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Ask the Experts

What Should I Do With My Defiant Middle-Schooler?

By Debra Collins, Family therapist

Question:

Middle-school kids are worse than the terrible twos! My son just got relatively decent and we could have a conversation and now he has turned into a defiant toddler who is too big to put onto a time-out mat! Does anybody else feel this way? Or am I a goofball? What's a parent to do?

Answer:

I usually say, "Teenagers are 2-year-olds with car keys." Hopefully, you and your son will have more time adjusting to adolescence - before he gets his learner's permit! All humor aside, what you are describing is normal development, but that doesn't mean it is easy on either of you. Your son is experiencing his body changing without his control. In addition, adults are now placing greater expectations on him to respond more maturely and work more independently. However, he still has not had much life experience to cope with all of these changes.

Experts used to believe that an adolescent brain was pretty much like an adult's. We now know that brain development continues throughout young adulthood and some say through middle-age. This explains why he's civil one minute and having a tantrum the next. His impulse, reasoning and planning centers are still forming. So, continue setting realistic and firm limits.

Here are some other simple guidelines that might help:

Empathy works great with teens.

Many teens don't feel heard as much as they did when they were younger. This may be because they act like they don't want to talk to with us, but they are really longing to be heard and understood. Be the safe place to land; listen first and suppress the need to either lecture or fix it for them. Ask what solutions they have, so they can practice problem solving with you.

Enjoy those pleasant conversations with him.

In those moments you can mention to him how insightful and interesting he is. He may dismiss you, but he'll come back for more. This is a hard time for parents; you may be facing some life-cycle changes yourself - middle-age, aging parents - so seek out families going through similar issues for support.


Debra Collins is a licensed marriage and family therapist and has worked in both primary and middle schools as a school counselor. She gives workshops to teachers and students and offers parenting classes in the San Francisco Bay Area. To learn more, visit her website.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

