I seem to hear a lot about the discipline and training of strong-willed toddlers, but not so much about older children whose behaviour expresses a similarly unyielding temperament. What about strong-willed teenagers? If you think it's tough managing a defiant two-year-old, imagine what it's like when the kid is seventeen and six feet tall! I'm in desperate need of some help!
You're not alone. We often hear from weary parents who have nearly reached the end of their rope with a strong-willed adolescent. If most of our ministry's materials on the strong-willed child tend to focus upon toddlers and preschoolers, it's simply because we believe that early childhood is the time for parents to establish their authority and set definite boundaries. Parents who neglect to take these steps at that stage are almost certain to face a more difficult task as their child grows older. Nevertheless, many of the same basic principles still apply, and it is of the utmost importance that you begin now to put them into practice.
Perhaps it would be helpful to begin with a few general observations. In dealing with a strong-willed teen, it is essential to stay calm, maintain a sense of confidence, and have a carefully conceived plan of action in mind. Make sure that you’re eating healthy meals, getting enough sleep, and taking care of your own emotional health – you need every ounce of strength, poise and self-control you can muster to handle a challenge like this.
If your system of discipline is to be effective you will need to lay out your expectations in advance and make sure that everyone in the household understands them. Consequences for rebellious or disobedient behaviour should be spelled out beforehand. Implementation of those consequences should be prompt and consistent. You can be sure that your strong-willed child will challenge these standards at every opportunity, but it’s crucial to keep your cool in the face of his defiance. Don’t give him an opportunity to seize control of the situation.
The task of parenting a strong-willed adolescent is complicated by the fact that teens of all temperaments are in the process of trying to form an identity. A quest for increasing independence is usually fundamental to this process, and this can often play itself out in behaviour calculated to define "self" in opposition to or over against the values, beliefs, wishes and instructions of the parents. For this reason it’s important not only to maintain clear and consistent guidelines and expectations, but also to organize those guidelines into at least three different categories: non-negotiable rules, negotiable rules and rules that can be discarded as your adolescent matures and demonstrates a growing ability to regulate his own behaviour.
When rules are broken, take that opportunity to teach your teen about the reality of consequences. Talk about the ripple effect of the choices we make in life – on ourselves, our friends, our families and the world around us. Help him connect the dots between your previous warnings and the unpleasant results of his rebellious behaviour. Negative consequences at this stage in a child’s life should take the form of lost privileges – phone time, computer time, curfew limits, access to the car and so on. Take care to match disobedient behaviours with appropriate consequences.
On the other side of the coin, it’s equally important to stay vigilant enough to "catch your child being good" and to recognize and highlight any attempt on his part to cooperate and observe the rules of the household. One effective way to promote such cooperation with teenagers is to establish a point system based on jobs or chores that need to be done around the house: every job earns a certain number of points, and points can be used to "buy back" privileges lost as a result of rebellious behaviour. This is just another way of enabling young people to discern the links between actions and outcomes.
As you go through this process, remember to keep an eye out for strategies designed to drive a wedge between you and your spouse. Most strong-willed teens possess a special talent for pitting the "softer" parent against the "stricter" one. You and your spouse must take steps to ensure that you're on the same page if you’re to foil these "divide-and-conquer" tactics. As a matter of fact, we would strongly suggest that you get professional help with this aspect of the problem by seeking counselling for the entire family. Strong-willed kids often have at least one strong-willed parent, and it is difficult to work through the complex family dynamics associated with this clashing of wills without the assistance of a trained specialist. Focus on the Family Canada’s professional counsellors can provide you with a list of qualified Christian therapists practicing in your area. They would also be more than happy to discuss your concerns with you over the phone. You can reach them Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Pacific time at 1.800.661.9800.
In the meantime, make a determined effort to stay in touch with your teenager's feelings and cultivate an awareness of the day-to-day details of his life at home and at school. Take time to talk about any fears and anxieties that may be lurking behind his defiant exterior. See if you can gain any insight into circumstances that may be driving the disobedient behaviour. You can let your child know that you're on his team if you simply express concern for his well-being and teach him some basic skills for managing negative emotions and maintaining positive relationships with other people. With some sensitive and skilful mentoring on your part, your strong-willed teen has the potential to grow into a strong leader and a powerful influence for good in the larger community.
For more reading on this topic, see this page on our FocusHelps website.