I say yes, you say no: oppositionality in teens

As mentioned a few days back, I wanted to follow up on the issue of oppositionality in teens, particularly with regard to the inquiry that asked for feedback on how a mom can stay connected with her child, honor the need to individuate, but keep him safe as well (when grades are dropping, weed has been found in his room and all the kid wants to do is ride bikes with friends and play video games).

In keeping with the general spirit of this blog, my primary intention is to invite alternative ways of thinking about things, striving to deepen and broaden our parenting perspective—and in so doing, to empower parents to decide, and then act upon, whatever’s right for any given parent and their unique family situation.

In my experience, oppositionality and low self-esteem tend to go hand in hand.  It’s always good to keep in mind that everyone’s behavior makes sense… at least to himself or herself.  In parenting (and in life) relationship is everything; before we can help a person change, we have to reach them where they are.  With oppositional children we tend to end up feeling like we’re talking to a wall; we lecture and explain why they should change, and they do not change.

In the alternative, we need to listen more deeply, leaving space for them to talk.  We need to reinforce their verbal communication by hearing and validating our child’s perspective and emotions.  Whether or not it’s a good plan to stop trying in school or start self-medicating with pot, we really need to avoid sounding like we are negating our kids’ feelings.  We also, and particularly, may help teach children to take responsibility for themselves by taking responsibility for any ways we have let down our kids, avoiding being defensive (or overly guilty) and focusing on the impact it has had on our kids.  Just imaging if your parents offered this to you—it’s liberating and like a bath of love.  In this way we own the past, but free ourselves to operate in the present moment—and it is a series of authentic moments marked by love and courage that conspire to create a brighter future.

If a kid says, “What’s the point?” (i.e. of school) or “I don’t have a future, anyway,” rather than telling them how smart and handsome they are (even if this is true, it is not how they are feeling at the moment), it will be more effective to accurately reflect feelings (i.e. “You’re feeling like school just doesn’t work for you” …or seem relevant, or come easily, or interest you, etc.).  If you get it right, they will either say more, or look at you in a way that allows more authentic contact, or maybe just access their own emotions of sadness, anger or frustration.  Feeling and verbalizing are a movement away from acting out hurt, anger and negativity.

Remember, we cannot not communicate—even silence, ignoring, heavy sighs, noisily moving stuff around are all forms of communication.  If we are sincerely interested in truly understanding how our children feel, combined with some willingness to be a bowl for the emotions that our children spill over into us, we have the foundation for a healing relationship.  Until we are in real contact, however, nothing real is likely to shift for struggling kids.

Oppositionality can overlap with making trouble.  Chronic and angry contrariness is best seen as a cry for help, and as a communication that firm (albeit loving) limits need to be set.  This area is a significant concern for us parents because down this road can come conduct disorder (i.e. vandalizing, stealing, aggression) and on down the path from there can come sociopathy—typified by a lack of empathy and/or remorse.  For these reasons we need to take oppositionality seriously and strive to love it to death in the bud.

For oppositional kids, limits are tantamount to love.  Often the kids who get into trouble lack supervision, attention and parental engagement; this makes them feel less loved, and it leaves them vulnerable to bonding with other lost boys and girls, typically around behaviors meant to distract (i.e. drugs, sex) and around breaking rules (defying the authority figures who have let them down by ignoring them, or by behaving in anti-social or hypocritical ways themselves).  There are economic and political aspects to oppositionality; for example, the single parent with a dead-beat ex, trying to make the bills, is not necessarily available for after-school milk and cookie time followed by homework assistance.

Yes, parents need to do the reach out to friends and family to help form the village it takes to raise a kid, but as a culture we also need to be aware of the many kids who fall through the cracks and into the system—only qualifying for “help” once they are in deep trouble (i.e. in juvenile hall or a group home).  Pro-active love and limits, both in our own homes and in our society at large, makes emotional, social and economic sense.

While it can be challenging to some parents who want to be “friends” with their kids, oppositionality calls for firm and clear limits as well as consequences for rule violations.  It is amongst the least gratifying aspects of parenting to play the “bad guy” (or girl); and our kids will rail against us and our limits; trust that kids know that it’s easier to give up and give in than it is to battle it out and hold the line in the face of bluff and bluster.

