What Are the Causes of Defiant Behavior in Teenagers?

Parenting a teenager can be challenging, especially when the teen behaves defiantly. During the teen years, children are working to build identities and understand the world around them while experiencing hormonal fluctuations and other physical changes. Many parents find that their teenagers act out by rebelling against rules at home or in school. They behave this way for a variety of reasons, but most commonly out of a need for attention, according to Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D., in his Psychology Today article, "Surviving (Your Child's) Adolescence."

What is Defiant Behavior?

Pickhardt defines defiant behavior as behavior that "deliberately opposes the ruling norms or powers that be." It is a way of behaving that strays from the structure parents or other adults create and can lead to dangerous situations and sometimes even self-destruction. Such behavior can affect a teenager's relationships with family members, friends or adults at school. It can cause him to make poor social or academic decisions or engage in risky activities like underage drinking. A teenager who is defiant seeks to do the opposite of what others expect of him, often seeking attention, even if that attention is negative. In most cases, teens are looking for attention from parents, siblings or peers.

Defiance in Early Adolescence

Rebellion around age 13 is typically due to a teenager's first desire to detach from the past. A young teen often tries to show that he is not a child anymore. He might refuse to follow a parent's direction. For instance, he may not clean his room or may refuse to come inside for dinner. He wants to be treated like an adult and demonstrates this desire through disobedience. Defying his parents is his way of saying, "I will do what I want to do and won't be bossed around." Parents can try talking to their young teenagers and letting them feel more in control. For example, instead of demanding your child come in now for dinner, speak with him in advance and say something like, "We want to eat between 5:30 and 6:30. What time works for you during that hour?" You do not always have to allow your teen to control dinnertime, but letting him be a part of the decision-making process on occasion may help him feel like he is becoming one of the adults.

Defiance in Mid-Adolescence

As Pickhardt explains, most rebellion in late middle school and early high school is about the need to differentiate oneself. During this time, teens are trying to form identities and often do so by separating themselves from others in some way. They might spend time with different, more rebellious friends, dress more wildly, pick up foul language and new slang terms or try new, more daring activities. They may change their look with a new hair style or start to wear makeup. Sometimes the defiant behavior is a result of peer pressure. Parents should continue to provide guidance even if their children don't follow it. Allow consequences to occur, and help your child respond to those consequences. In other words, allow defiance to be part of growing up. In the National Geographic Magazine article "Beautiful Brains," David Dobbs suggests that teens sometimes rebel simply because their brains are not fully developed yet.

Defiance in Late Adolescence

Rebellion in the later teen years may be a final attempt at separation from parents. At this time, many children are preparing to go away to college or move out on their own. They may accept their first jobs or pay their first bills. Defiant behavior can be a teen's effort to show parents he is in control of his own life now. Another reason for rebellion in late adolescence is in response to a trauma. For instance, a teen who has experienced physical abuse may develop low self-esteem, fear or depression, which causes him to act out. An older teen often has less supervision and may even hurt himself. According to the Boston Children's Hospital website, suicide is more common in the late teen years. Try to build a close relationship with your child early on so he trusts and communicates with you. Child development experts at the Teen Health website recommend staying calm, giving your teen space, trying not to critique and letting him know you are there whenever he needs you.