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7 Keys to Handling Difficult Teenagers

How to handle problems that occur during adolescence.

Key points

  • When challenged by a difficult teenager, a helpful tactic is to take a deep breath and count slowly to 10.
  • Many teenagers want to test the extent of their power, making it important to maintain strong boundaries.
  • Persistent unsolicited advice may be interpreted as picky at best, and a threat to a young person’s individuating selfhood.

Teenagers are a unique and often self-contradictory breed. As a group, they strive for individuality yet crave peer acceptance. They act like they know everything and yet lack much experience. They feel invincible and yet are often insecure. Some teenagers thrive on testing and challenging authority. A few may be self-destructive.

It’s not easy when you have to deal with difficult teenagers in your life, whether they are your children, students, athletes, group members, or employees. What can you do in the face of a challenging adolescent?

Below are seven keys to successfully handling teenagers, excerpted from my book, How to Communicate Effectively and Handle Difficult Teenagers. Not all of the tips below may apply to your particular situation. Simply utilize what works and leave the rest.

1. Avoid Giving Away Your Power

One of the most common characteristics of difficult teenagers is that they love to push your buttons and make you react negatively. This can be done in a variety of ways, including and not limited to teasing, disobeying, not listening, back talking, temper throwing, rule-breaking, dismissing, haggling, and provoking. During these moments, the more reactive and upset you become, the more the teenager will think he or she has power over you—she has succeeded in pushing your buttons!

The first rule of thumb in the face of a difficult teenager is to keep your cool. The less reactive you are to provocations, the more you can use your better judgment to handle the situation. When you feel upset or challenged by a teen, before you say or do something that may worsen the situation, take a deep breath and count slowly to 10. In many instances, by the time you reach 10, you would have regained composure, and figured out a better response to the issue, so that you can reduce, instead of exacerbate the problem. If you're still upset after counting to 10, take a time out if possible, and revisit the issue after you calm down.

2. Establish Clear Boundaries

Since most teenagers want to experience greater independence and selfhood, some will inevitably challenge you in order to test the extent of their power. In these situations, it’s very important to set boundaries in order to maintain a workable and constructive relationship. The boundaries need to be articulated clearly and specifically.

The most effective boundaries (they can also be called ground rules, house rules, team rules, or codes of conduct) are those which are fair, reasonable, and can be applied consistently. If you’ve been dealing with a difficult teen for some time without communicating clear boundaries, state that from this point forward things will be different, and back up your statement with actions.

The first and foremost boundary in almost any situation is that you will be treated with respect. This means if the teen(s) is respectful towards you, then you will also accord her or him certain respect and privileges.

In addition to respect, and depending on the situation, there may also be a list of interpersonal, family, classroom, team, or employment ground rules. The list of boundaries should be relatively short but clear and indicated in writing whenever appropriate.

Of course, some teenagers may deliberately challenge your boundaries to see if you mean what you say and test how much they can get away with. Should this happen, apply the communication skills and strategies from points #3-7 below as you see fit.

3. Utilize Assertive and Effective Communication

Author and former presidential speech writer James Humes noted that: “The art of communication is the language of leadership.” This statement is particularly applicable when it comes to working with and motivating teenagers. When you face a difficult young person, strengthen your position by utilizing assertive communication skills.

4. When Dealing with a Group of Difficult Teens, Focus on the Leader

Many teachers know that when they face a group of disruptive students in class, it’s not necessary to deal with each offender individually. Oftentimes, by being firm on the leader and having her fall in line, the rest of the group will follow. Another management technique is to separate the challenging persons physically (via assigned seating, different workgroups, etc.) so they’re less likely to form a clique and feed off of each other.

What works with students can also work with teenagers in other situations, whether they’re your children, athletes, employees, or group members. By focusing on the leader, and dividing and conquering unseemly behavior, a body of teenagers is more likely to behave appropriately.

5. In Mild Situations, Maintain Humor and Show Empathy

In relatively mild situations when a teenager is being difficult, show empathy by not overreacting. Respond with a smile rather than a frown. Say to yourself with some humor: “there she goes again,” and then get on with your business.

Stay above the din. Avoid telling a teenager what to do in trivial matters. Persistent unsolicited advice may be interpreted as picky at best, and a threat to the young person’s individuating selfhood. At worst, this may make you the “enemy” or “other side." Allow reasonable room for the teenager.

When a teenager upsets you, instead of feeling angry, irritated, or anxious, give yourself some distance, take a deep breath, and complete the sentence “it must not be easy…”

For example:

“My son is so testy. It must not be easy to crave independence while still living with his parents.”

“My daughter is so resistant. It must not be easy to deal with her school and peer pressures.”

“This student is very unmotivated. It must not be easy to struggle with assignments and know he’s falling behind.”

To be sure, empathetic statements do not excuse unacceptable behavior. The point is to remind yourself that many teenagers struggle within, and mindfulness of their experience can help you relate to them with more detachment and equanimity.

6. Give Them a Chance to Help Solve Problems (If Appropriate)

Many difficult teenagers behave as they do because they don’t believe adults really listen. When you see a teenager upset or under some distress, offer the young person the option of talking with you. Say, for example, “I’m here to listen if you want to talk, okay?” Make yourself available and remind the teenager of this from time to time, but don’t insist on it. Use the “pull” strategy and let the young person come to you if and when he's ready.

In appropriate situations when you’re communicating with a teenager about her or his experience, listen without comment (at least for a while). Just be there and be a “friend”, no matter what your actual role is in relation to the young person. Allow the teenager to feel at ease disclosing with you.

Before offering any input, ask the teenager if she’s willing to hear it. For example, say “Do you want to hear what I think about this? If not, it’s okay. I’m still here to listen.” Again, use the “pull” strategy and let the teenager want to hear your feedback when she's ready.

When talking over issues, include the young person in discussions on problems and solutions. Solicit input. Ask, for example, "Given the desired outcome, how would you handle this issue?" See if they come up with any constructive ideas. Whenever possible, avoid insisting on a single course of action. Examine several reasonable options with the teenager’s input, and arrive at a mutually acceptable arrangement.

On the other hand, if what you hear are mostly blame, complaints, and criticisms, don’t agree or disagree. Simply say you’ll keep what they said in mind, and get on with what you need to get done, including the deployment of consequence.

7. In Serious Situations, Deploy Consequence(s) to Lower Resistance, and Compel Respect and Cooperation

When a teenager insists on violating reasonable rules and boundaries, and won’t take “no” for an answer, deploy consequence.

The ability to identify and assert consequence(s) is one of the most powerful skills we can use to "stand down" a challenging person. Effectively articulated, consequence gives pause to the difficult individual, and compels her or him to shift from resistance to cooperation. In How to Communicate Effectively and Handle Difficult Teenagers, consequence is presented as seven different types of power you can utilize to affect positive change.

Although difficult teenagers are not pleasant to deal with, there are many effective skills and strategies you can employ to minimize their defiance and increase their cooperation. It’s one important aspect of leadership success.

© 2015 by Preston C. Ni. All rights reserved worldwide. Copyright violation may subject the violator to legal prosecution.

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