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Linda Esposito, LCSW Headshot

The Secret to Changing Rebellious Teens

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Whether your teen has issues with substance use, bullying, failing grades or running away from home, one thing remains constant: If you want your child to change, you must change first.

And if you're rolling your eyes right now -- hear me out.

Parenting teens is like parenting toddlers -- you're sleep-deprived, stressed out, second-guessing yourself and worst of all -- you're dealing with tantrums.

I get it.

I've spent years counseling youth from all walks of life: Rich, poor, Black, white, special education students, "gifted and talented," on probation, living in foster homes, Ivy-league bound, expelled and athletically blessed.

You name it. I've seen it. And heard the excuses, too.

All 1,093 of them.

"What do you mean, I need to change? I didn't serve him the liquor, for God's sake!"

"Why would I want my child to bully other kids? I didn't throw that first punch."

"I've tried everything to get her to stay in at night. And please don't think because you have a few letters behind your name, you know what I'm going through..."

"What you're suggesting isn't gonna work on my kid... Wait? Do you even have kids? Well... how many?"

And on and on.

Frustrated parents go with angry teens like Labrador pups go with Clydesdale horses in Super Bowl commercials.

And your story can have a happy ending, too.

The secret formula lies in effective discipline. The concept may be easy to grasp, but the execution is what often trips up parents.

If you master a few core principles for setting rules like a boss, your teen will be a lot easier to manage.

But first you need to understand the roots of her rebellion...

As a rookie therapist, I was taught that adults from overly strict or overly permissive households generally want to raise their children in the opposite manner in which they were raised. The problem is both dynamics lead to black-and-white parenting.

For example, if your folks were overly strict and/or harsh with discipline, it's not uncommon to rebel against rules, or become anti-authority when raising kids of your own. In short, you point to the other end of the discipline dial.

Ironically, this overly-permissive style means kids ending up in more trouble!

This parent blames the school, the supervision aides and other students when John is suspended for fighting on campus.

John internalizes the message that he doesn't have to play by society's rules. He continues to do as he pleases, and he continues to be punished.

On the other hand, being raised by MIA or overly permissive parents means you may have been left to self-parent. Ensuring your own children don't grow up feeling dismissed or ignored is common.

This parent overcompensates by indulging and doing everything for her teen. But without room to explore and make mistakes, Sara doesn't learn to problem solve and become independent.

How to parent with the right amount of authority?

Reboot your parenting template.

And sometimes this means starting anew with a fresh, clean, discipline slate.

Step 1: Ask What Discipline Means to You

  • What's difficult about it?
  • What makes sense?
  • Do you dislike saying 'no'?
  • Do you fear she'll hate you?
  • Is there a negative association with authority?

Once you redefine the meaning of discipline as a trait of being well-behaved and a tool to develop self-control, the concept becomes more neutral, and less personal.

Let's say 17-year-old Steve likes to hang out with friends and party on the weekends. You suspect there's alcohol involved. Try this:

Step 2. Set the Rule (even if you think it's common sense)

Keep it short, to the point, and cut out unnecessary explanations.

For example, "When you're 21 and living on your own, you're free to do as you please. My hope is that you would choose to drink responsibly, if you drink, at all. So until that day, you are not permitted to drink in my house, or with your friends at theirs,' or anywhere else. Now repeat the rule so I know we're on the same page."

3. Be Consistent. This one's tough, and usually where parents falter. Life inevitably gets in the way -- you're exhausted after a long day at work, and the last thing you have energy for is monitoring his whereabouts. But inconsistency shows him you're not serious and there's leeway with the house rules The goal is to do everything in your power to ensure he doesn't have easy access to booze. You want to make it impossible for him to fail.

4. Supervise. Even if you're physically unable to have a pair of eyes on him, you can enlist the help of others and put supports in place. Call the host's parents and verify there's adult supervision, ask him to repeat the drinking rule, drive him to the party and/or pick him up, check his breath when the party's over.

Will he hate fight you on this?

Probably.

But the tantrum will be temporary.

Teens crave structure. Especially the more defiant kids. They need to know there's a safety net to counter the lack of control they feel internally.

Disciplining teens entails untold amounts of time, energy and grunt work.

But once you reboot your relationship to rules, your teen will change his rebellious ways. Your power lies in what you can control -- your own behavior. And this includes setting clear expectations for his behavior. You can't control your teen, but he can't control you either!

*****

Linda Esposito, LCSW
is a psychotherapist in Los Angeles, CA. For mental wellness updates + tips on managing your spirited teen without losing your sanity, subscribe to TalkTherapyBiz.