When it comes to engaging in conversations with defiant teens, you are more likely to get into a power struggle than to start a dialogue, particularly when they are on the defense. More often than not, teens are not intentionally defiant. Instead, they are struggling to advocate for themselves and gain more independence, but they may go about this in an emotional state rather than a rational state. To avoid getting into a cycle of arguments and resentment, it can be helpful for parents, professionals, and other authority figures to offer emotional first aid to defiant teens.
What is Emotional First Aid?
The goal of emotional first aid is to resolve the immediate crisis, not underlying issues. We enter power struggles when we bring in other examples of their defiance or try to focus on the bigger picture, rather than focusing on the details of the incident at hand. For example, in a crisis situation, the first people to respond will be the Emergency Medical Technicians that can offer stabilization and first aid, but the underlying issues won’t be resolved until they are admitted to the hospital and consult with a specialist. In the same way, in the middle of an argument with a defiant teenager, the goal is to stabilize their emotions. The crisis may not be resolved until they are able to return later and talk it out, after consulting friends or a therapist.
Why Does This Work Well with Defiant Teens?
It is a natural instinct to fight fire with fire and to react to instances of disrespect, rebellion, or verbal threats. But this only adds fuel to the teen’s anger. If you try to match their energy, they are more likely to use this against you and the resentment will build. Instead, emotional first aid shows a willingness to meet teens where they are at and hear them out. This may come as a surprise to a teenager who may not be used to this and may be expecting the argument to escalate. If they are unable to cool off on their own, it is the adult’s role to help them co-regulate. This also begins the process of healing the relationship.
How Can I Support My Defiant Teen?
- Drain off Emotions. When teenagers don’t have the skills to regulate their emotions on their own, encouraging them to vent and process what they are feeling can help them calm down so that they can think about what they are asking for in a clearer space. Active listening and reassuring them that their emotions are valid are necessary to help teens co-regulate. This does not necessarily mean giving into their demands, but rather helps them explain their perspective and advocate for themselves in a healthier way.
- Clarify Events of Immediate Crisis. When a teenager is overwhelmed by emotions, they are more likely to catastrophize and exaggerate the details of a situation. They are more likely to have a distorted view of how the situation occurred and the other person’s intentions. Once they are able to take a step back from the situation, they are better able to put things into perspective, reinterpret the event, and keep things in focus. Sometimes, this might look like asking for a timeline of events, asking them to tell you more about how a turn in events made them feel, or pointing out inconsistencies in their story.
- Maintain the Relationship and Lines of Communication. In the midst of an angry outburst, it is easy for there to be a total breakdown of communication, where one person will refuse to talk, storm off angrily, or leave the conversation with more confusion than when the situation began. By using active listening skills, sharing insight, and using supportive language, not only are teenagers more likely to feel heard, they are also more likely to soften up and show appreciation for the conversation. If it is not appropriate to address the situation immediately, offer to check in at a different time. This shows that you are still open to a conversation and that the incident doesn’t change how you feel about the relationship.
- Remind the Child of Expectations. Like most people, teenagers are not very responsive to being told that they are wrong or that they can’t do something. There are ways to be more subtle about encouraging opposite behaviors, rather than just calling out negative behaviors. Instead of telling them to do something, they may be more responsive to asking if you’ll join them in doing something. Use positive, non-judgmental language to remind them of expectations, like “remember to ask before doing something” rather than “don’t do something without asking for permission next time.” While the message is the same, gentle directives are generally received more openly than closed-ended demands–from either side.
Solstice RTC Can Help
Solstice Residential Treatment Center is a program for young girls and assigned female at birth ages 14-18 who struggle with issues such as anxiety, depression, trauma, and/or relationship struggles. This program provides three types of therapy: individual, group, and family therapy. Solstice Residential Treatment Center is dedicated to teaching teens how to incorporate healthy habits into their lives. Students will leave with the skills they need to transition into the world feeling confident, happy, and able to manage their emotions.
Contact us at 866-278-3345. We can help your family today!