You Can’t Make Me! Dealing With a Defiant Teenager

There can’t be very many. Maybe there are a special few here and there, but they are few and far between.

What is this rare specimen I speak of?

The parent who hasn’t had a teenager say to them at some point “YOU CAN’T MAKE ME!”

The majority of parents who will hear this at some point in their parenting journey are faced with the tricky, but important, question “How do I respond effectively to such a defiant outburst?”

The secret to knowing how best to respond lies in understanding what motivated your teen to say those words in the first place.

What’s Going On?

When children are little they believe that they have to do what their parents tell them. That is the way life works when you are a little kid.

However as kids get older they learn that they don’t have to do what their parents want. In adolescence this awareness is usually accompanied by the realization that parents aren’t perfect and don’t always make the best decisions.

Complying with another person’s wishes becomes less about required obedience to someone else commands and more about choosing to give consent. This shift is part of developing autonomy – which in this case means having control over what they do and when they do it.

“You can’t make me” is your teenager letting you know, and discovering for themselves, that they want to be in control of their own lives and therefore things need to change in the parent child relationship. This is not to say teenage defiance should be tolerated, but it should be expected when parenting teens.

The first key to responding effectively to this statement is to acknowledge it for what it is – part of growing up. Your teenager is exploring their natural desire to control their own destiny. You don’t want your teen to spend the rest of their life only doing what you tell them to do (well maybe part of you wants that…. but deep down you know they need to grow up and take control.)

So instead of taking it as a surprisingly unpleasant character floor in your otherwise delightful child, remind yourself that we all have to grow up sometime (even your precious little baby.)

However the desire to grow up and take control of their own destiny will usually come well before the capacity to properly achieve such a goal, and this is the problem.

First Responses are Important

Your teenager is laying down a challenge to you. They are calling you out. They have chosen this issue, this moment in time to confront you and challenge your place as the key authority figure in their life.

At this point parents will loose the battle as soon as it begins. How do they do this?

Every time parents accept the challenge and respond in an adversarial or confrontational manner they effectively loose the challenge.

Responses like “I can and I will” or “You are very much mistaken” may sound impressive but are really empty phrases. The truth is you can’t really make someone else do anything.

When parents of teens choose to respond like this all they are doing is escalating the intensity of the conflict. Effectively they are saying “I accept your challenge, lets have a fight and see who wins.”

At this point the teenager has effectively changed the power dynamic of the relationship. The parent has surrendered their position of authority and entered into a conflict on their teenager’s terms, about the teenager’s agenda, and at a time of the teenagers choosing.

The very fact parents accept the challenge satisfies the teens play for power.  Irrespective of how those arguments end, parents always will walk away with diminished authority in the relationship.

There is however another way to respond that will give a better result for both parents and teenagers.

A Better Way

Don’t enter into the power play. Refuse to respond to the challenge that is put in front of you.

Defuse the situation by simply agreeing with your teenager. Say something like “You are right I can’t make you do anything” or “I’m not trying to make you do anything.”

You are of course just stating the truth, but you are also removing a stand up confrontation from the agenda.

Once you have sidestepped the invitation to a fight you have the chance to reset the agenda. The core issue of your teenager wanting to have control is still real, and still needs to be acknowledged and dealt with.

So follow up with something like “You are entirely free to make your own choices. And part of making choices is accepting that how you choose to behave will have consequences for yourself and affect the choices we make.” Of course it is handy to know what the possible consequences are likely to be and point them out at the same time.

In a couple of sentences you will have diffused a conflict, retained a sense of authority in the relationship, while also acknowledging that the dynamics are changing. Most importantly you have helped your teen learn important lessons about choices, consequences, and taking responsibility for their decisions.

So when your teenager next tries to tempt you into a battle you can’t win with a show of defiance, take a deep breathe, speak calmly, and make the agenda about considered decision making, not futile power plays.

If you would like some more ideas on how to manage defiance and other common problem behaviours, why not download the free Understanding Teenagers guide on dealing with teenage behaviours.

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Showing 3 comments
  • Mandawitty

    about to confront my son about getting a tattoo..He is only 16.. spoke to police if he used fake id there is nothing they can do other than charge him for using fake id…..can already hear the cant say what i can do i can do what i want not your body and on and on…..part of me is so mad and even madder because someone else informed me who had seen it on facebook, which maeks me so embrassed and ignorant..the other part is feeling like what you have mentioned above… well its done now and you have to live with the consequesnces and how you are judged… lets see how you feel about it in ten years ? The lieing and decietfulness, seems everyones elses children all discuss things with their parents. Not sure where we have gone wrong..doesnt help there are so many of their sporting peers inked. Will try to remain calm but his father is furious……advice ?

  • chris_ut

    Hi Mandawitty
    I can understand your mixed feelings, and appreciate that those feelings must be quite intense.

    Firstly not everyone else’s teenagers discuss things with their parents – hence the need for places like this to discuss what to do when they don’t. Beating yourself is understandable, but probably not that justified, and definitely not helpful.

    Once you have a clear head the principle for this situation is the same as most others.  He is free to make choices but the choices have consequences.  Getting a fake id and any other dishonesty that occurred has the natural result of reducing your trust in him. Therefore he needs to be prepared to accept that their will be restrictions placed on him now until he wins back your trust.

    The tattoo issue is an emotive one for parents, and I am always keen to stress that damaging a relationship over some ink is the action that will be most regretted aspect of that tattoo by parents in years to come. I understand why parents don’t like them, but it is very dangerous to make a moral issue out them. By all means deal with deceitfullness and disrespect but don’t make the discipline about the tattoo.  All that will happen if you make this about the tattoo is increase his desire to get more done. 

    A far more constructive way to engage with the tattoo issue is to ask what it is that he finds appealing about getting a tattoo.  It will be important to him, if you can understand the significance you will gain something valuable from this incident – a better insight into your son.

    All the best. Let me know how it goes – even by email if comments aren’t the right forum.


  • J. Nelson

    I am having trouble with my 13 year old daughter setting up secret emails and Facebook accounts. And looking for chat rooms to chat in. She lost computer privileges for this behavior before and her bad grades. She is back at it the second she got her computer time back. I worry she may meet dangerous people online. She screamed and cussed at me for telling her her behavior was unacceptable and just cost her her online access. I know she has struggled socially and is looking for some friendship anywhere she can find it. I am at a loss as to how to handle the abusive language and horrible things she says and her defiance. She threatens to run away. I’m sick and have tried very hard not to engage. I have taken her to counseling. This year has just been hell….I am so afraid of what is to come I am so tired of it all already. I have poured my heart and love into this child. Tried to have fair consequences for poor behavior. At this point I actually feel verbally abused and so sad. I know there are reasons for her feelings but treating me so badly is not acceptable. What can I do.

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