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BLOG: How to handle a defiant teen

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Question: I’m at my wits’ end! My teen refuses to go to school, and she’s hanging around with a bad crowd. I’m really worried about her safety. How can I get her help? What can I do to bring her back home?

Answer: It can be really difficult when you see your child struggling. You may have tried talking to her and letting her know that she is not making the best choices. Sometimes, adults — because they want to protect — jump to punishing and forbidding teens to do something, and then the teen ends up doing it anyway. Or they go the other direction and try to befriend their child. I encourage you to stay firm with your limits and not try to be her friend because you are her parent. Even though she may not be following the structure, it is needed to help build her sense of predictability and safety at home.

What’s behind the behavior?

I would encourage you to try to understand the feeling that is fueling her behavior. Every action is fueled by a behavior. It seems she is trying to seek something from her friends and is following their lead. Reflect on the peer pressures you may have had when you were her age. How were you able to overcome them? How did your values and morals come into play? Trust that your daughter has them inside her heart; we just need to encourage her to bring them back to the forefront.

One way is by modeling appropriate relationships. Children of all ages continually learn from their parents and the adults around them. Through your own relationships, you can remind her to treat others with respect, that active listening is important, and that regardless of what choice a group wants to make, we can make one that aligns more with what we believe to be right.

Build their self-esteem

Another way is to build her self-esteem by showing her that you can trust her. I know that might sound contradictory, but you can do this in an area of her life in which she is excelling. Allow her to make more decisions in that area and it may help develop her ability to take responsibility. By building her up in one area, it can spread to other areas.

You also can build her self-esteem by not criticizing her. Teens are very hard on themselves and feel that adults don’t understand them. Teens may turn to peers because they believe they are the only ones who understand. Help her see that you are trying to understand and she can talk to you about it regardless of what it is she is going through. We need to show them it is OK to feel — that feelings don’t get us into trouble, but our choices might. Encouraging her to talk to you freely about her feelings opens the opportunity for her to turn to you instead of the bad crowd. Being heard without judgement can be very powerful for a teen.

Reinforce positive choices

Lastly, when building a teen’s self-esteem, acknowledge her good choices every chance you get. Assist her in realigning where her efforts should be in. Sometimes, our perception is so clouded from their negative choices that we overlook their small, positive accomplishments. Fostering a healthy self-esteem can assist her in making more social appropriately and safer choices.

As the consistent adult in her life, you can buffer her experiences. Becoming available, reflecting on what might be going on, and showing her you are trying to understand can spur her to want to address her difficulties. You also can talk to her about seeing a therapist, a neutral person who can provide different insights on what she might be going through. It’s OK to ask for help and use the resources around us.

Stephanie De La Cruz is a licensed mental health counselor with Center for Child Counseling.

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