01/30/2012:
"This may work for small defiance. But what do you do for the 12 year old who finds your $130 dollars and then lies about having seen it. Then gets himself caught by going to the store and spending it. And then he is so stupid that he is mad at you because you call him a liar and a thief. I want them to learn honesty. So I will let him know exactly what I think of them, no matter how much they don't like it. "
01/31/2011:
"I was so glad to read this... My son is 13, he has been very defiant lately, then he wanted to live with his dad. I would never separate him from his brother, but I allow him to spend as much time at his dads as he would like, we are in the same school district. Every article I looked up to help him was incredibly negative, how children wanting to move from a custodial parent to a non-custodial parents home was a sign of abuse or emotional trauma. It was nice to see an article that helped me understand his mood swings, why he would make rash decisions & seek attention. Thank you!"
05/7/2008:
"Too few details to make an opinion."
05/1/2008:
"My 13 year old son refuses to do his homework and if he does manage to do it he does not turn it in...he says it is 'stupid'. I have spent more time with school officials and him talking - this is our 4th semester of this...what should I do??"
04/17/2008:
"great article have you published a book dealing with the 'middle school' child. My two others girls did not go through this, so this is new to me, and I'm extremely frustrated. "
07/26/2007:
"Thank you for putting this article in. My daughter is 11 years old and will be starting 6th grade in August of '07. I have been having major problems with her, she doesn't want to do her chores, she takes her brothers bike (her's was taken away and is in a friends garage) and she goes to the mall, Target or McDonalds. I have explained to her how dangeraous it is. She thinks that she is indestructable and that nothing bad will ever happen to her. I'm not sure if she just wants to be the center of attention like she has always enjoyed trying to be or if it's something more serious. Thank you for allowing parents to use this board as a sounding board so that other parents know they are not alone. I am a very frustrated mom and looking to figure out the right direction to go to help her and keep her from getting into some kind of trouble. Thank you again. "
01/10/2007:
"Although its hard to take the rejection from a young, hormone-charged teen, its important to be the adult. If you respond emotionally, they'll learn to do the same. There's nothing wrong with saying the behavior makes you feel bad/mad/sad, but getting angry or using sarcasm just reinforces the pre-teen conviction that no one understands them. Also I've learned that rewards work better than punishments. "
12/21/2006:
"My daughter was the best kid in the world until she hit 12/13. All of a sudden it seems, it was like night/day in temperament, mood....I still believe aliens abducted my 'good' daughter and left me with somebody else's kid....this article helped put things into perspective."
12/7/2006:
" Thank you, I am not alone. Although I do not know if I will live through it. I hope this ends soon, so I don't have to have an exorcism performed on her! ha! ha!"
12/4/2006:
"I was glad to hear that I'm not alone. I feel that I am spending more quality time with my son's teachers than he is, because they're just as concerned as I am. Since he's in middle school, he seems to think he's all that and doesn't have to listen to us old fogies!What NOW?!"
11/30/2006:
"It helps a little to know thatI'm not alone with this similiar situation, but when does it end?"
11/30/2006:
"I have a 13 year old emotional wreck of a male. My Husband and me have tried general physicians, therapists; psychiatrists with their pills. We even had a CAT scan done to see if there was brain damage! I'm sure all these endeavors helped to ensure our son that we were caring, commtted parents. We successfully let him know that we were aware of his angst and we were on his side. We drew the line, however when suggestions were made to send him to a phsychiatric school. We have since withdrawn him from public school. We homeschool now. We spend our days together. We work together at a local food pantry as part of community service. While life is not a smooth ride now we are closer as a family. My son realizes we did not take the easy way out of our mutual emotional hell. Things are better because we have stressed we are in it for the long haul. I urge parents to use their strong points. Love, empathy for the teen's turmoil and above all loyalty to the family. You are not alone! out there."
11/30/2006:
"It is nice to hear that others have the same problems with their pre-teen. But how do you know if it's just a stage or they really need counseling? I think it has gone too far with my 12 year old and not even sure anymore why I even come home to the attitude everyday. thanks for listening."
11/29/2006:
"enjoy the pleasant converstaions How can I feel loved and respected when she acts like a jerk and the next day seems to be okay(a little nice and caring a little loving)?I have a hard time going from upset to okay as she mostly gets me upset with her tone, words and ugly behavior. I s she ashamed of me,us our home?of herself?"
11/29/2006:
"i was wondering who the author of this book 'not much just chillin' is if you could let me know. Thank you"
11/29/2006:
"Wow! Great article!!! It's good to know that I am not alone. Some of the suggestions I had begun to implement over the past year. They do work although sometimes I lose my cool and have to give myself a time out :)"
11/28/2006:
"I am experiencing the same behaviors with my almost-12yo 6th grade son, especially difficult because we have two younger children. I have been driving the 12yo to school in the mornings, which is a really nice time to have some one-on-one (the younger kids catch the bus earlier). I read a great book about middle schoolers called 'Not Much Just Chillin'' -- very helpful!"
11/28/2006:
"Thank you so much Debra for your insightful article. That explains why my almost 12 year old is acting like he is going on three. This is definately a difficult stage. How does a parent set boundaries on the sarcasim and defiance. I still remove privileges when he really is difficult be I need to find out how I can teach him to see how his behavior effects those around him. Any advice? "
11/28/2006:
"Your article is encouraging. Sometimes I feel all alone in times like these. My son at age 13 is goofing off alot at school now. He perform well academically and is well mannered. His teachers always compliment on this. He is not a troublesome child but of late I receive calls from his teachers where he is goofing off in class with friends too often. I don,t know if he is looking for some sort of attention. He lives in a comfortable home and his aunt and I do our very best to nuture him with love and support. I'm a single parent mom and wonders at time if it has any thing to do with his father not physically being in his life. I am trying to raise him in the best way I think possible.I encourage him to be open with me but most time he says that he has no problems. Are these goofing off signs in class in anyway of him wanting to send a message to me? What advise do you have? I'm worried about his next move."
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