You make rules, they break them. You ask questions, they ignore you. You say, "Do this," they say, "Make me!"
Oppositional behavior is hard enough to cope with in toddlers, but when the defiant ones are 13 or 14, you can't just put them down for a nap, give them a time-out or bribe them with stickers.
So how does a parent get through to a kid who is acting disrespectfully? Here's advice from three experts.
—Be consistent and put the rules in writing, advises Mary Muscari, who teaches at the Decker School of Nursing at Binghamton University in New York and is a co-author of "Everything Parents Guide to Raising Adolescent Girls" and "Everything Parents Guide to Raising Adolescent Boys."
Muscari says adolescents do "a lot of testing. 'How much can I get away with?' But they don't really want to get away with things; they just want to see how far they can push their parents. They know exactly when to press your buttons."
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She adds: "This is a normal thing other parents are going through. You are not crazy! It's annoying. It's horrible. But it's just like when they were 2 years old and they said, 'Wow! Look what I can do!' Only they're 13. They might be saying, 'I hate you! What do you know?' But they're thinking, 'Thank God you're putting these controls on me.'"
If foul language is an issue, you might try a 25-cent fine for each curse — and make sure grown-up violators pay too. The money could be a reward for good behavior, or teens could give it to a charity of their choice.
Muscari says encouraging teens to volunteer — even if it's only a couple times a year — can also give them some perspective. "You don't want them to be totally wrapped up in themselves," she said. "They like to have pity parties, but it helps to see what other people are going through."
Kids this age are not always communicative, but Muscari says car rides can offer an opportunity for parental chitchat. "They're a captive audience; they're not going to jump out of the car. And there's something about not having face-to-face contact that can make it more comfortable for them."
While adolescents don't need the same level of supervision as younger kids, make sure you are physically present as much as possible, even if you're just hanging out in the background at home. "If they think your job is more important than they are, that's a really bad place for a kid to be," she said. "I'm not big on quality time. They need quantity time. They need to see that you're not always running off to meetings."
She says the closer kids are to their parents when they're younger, the harder it can sometimes be for them to separate as adolescents. But as they mature, she added, "they will come back."
—Establish priorities, set standards, maintain family routines and stay connected, advises Gregory Ramey, a child psychologist at the Children's Medical Center of Dayton, Ohio.
"You've got to choose your battles. What are the important things that really matter to me? You can't make everything important, because then nothing is important," Ramey says.
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One thing parents should set standards for, he says, is the way kids speak. "I would never let a child talk back to me or be disrespectful," he said. "How do you correct it when it happens? If a child crosses the line by using language you feel is inappropriate, there has to be some reasonable consequence, perhaps taking away computers or cell phones."
Ramey hosts a program for teenagers and tells them at the outset that swearing and terms like "Shut up," are not allowed. "Kids rise and fall to a standard of behavior you set," he says.
Involve kids in solving problems. "You might say, 'I get annoyed with your tone of voice and certain words you use. Maybe you don't mean it. Maybe you get frustrated at times. But you need to come up with some way where you can better control your behavior."
Finally, he says, conflicts are "less likely to happen if you're connected to your child." Ramey says research that shows teens who eat with their parents four times a week or more fare better than those who don't.
He also urges parents to attend plays, sporting events and anything else kids take part in. "Parents have this idea that kids don't want them around and that is so wrong. If a teen says, 'I don't want you to come to this,' go anyway," he said. Don't sit in the front row or cheer louder than anyone else, but "say something when you get back, like, 'You did really well today.'"
—Consider how brain development affects adolescent behavior, advises Dr. Joseph Shrand, psychiatrist, father of four, and medical director of CASTLE (Clean and Sober Teens Living Empowered), a new intervention unit for at-risk teens at High Point Treatment Center, Brockton, Mass.
The part of the brain that controls emotions, called the limbic system, which allows us to feel pleasure, anger and passion, works just fine in adolescents. But the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that helps us analyze information, make decisions and anticipate consequences, is not fully developed until the mid-20s.
The prefrontal cortex also gives humans the ability to appreciate how others think and feel. At age 13, therefore, "how they perceive their parents is that you are like a piece of cardboard. This kid does not necessarily have a clue how they are making you feel," Shrand said.
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So when a kid treats a parent disrespectfully, it's tempting for the adult to respond with anger. Shrand says it's basically one emotional, limbic brain provoking the other. What's more effective, he says, is for adults to take the high road by using persuasion, empathy, respect and humor — gifts that come with maturity and a fully developed prefrontal cortex.
So if kids won't come to the table for dinner, give a 10-minute warning encouraging them "to answer as many Facebook queries as you can in the next five minutes." Or appeal to their narcissism by saying, "I know you don't want to come to dinner, but I would just like to hang out with you for a little while."
There should be consequences for breaking rules, such as taking a laptop away or disconnecting the Internet. But what can be more effective than taking things away is setting up ways for kids to earn privileges through "household contributions" (he doesn't like the word "chore") like taking out the garbage or walking the dog.
And don't forget humor as a tool. To a kid who's blowing off homework, Shrand suggests this line: "Eighth grade will be the best two years of your life!"