Experts in child development will tell you the tween or early-teen age can be a child’s most vulnerable. But if your kid is mouthing off, picking fights with brothers or sisters, possibly even lying to your face, you may feel like you’re the one getting pummeled. What to do?
Tween and teen defiance
Those surly looks! That voice dripping with sarcasm! Talking to your tween can feel like talking to a wall.
While it may seem counterintuitive, experts say the first step to take in dealing with defiant behavior is to ignore it. “Let it go for a minute or two,” says therapist Stephen Chick of Mount Si Counseling Services. “If it continues, then the parent can step in and say, ‘You are being disrespectful. I’m not disrespecting you, and a consequence will follow if you keep this up.’ Then, make sure the consequence sticks.
“Don’t engage in the negativity,” says Chick. “The kid will feed off the negative energy, so a parent just needs to exit the area. Otherwise, it becomes a power struggle.”
Vancouver mom Peggy Young recently asked her 14-year-old daughter if she had remembered her homework. “I’m not stupid, Mom!” was the snarly response. Wisely, Young did not engage. “I didn’t say you were stupid; I asked if you had your homework,” Young said calmly. Now, she says she’s glad she didn’t get mad, because her response led to a deeper discussion. “We got into a big conversation about how she doesn’t think I trust her, and [how] this was one more example of it.”
According to Chick, that kind of mom-daughter chat can get to the source of defiant behavior. “These kids are in the mode of developing their own individuality or sense of self. They get nasty to separate from someone, so they purposely push the parent to get angry at them.”
This doesn’t mean turn your back on truly defiant behavior. In granting kids room to grow into their own skin, parents must maintain boundaries. “A defiant kid is a kid who doesn’t know limits,” says Elizabeth Clark-Stern, a counselor in Lake Forest Park.
“A few years ago, I had a girl who would say, ‘I won’t eat my dinner,’ and off she would go. If her parents followed her, she’d get more defiant. The parents essentially stopped pushing back, saying, ‘OK, fine, but we’re eating,’” Clark-Stern says. “A few days later, when she realized she was getting no positive or negative attention, she came back, and they went about their business.”
Pamela Richards, a para-educator at Onalaska Middle School in Lewis County and mother of a 14-year-old son, is amazed at the lies students will try to pull off. “One time, I watched a boy picking on another one in the hallway. When I confronted him about it, he denied even talking to the other kid, as if I didn’t have eyes and had seen what just went on.”
Richards asked her middle-schoolers for their thoughts about lying and was surprised by their response. “They tell me that saving face or status with their friends is more important than the consequences of lying,” she says. “Peer pressure is more of an influence than I thought.”
“Kids lie because they are afraid they will be dealt with in a punitive way,” says Clark-Stern. “Let kids know that mistakes and failure are OK.” Richards agrees: “They are looking at getting out of a situation and what they do not realize is that they are making the situation a whole lot worse.”
Bickering with siblings
This behavior sends summer camp registrations through the roof! Listening to bickering can drive a parent nuts, and the problem can be worse in summer, when free time tends to be more plentiful. Boredom begets bickering.
Even if the sparring is really not hurting anyone, Clark-Stern says parents should simply make it clear that this behavior will not be tolerated and that there will be consequences. While the temptation may be to just send them all outside where you do not hear the racket, it is actually best to step in, Clark-Stern says — “Nip it in the bud” — because if you don’t, kids learn that bickering is OK, and then it can escalate. With some siblings, bickering may morph into bullying. In these cases, the older sibling may be seeking attention, perhaps feeling like mom or dad is favoring the younger sister or brother. Try hard to schedule one-on-one time with that child.
The adolescent may also be redirecting his anger about other problems, taking it out on siblings. For that, Chick says, a nonthreatening talk is the best approach. Do a project together, or let the tween fiddle with a Rubik’s Cube — something absorbing and peaceful — and then start the conversation, suggests Chick. “‘It seems like you’re on edge and pushing your brother to get him riled up. Is there anything else going on?’”
Fix these problems now and you’ll do more than rescue your summer — you’ll have laid the groundwork for a healthier school year. Not that you have that date marked on your calendar!
Hilary Benson is a writer living in the Seattle area. She has three children, including a tween boy.