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Parenting the Challenging Child

Given that having children isn’t a prerequisite for having strong opinions about childrearing, it’s not remarkable that when we do have children, we can be overly defensive about our parenting style.

This is true even when it seems to be working well; but what if our child’s behavior seems particularly challenging? Because we take our responsibility seriously, we may focus on who or what is to blame, rather than on what we can do to improve the situation. We may even wonder whether it can be improved. Is a noncompliant toddler doomed to become a challenging adolescent? Worse, if we have a defiant teenager—one who refuses to comply with requests or follow rules of conduct—do we have any real chance of producing the result we want for him or her?

To answer this question, we first need to know exactly what result we want. We may have a general idea: happiness, success, physical and mental health. And we all want to be able to communicate well and enjoy a positive relationship with our children, which offers more than the immediate reward of a peaceful household. After all, teenagers who communicate well with parents tend to share the family’s values in key areas. But what do these admirable aims mean in terms of concrete skills and abilities?

In studies looking at countless families and teens, researchers have identified five core competencies that lead to favorable life outcomes: a positive sense of self, the ability to practice self-control, effective decision-making skills, a moral system of belief, and prosocial connectedness. Although additional attributes could perhaps be included, the consistent message of existing research is that adolescents who demonstrate high levels of these five key assets are better equipped to become happy, productive adults.

For a few fortunate parents, laying the foundation for these skills seems to go fairly smoothly. But if you are one of many who find themselves with challenging children, your family may have become locked in patterns of interacting that make communication difficult. Parents may wish they could stop the endless nagging, but they may also have a hard time picking out any positive aspects of their child’s behavior to focus on instead. As children become more sullen or confrontational and no one can remember the last warm hug or affectionate banter, some parents may come close to giving up and Googling the nearest boot camp for troubled teens.

If any of this sounds familiar, take heart: there are viable ways to begin engaging with your challenging child, whatever his or her age. If you are willing to consider a few strategies that may not seem quite natural at first, you may be surprised to find how much more effectively you can begin to communicate, even with teens whose behavior is very defiant. Fortunately defiance is not a permanent trait but a behavior—and behavior can be changed through positive interactions.


The place to start is with the understanding that your teen needs you and craves your approval, whether it appears so or not. The human brain is wired to connect, especially with caretakers and parents, and this is true even of adolescents. But in addition to your approval, love and affection, they also need you as a teacher, role model and support scaffold as they learn to navigate the conflicts and barriers they will encounter in the world around them.

Like you, they blossom when they can contribute in a positive way and are recognized for it, and wilt under constant negativity and criticism. Common sense alone should tell us this, perhaps; but a large body of research also confirms that positive reinforcement is far more effective than negative feedback in bringing about changes in human behavior. Negative feedback does have its place, of course. Unfortunately the human brain is generally better at noticing when things are going wrong than when they are going well. This is just as true of a parent’s brain as for that of a child or adolescent. As a result, our challenging child—whom we love and who craves our love and approval—almost certainly is going to receive a higher percentage of negative than positive feedback from us and is going to notice our negative feedback disproportionately as well. The attention our child craves, then, is most often being paid exactly when it is least effective, and in the form that is least effective. A cycle is born because our child fails to respond, so we ratchet up the negative feedback. Inevitably, if somewhat irrationally, we’re surprised when the negative behavior also escalates.

Complicating matters, teens soon become aware of negative expectations held by other adults in their sphere. “There is no doubt that there is an overwhelmingly negative stereotype attributed to adolescence in our society today,” writes Oxford University researcher John Coleman. “The negative stereotype has a number of unfortunate consequences. For the great majority of law-abiding and hard-working young people it means all too often that they find themselves treated by adults as if they were trouble-makers. . . . For parents it means that expectations are created about the teenage years which focus predominantly on the problems.

How do we break the destructive negative cycle once we’re caught up in it?

An important orienting principle is the goal of helping your children internalize the core competencies referred to earlier. If you think back to when you taught your children to walk, you remember aiming for a balance between controlling and neglecting them; encouraging them and discouraging them. At first you supported them almost completely while they practiced taking steps and praised them effusively when they succeeded. When they failed, you didn’t scream at them but encouraged them to get up and try again. Gradually you allowed more autonomy until they were standing on their own feet, taking steps without holding your hand. This approach comes fairly easy to parents when faced with teaching toddlers physical skills, but it’s much harder to judge the right balance in scaffolding as children grow older. We sometimes misjudge their capacities, which can have one of two consequences: we may overestimate some, which leads us to overreact to the “falls” that help them perfect their skills; and we may underestimate others, which leads us to control more than we need to, discouraging them.

It’s not always easy for parents to transition between wielding all the power and allowing teens to wield some. But, Coleman reminds us, “parents have to develop a flexibility and willingness to move to new ways of interacting with their adolescent sons and daughters if serious clashes are to be avoided.

If serious clashes have become the norm in your household, however, it is not impossible to turn things around. But you’ll need to do whatever you can at first to increase the likelihood of compliance so there will be some positive behavior to reinforce. Once the pump has been primed for positive interactions, the cycle will become almost as effortless as the former negative cycle. Both parent and child will enter into interactions expecting a positive outcome—and expectations have a strong effect on how people respond to one another.

Clinical child psychologist Alan E. Kazdin, director of the Yale Parenting Center, specializes in helping parents of children with severe conduct problems. His evidence-based techniques do not include prescribing drugs or humiliating teens by making them stand on a street corner wearing their failures on a sandwich board. Kazdin’s toolkit offers what he calls the ABCs of parenting. As parents, he says, we can learn how to effectively use A, antecedents; B, behaviors; and C, consequences to change children’s behavior.

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