, parent training programs, social skills training, and anger management programs. For defiant teenagers, vocational training, cognitive interventions, and academic tutoring have shown to be effective.

Dealing With Your Resentful Teen's "Cold Shoulder"

You made the wrong comment, asked the wrong question, or said something you weren't supposed to. The response you get says it all: the cold shoulder! A teenager may use the cold shoulder as a way to shut her parents out, to get them to leave her alone, and to push her parents’ buttons. What most moms and dads don’t realize is that under the surface, something else is going on: the cold shoulder is giving your youngster a feeling of control over you.

The cold shoulder (also referred to as “the silent treatment”) is a common punishment used by teens. It is manifested by a child who completely ignores his parents, going through his typical day as if his parents were invisible or absent, even if the parents are standing right in front of him or talking to him.

What parents need to understand is that the cold shoulder is frequently utilized as a lever to gain control in the power struggles of the parent-child relationship – and it works because most parents react in a way that tells the child she is winning. Never is this more evident than in the conflicts associated with a “resentful” teenager. When a resentful teen uses the cold shoulder, she takes it to the extreme. A resentful teen may refuse to speak to – or even acknowledge – parents for great lengths of time, and may even demand an apology that is out of proportion to the perceived offense.

The cold shoulder is usually used to silently express contempt or disapproval. It is a common response used by teens who can’t tolerate being on the receiving end of a parent’s self-assertiveness (e.g., a parent who is consistent with issuing consequences for misbehavior). The cold shoulder effectually cuts parents off from the teen, and sends a clear message to parents about how insignificant they are and how easy it is for the teen to live without them. This strategy is used by insecure adolescents with a poor self-image who have no other problem-solving skills (yet). When parents do something that displeases the resentful teen, they cease to exist for a certain period of time (and most often, extensive and disproportionate amounts of time).

The resentful teen also uses the cold shoulder to throw his parents off balance. The teen does this to find out exactly how much control he has over the parents. The most typical reason is to “punish” his parents for some good they failed to do, or some wrong they did (and probably are unaware of). Of course, if parents directly ask the teen about it, he will deny it.

The resentful teen also uses the cold shoulder as a way to get a reaction from parents. Typically, parents ask their resentful teen, “What is wrong, why are you ignoring me?” This lets the child know she has been successful in pushing her parents' buttons. It also gives her power to do whatever she wants. If parents don’t accept her behavior, she will then use the cold shoulder again to draw them back in to the cycle.

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

It’s theorized that the cold shoulder is a learned behavior. A child may observe parents using the cold shoulder and copy it as a way to punish others or get them to comply with his wishes. Moms and dads greatly affect their youngster’s behavior. A child is like a sponge – he models everything his mother or father does and incorporates what he sees into his own life. According to research done by the University of Chicago published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, an antisocial teenager learns his negative behavior from his parents’ examples.

So what is a parent to do about “the cold shoulder” treatment? Just two things really:

1. Model tolerance. If you say something to your teenager, and then get the cold shoulder, simply acknowledge that you noticed this – and move on. Here are two examples:

Example #1—
  • Mom says, “How was school today?”
  • Teenager says nothing and gives mom a dirty look.
  • Mom says, “Looks like something’s bothering you. If you want to talk about it, let me know” (then mom goes on about her business).

Example #2—
  • Arriving home from school, angry teen slams the front door and throws his books all over the floor. Mom says, “Slamming doors and throwing books is not acceptable behavior.”
  • Teen says nothing and heads to his room.
  • Moms says, “I’m sorry if you had a bad day, but you can choose to pick up your books, or you can choose the consequence.”
  • If he picks up his books in a reasonable amount of time (as defined by you), there’s no consequence. If he doesn’t pick up his books, he receives a consequence (again, as defined by you).

2. Let “cold-shoulder behavior” run its course. When you stop responding to the cold shoulder, it will die from neglect—and that’s exactly what you want, but it’s going to take some time. Be patient and ignore it. That’s right! There are no consequences for the cold shoulder (however, other negative behaviors may need a consequence). Giving a consequence for the cold shoulder is synonymous with giving attention to it, which will help it to grow.


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

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