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Dealing with Defiant Teenagers

Dealing with defiant teenagers

Using active listening and philosophy to solve chronic opposition.

Whether you’re a homeschooling parent or a teacher in a conventional school, you’ve probably dealt with a lack of enthusiasm from time to time. Nobody always wants to do their work, and that goes for kids as well. Especially if they’re teenagers—teenage intractability is just a feature of the teaching landscape, and there’s not a lot you can do to prevent it.

But what if it’s a chronic problem? What do you do with a teenager who just never wants to work? What if your teenager is oppositional and angry not just sometimes but all the time? At that point, the problem has transcended the normal, manageable frame of teenagerdom and taken on a life of its own. For a solution to this problem, read on.

The Importance of Active Listening

Teenagers can become defiant for all sorts of reasons. Obviously, a classic is that they’re chafing at parental involvement in their lives—teens are trying to assert their independence and form an identity for themselves that’s not defined by their parents. On the other hand, a post on Hip Homeschool Moms reports the opposite problem—a teenage son who didn’t feel like his mother was involved enough in his life. And just as often, teenage defiance has nothing to do with family at all—it’s a reflection of something going on in a group of friends, or it has to do with politics or religion.

Because there’s no panacea for teenage defiance, it’s important for parents and educators to cultivate skills that will help them react to a wide variety of causes. The skill we’d like to focus on is Active Listening, a technique that gets applied in disciplines ranging from education to counseling to the law.

Active Listening, simply put, means listening with the intent to understand. That might seem intuitive, but it’s not actually an easy thing to do—as this lesson from Bridgeway Learning Center makes clear, we do not typically listen to understand so much as we listen to respond. And that’s not a trivial distinction when teenagers are involved, because whatever is going on, teenagers want to be heard and understood. If you’re just listening to respond—that is, to argue—you’re just going to deepen the divisions between yourself and your teenager. And that’s true regardless of where their defiance is coming from.

So how do you listen actively? The Bridgeway article does a great job summarizing it, so you should read it if you’re looking for more context. We’ve also talked about something similar ourselves, in our post comparing spanking to positive parenting. Basically, though, active listening is about listening for main points and comprehending the totality of what your teenager is trying to tell you. If you can do that, and respond to it, then you’ll be much better off trying to fix whatever your teenager is trying to tell you about, and one step closer to clearing up chronic defiance.

If you’re just listening to respond—that is, to argue—you’re just going to deepen the divisions between yourself and your teenager. Click to Tweet

Focusing on Philosophy

On a more abstract level, though, active listening is just a stopgap. Teenagers are going to be better at communicating, and better at dealing with emotional turmoil in general, if they have some personal resources of their own. A good way to develop those resources is to study philosophy with your kids, which we’ve suggested before in our post on forming good friendships.

In that post, we wrote, “Try to clear away the haze of social anxiety from your child’s mind and talk to them in clear, reasonable terms.” Not an easy thing to do with a teenager, certainly, but it’s easier if you’ve taught them to look at things in the clear, well-reasoned way that philosophy calls for. Teaching your kids how to work through emotional and personal problems intellectually will pay off immensely when they’re teenagers, especially if you get started early in their education. Even if you don’t, though, and even if you don’t start work on philosophy until your kids are already teenagers and already running into issues with defiance, teaching philosophy is still a good idea, because it will help temper their opposition and give them an intellectual anchor. Above all, remember that as confusing as teenagerdom is for you, it’s probably more confusing for your teenager, and empathy is as important in active listening as it is in philosophy.

For a good compendium of online philosophy materials, look into P4C, a rich collection of tools for philosophy teachers and parents.

Subscribe to the YesPhonics blog and YouTube channel for more classroom advice—and try our Mnemonic Phonic Technique for free to learn the 72 sounds of English.

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About Griffin Johnson

Griffin Johnson grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and went to college in the suburbs of Minneapolis before moving west in 2015. He tutors writing at the University of Montana and writes about education, literature, movies and pop culture.