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How Do I Deal With a Stubborn Teen?

Our specialist explains why backing off is a surprisingly good idea.

Two legs dangle over the edge of a white bed with a light blue comforter. There are colorful clothes everywhere strewn about the bed and floor.
Photo credit: Getty Images/Image Source
A doctor in a lab coat uses a tongue depressor to look into the open mouth of an eight year old girl in a bright pink shirt.

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Dear Doctor,

My 16-year-old is driving me crazy! Everything I want him to do turns into a fight. Whether I’m asking him to not leave his shoes in the hallway or help set the table, he either refuses to do it or does it begrudgingly. How do I get him to help me with keeping the house neat? I was raised to respect my parents and do what they say, but my son is fighting me every step of the way. Our most recent argument turned into a huge fight and now he won’t speak to me. He comes home from school and goes straight to his room, only coming out for dinner before he goes back and closes the door. I miss him, but he needs to learn respect…right?


“Frustrated Dad”

Dear Frustrated Dad:

It’s common for parents to use their own experience with their family as a roadmap for navigating tricky situations with their teen. However, parenting is very different today than it was 25 or 30 years ago, so the roadmaps have changed. How your parents raised you may not necessarily work with your son.

Because of this, the first thing I always recommend when dealing with a difficult adolescent is to broaden your view of parenting beyond your own familial experiences. The fact is, some kids are easier to work with, while others have more challenging temperaments. There’s a lot of talk in the field of psychology about whether that’s nature or nurture, but while there’s no definitive answer on that yet, the common consensus for now is that it’s a little bit of both. What that means is that your son may have picked up some bad habits from others along the way to teenhood, but it may also be that he was, in part, born this way.

So as a parent, it’s important for you to discern what’s really important in terms of values within your family and your home. Which battles are worth fighting? Especially when your child is a bit on the stubborn side, you have to know when to avoid taking the bait for something trivial, because engaging in negativity is often a vicious cycle. In today’s world, parents and children don’t have a lot of time together between work, school, extracurriculars, and the many other commitments we all have.  Do you want to spend the limited time you have together fighting with your son?

I know sometimes it can be hard to decide what’s important and what’s not. But think of it this way: As much as you’d like your son to take out the trash or help with the laundry, your primary job as a parent is to keep him alive and healthy. And the most vital way to do that is to ensure your son is doing all three of the following things: always wearing a seatbelt, never drinking and driving (or getting into a car with a drunken driver), and always wearing a condom if he’s sexually active.

Of course, many parents feel that these can’t possibly be the only things that matter when raising a child. But I’d argue that if your son is doing these three things, chances are he has sound judgment in other areas. If he’s drinking and driving, not wearing his seatbelt, or not wearing a condom during sex, you have much larger issues to deal with than dirty dishes and late homework.

So what’s not worth the fight? Things that I consider trivial include minor transgressions like talking back, leaving his shoes in the living room and other such annoyances. The job of a child is to do well in school and be respectful. If you stay stuck in a cycle of negativity with your son by telling him to do this chore or that in a critical or punitive way—claiming “this is your job, I do too much, you don’t do enough,” for example— chances are he’ll resist and you’ll become locked in a power struggle. 

This sounds like what you’re going through now. Your son is going directly to his room after school to avoid conflict instead of joining you in the kitchen to help with dinner and tell you about his day. The most likely cause of this is that there’s been a communication breakdown between the two of you.

Of course, you want your son to help out a bit. You want him to be a caring person who offers help when it’s needed. That’s normal. So how can you encourage him to do so?

Foster an environment that’s nurturing, not critical or stressful—from that, all the other things you hope to teach, like responsibility and sharing, happen naturally. Kids learn positive behaviors when their parents model positive behaviors. So if your son is already staying safe and healthy, and you feel the next step is to have him help around the house, take a step back and let him see all the work you do; chances are that when things cool down and your relationship returns to a positive place, he’ll take a bit more of an interest in helping out—or at least won’t be quite as opposed to it.

Also consider negotiating with your son. Rather than insisting he do a specific chore, ask him what he’d prefer to help with instead. Maybe he hates doing the dishes but is happy to throw in a load of laundry. When he does help with something, be sure to praise; positive reinforcement works with kids at every age.

Though you want to stay away from threats, there are some things you offer your son that are privileges rather than needs, and you can use those things as leverage when negotiating chores. Food, clothing, love and shelter are all necessities— but extras, like the use of a family car or an allowance, are privileges. Try saying something like, “I’m happy to take you to that concert on Friday night, but I need you to clean your room before then since we have family over this weekend.” Then, if he doesn’t comply, he’ll have to use his own money to get a cab because the ride has been rescinded.

However, if you take this approach, avoid empty threats at all costs. You want to show that there are certain privileges that need to be earned, and if you don’t follow through with what you say, there won’t be any meaningful dialogue about consequences. And always keep your expectations reasonable.

“Foster an environment that’s nurturing, not critical or stressful–from that, all the other things you hope to teach, like responsibility and sharing, happen naturally.”
Dr. Victor Fornari, child psychiatrist
Dr. Victor Fornari, Child Psychiatrist | Photo credit: The Well

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Published September 13th, 2018
A doctor in a lab coat uses a tongue depressor to look into the open mouth of an eight year old girl in a bright pink shirt.

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