Defiant Teen Needs House Rules

Our 19-year-old never adheres to our house rules. While it is clear that guidelines need to be set for the older child still living at home, if we make him suffer the consequences it only makes him more angry or defiant. I have spent years hearing all the right ways to parent. What should I do when it doesn't work?

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Gayle Peterson

Gayle Peterson, PhD, is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She is a clinical member of the Association... Read more

Parents who find themselves with a defiant and uncooperative "adult-child" in the family are often faced with your dilemma. Guilt and fear may keep parents from following through on their own house rules, and failure to give consequences increases disrespectful behavior. It's time to take responsibility for putting an end to this negative cycle of interaction.

It appears that you are not following through on consequences because you fear your son's anger. Why? Relationships are a two-way street. You are not in control of whether he maintains a relationship with you. Your 19-year-old will learn that his behavior will make a difference only if he feels the consequences of his own actions. If follow-through occurs, he will experience the results, pure and simple.

The fact that your son never adheres to your rules suggests that this has been a long-term pattern. If so, your willingness to stop short of delivering consequences continues this cycle. Well meaning parents commonly make the mistake of "giving in" to children because they do not want them to "suffer". A parent may feel guilt over something their children experienced and over compensate by reneging on consequences. Also, a parent may confuse limits with being un-loving and the fear that the child will not love them back if they make consequences stick. Sometimes parents unwittingly set up this pattern when children experience the pain of early loss, such as a divorce or death of a parent. Some parents over protect because of a child's physical or mental handicap.

When consequences dissolve at the last minute due to a tearful face and an apologetic tone, children learn the fine art of manipulation. Often, these parents are afraid to face their children's anger. This cycle translates into undue power based on angry outbursts.

Your concern that your son will be "more angry and defiant" is not a reason to remain hostage to his wrath. Take stock of your own fears. Perhaps you yield to his anger because you experienced an angry cutoff from an important parental figure in your life. Ironically, anger is part of any healthy relationship.

Much that you have given your son may be buried like treasure beneath the rubble of the parent-child battle in which you are embroiled. If he is unable to follow the household rules, establish a plan to assist him in moving out on his own. Once he is not under your roof, you may find that the energy that once revolved around power struggles with you is freed up to cope with the real world. Parents often remark with surprise how quickly their children matured after leaving home.

Do not underestimate the good you have done as a parent. Perhaps it is time to consider "letting go" and have faith that your son will value his relationship with you over time.

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