How To Handle a Teen Who Does Not Follow Instructions

One of the most difficult periods of raising a child for most parents is the teenage years. This can a very trying time that involves struggles and ongoing issues about behaviors that are not acceptable to the parents. One of the most common complaints is the teenager that does not follow instructions.

Either the teen just doesn’t do what he/she is told to do or says it will be done, but then doesn’t follow through in the end. This can be a very frustrating and maddening situation for parents to handle, particularly when it is an ongoing issue. The youth may be doing great in other areas of their life, but this one area will cause ongoing stress and arguments.

The lack of direction commonly involves situations in which the teen is not:

  • doing or turning in their homework
  • cleaning their room or other chores around the house
  • following a curfew or rules while out (like calling at certain times)
  • interacting with siblings in healthy ways

One of the first steps in handling a youth that doesn’t follow instructions is to make sure the directions were clear. It is important to determine if the teen actually understood what was expected of them and then chose not to do it, or if there were expectations that weren’t clear and then were violated because of that lack of understanding. If it was the latter, then the parents can review the expectations and make it clear going forward what the teen must do or not do. This may be enough to change the future behaviors that are seen and resolve the issue.

In the case of the teen that knowingly violated the rules, the situation becomes more complex and requires additional interventions. There are several ways to handle the youth in this case including:

  • Use of positive reinforcement – research has consistently shown that the use of positive reinforcement can be much more powerful than that of negative reinforcements, like punishment. This technique involves catching the youth at times they are doing things correctly and praising or rewarding that behavior. For example, you ask the child to clean up the kitchen after dinner, and she does a great job at putting the leftovers away, loading the dishwasher, and wiping down the counters. Because she did what was requested and without complaining, you might permit her to watch a favorite television show that evening or stay up a bit later than normal. In order for positive reinforcement to be successful and shape behavior, it must be consistently used, so that the child begins to feel good about doing the right thing and realizes that following the rules has more benefits, than being defiant does.
  • Teaching consequences – however, for some children, positive reinforcement may not be enough to result in the appropriate behavioral change. This may require the use of negative reinforcements in addition to the continued use of positive reinforcements. This step involves again clarifying and stating the expectations for behavior and spelling out what will happen if the expectations are not met. This can commonly include things like:
  • Loss of privileges such a television, phone or computer
  • Loss of ability to participate in school activities, like sports or special dances
  • Additional chores or jobs around the house

Again, in this situation it is important to be consistent. Every single time that the expectations are not met, the negative consequence must be given. If it is not consistently applied, the child will learn that there is a chance that nothing will happen if he/she violates the rules and that chance of “getting away with it” will often be worth breaking the rules for.

  • Avoiding power struggles and arguments – another important aspect of changing the behavior of your troubled teen is to remember to not allow yourself be dragged into power struggles or arguments over the rules and how “unfair it is.” As the parent, you must set the expectations for your child, communicate those expectations, and make it clear that some things are not open for negotiation. While there may be situations that the child gets a “say” in, there are certain behaviors and expectations that are not going to be debated or changed. The child needs to understand what these are and learn to respect those as your rules that exist in the household. By allowing yourself to get into discussions about what is fair or not fair or what the child doesn’t agree with, you may give the impression that if the youth argues long enough or well enough you will change your mind and this can be detrimental to behavioral changes occurring.
  • Use of outside help – if you have followed the above steps over a period of time and are not seeing results or the youth’s behavior is getting progressively worse or more severe, it may be time to seek outside help from professionals. This may include the use of outpatient programs or residential treatment centers where staff are trained to deal with defiant and troubled youth and help the family members change the behavior and create long-term success.

No one said being a parent was going to be easy and parents of teenagers usually have even a more difficult time as the teen begins to test boundaries and form their own identity. This can be a trying time for both the parents and the youth. However, through the use of good communication that conveys the expectations and consequences for failing to meet those expectations, along with respect and love, the family will get through this period and come out stronger and healthier in the end.

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