Parenting Oppositional Defiant Children and Teens: How to Pick Your Battles

What's often tricky in parenting a defiant youngster is figuring out the "is this worth fighting for?" part – especially if you have to think fast. Defiant kids and teens often make a “game” out of getting into battles with their moms and dads, and if the parent gets tricked into playing this game, she finds herself in an endless stream of warfare.

So, how can you avoid fighting every battle and save your time and energy for the ones worth fighting for? Here are some important tips for knowing which battles to fight – and which ones to let go of:

1. Ask yourself, “Will this battle fight itself?” There are some things that will get addressed by default – and you can stay totally out of it (which saves you from being the “bad guy”). For example, you may be tempted to continue to battle with your defiant child over his poor teeth-brushing habits, even when the two of you have had many past battles over this issue to no avail. Instead, give a final warning: “If you continue to neglect your teeth, you will get a cavity, which will result in a painful toothache and a trip to the dentist.” Then, let go of it. You tried. He will have to learn the hard way.

2. Ask yourself, “Can I live with it?” If something your teenager wants to do isn't going to hurt anyone and won't make you terribly unhappy, then let her do it. Say, for example, "Getting your hair dyed pink is not something I would have done as a teenager, but if it makes a statement, then go for it.”

3. Ask yourself, “Is this battle worth fighting?” Maybe the crumbs on the floor and the toothpaste all over the sink aren't worth fighting over, but the toy throwing and TV obsession need to be addressed. If it helps, you can make a list of what you can tolerate and what you can't.

4. Ask yourself, “When my child leaves the nest, what values do I want her to take away?” Those values are your “non-negotiable” items. Those issues are the ones to talk about most. Those are also ones she is most likely to adopt if you explain why you deem them essential. Remember, moms and dads who raise moral children don’t do so by accident. Be intentional! Explain your beliefs. Don’t deviate from what matters most.

5. Adolescents need their privacy. Just as you’re not going to share everything about your life, they won’t either. So let your adolescent know that you will honor her privacy. No reading her diary or going through her drawers. But those rules are immediately broken if you have any founded concern (i.e., a probable cause) that your adolescent’s safety is in jeopardy (e.g., drugs, illegal activities, suicidal thoughts, etc.). Be concerned if your adolescent becomes suddenly secretive or withdrawn or shows unusual amounts of anger or aggression. Then pick those locks and strip-search that room.

6. Choose rules that work for you. Rules can be arbitrary but they are essential to sanity and safety. In some households, kids only eat in the kitchen. In others, kids go to sleep at 7:00. There will never be universal rules for all kids in all homes. But every home needs a few time-honored rules.

7. Engage in diplomacy. Your 5th grader wants to walk to school alone. You may not feel it is safe, but rather than argue, see if you can come up with a compromise that lets him save face, such as driving him to a point a couple blocks away from school and letting him walk from there.

8. It's important to note that there are certain developmental stages at which children naturally assert their need for independence and individuality (e.g., by dressing like a circus freak). It helps to view the push-back as less about defying you and more about saying "I gotta be me!"

9. Keep your family-values list to a reasonable handful. If it's way long, you're going to be fighting a lot. It might feel like your defiant teenager is carrying a sign that says “I reject every decent thing my mom and dad tried to teach me” when she leaves the house wearing jeans with holes in the knees, a lip piercing, and gothic make-up that is caked-on so thick she looks like Alice Copper. But when it comes down to it, chances are “I want my daughter to dress in the clothing I think looks nice” wouldn't make your list of core values.

10. Refer back to the house-rules. Whatever house-rules you have already established should be reinforced. No ifs, ands or buts about it. Minor infractions that can be part of a larger house-rule should be a battle worth picking. So if one of your house-rules is "No Cussing," then you have a point of reference by telling your youngster, "I said no cussing. That's against house-rules."

11. Say “yes” more than “no”. Too many “no’s” are just as ineffective as too few. Your youngster tunes you out or gives up because he keeps running into roadblocks.

12. Teach your youngster the skills needed to follow the rules. A rule is meaningless if your youngster isn’t getting it. It’s important not to lose credibility. If an “inside voice” is challenging to your youngster, practice with toilet paper rolls to make it fun. If running through stores has become a game, make a few trips to the mall when you have nothing else to do but teach appropriate behavior. And leave as soon as your defiant youngster starts to test your commitment.

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