Often oppositional kids have a lot of anger, but especially in males it is more culturally accepted to express anger than it is to express sorrow (which, sadly, is seen as weakness).  Understanding that kids who feel good about themselves are generally kind (even to parents) sets a positive expectation; thus a child who hurts us as parents is feeling badly about themselves and needs to be understood in this light.  They will not readily agree with this assessment, but as their self-esteem grows, their manners will undoubtedly improve.

Limits are also an antidote against free-floating anxiety; I’ve seen severely agitated kids be alternately outwardly destructive (breaking windows, pianos, chairs) and inwardly destructive (becoming suicidal); in such extreme situations I’ve had to hospitalize teens to keep them safe, and here the locked unit serves as a literal concrete limit.  I’ve seen this containment calm a child and help them pull it back together; and while this is an extreme example, holding a firm limit and sending a mouthy kid to their room can have a calming influence.  But do not just arbitrarily take away TV, games, etc., especially out of anger and frustration—and especially if it is all talk anyway.  Take the time to craft logical consequences (https://privilegeofparenting.wordpress.com/2009/11/20/logical-consequences-exercise/).

Punishment alone does not motivate behavior change.  It helps to find out what a kid has to strive for, dream of or look forward to—and then to help them achieve it.  For example, it can be self defeating to offer a kid a bike for an “A” in school for a number of reasons; it sends the wrong message that school is awful and one has to be paid to attend; it is also too long of a wait for a kid with poor impulse control and a gloomy world view.  It might be better to get some small things (like a favorite pastry; a book on bikes; even a game controller) and give it to them spontaneously, observing that they’ve been having a hard time and that you have noticed, and want them to know that you’re not giving up on them.  Catch them being good, and trust that sincere attention and interest is a powerful reinforcer.

Finally, at least for today, take a look at your own feelings about your child, or children, growing up and pulling away.  If we continue to parent elementary school kids when in actuality they are now in high school, there will be inevitable conflict; kids need to carve out space, they need safe amounts of space to make decisions and even mistakes, but not too much space (i.e. unsupervised parties, going in cars with kids you don’t know and trust).  Teens are both progressing and regressing at the same time:  if we give them space they feel abandoned; if we hold them close they feel infantilized.  Tolerating the feeling that we have two left feet and can’t get it right (as a transmission of our kids’ own secret anxiety, shame and feelings of inadequacy) is an act of love in which we help metabolize the overflowing awfulness our kids sometimes feel plagued by.  Part of examining our own feelings means revisiting where we were at when we were the age our child is now—and then being conscious of our wounds, mistakes, fears and secrets… so as to not muddy the waters of our kids’ development with our own baggage.

So, let’s dedicate today to a deeper understanding of our angry young men and women, our rebels with an allowance, our perplexing half-baby-half-grown-ups, banding together in virtual support of each other to stay engaged, keep it real and hold the line—in the service of all our collective children.  Good luck and…

Namaste, Bruce

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4 Responses to “I say yes, you say no: oppositionality in teens”

  1. mark Says:

    I think there was a lot of great advice in this post Bruce. When our teens were elementary school age, it seemed easier to validate their feelings and allow them their moods. It is more important now than ever to remember how important a tool this is to keep the lines of communication open and at the same time setting limits. Interesting juggling act….

  2. Beth Says:

    Thanks, Bruce, for another post that comes with exactly the right message at exactly the right time. I feel so validated that your blog reflects what I have been sharing with my friend. The toughest part of this adventure has been the Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde moments of her teen. I know it’s hard on mom, and I distinctly remember it being hard to be a teenager. It truly felt like I was abducted by aliens. Very much like the remote control used in the movie, “Aliens in the Attic.” I will continue passing along this great information. Know that your reach is far and wide!

  3. Cathy Says:

    Thanks Bruce, you’ve answered another question. Just like so many times before. Like Beth said this post comes with exactly what I needed and at the right time.

  4. BigLittleWolf Says:

    This is very wise.

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