How to De-Escalate Oppositional and Defiant Teenagers

Every teenager will become oppositional from time to time. It's normal; and particularly when they feel upset or stressed. Oppositional behaviors can become a matter of concern if they start interfering with their social, academic or family life.

Oppositional/Defiant behaviors are characterized by the Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry as:

Frequent temper tantrums
Excessive arguing with adults
Often questioning rules
Active defiance and refusal to comply with adult requests and rules
Deliberate attempts to annoy or upset people
Blaming others for his or her mistakes or misbehavior
Often being touchy or easily annoyed by others
Frequent anger and resentment
Mean and hateful talking when upset

In this article I'm not going to focus just on ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder), the pathological form, but also on its usual (normal) manifestations. I'll focus on the ones that you are going to most likely find in every day life and how to defuse them. If you are specifically looking for ODD you can refer to the Academy's page. It's a good source.

When a teenager becomes oppositional the first thing you need to know is that you are going to need patience. Lots of it. Usually, to de-escalate him or her it would take you as long as a usual discussion with your girl/boyfriend or partner. That would be between an hour and a half and two hours. It follows the normal curve (AKA Gaussian function or Bell curve). An initial moment of increasing tension. A peak, usually followed by a plateau where you may feel that you are getting nowhere and a decline (the de-escalation).

The second thing you need to take into account is that it's going to be a chess game. You are the authority figure and that's the main problem. Oppositional and defiant behaviors are tightly bonded to authority. In my experience, when dealing with neurotypical people, time-outs are only going to give them time to stay on that negative trend of thought and is not going to help the situation get any better. You need to talk him or her out of it. Don't expect time itself to work magic. And if it does, there are gonna be hurt feelings. In other words, as a parent, your intervention is needed.

There are basically two actions that you need to take. The first one is active listening. Let him vent and be aware that you will hear things that you won't like; but don't get into an argument. That won't help either. The me vs. him approach won't work. Instead, listen and wait for the right moment to make your interventions, pointing out the weak points of his or her argument and redirecting the conversation continually. Timing is paramount here. The de-escalation rate will be directly tied to how timely and on the spot your interventions are.

You will also need to have a clear goal. This means, you need to know where you want to get, since your interventions should be directed to this goal. Don't try to directly go for your point because this will only trigger another escalation. You need to be subtle and "hide" your goal because if it becomes visible during the initial phase it will backfire. You have to slowly leak it at the end of the second phase (peak and/or plateau). Think of it as a chess game. If you start making random moves to see what happens the other player (who has a plan or idea) will beat you in the blink of an eye. Also, since you are the authority figure you will have some sort of leverage. Use it, but never as a threat or coercion. Use that differential of power wisely.

Yesterday I spent an hour and a half de-escalating a 15 year old boy. During that hour an and a half he refused to talk to me, followed by a half hour cathartic period. He then calmed down a bit and while talking to me he starting packing and dressing up to leave. I let him do it, but I kept talking to him. At one point I noticed that his bag was already full so he started taking stuff out and putting other stuff in. He tied his shoes twice, groomed himself for a bit and paced around the room aimlessly. At that point I knew that he knew he wasn't gonna go anywhere but the job hadn't been finished yet. He was still upset but open to talk. At that point I asked him to sit by me on his bed. Apparently he was ready for it since he did. That was the first moment where he was actually compliant. Score! Asking him to sit by me wasn't just for the sake of it.

Our "conversation" started with him sitting on the floor throwing things and breaking furniture. I was standing when I entered his room. Here you need to think about primal interactions and body language. He had to look up to talk to me or even to make eye contact. I was "on top", which doesn't help solve authority disputes. Next thing I did was to sit and start talking to him. He stood up and started to walk and talk. From an eye-to-eye perspective he was above me. You need to work with that illusion. When I asked him to sit by me we were both at the same level, and that was the beginning of the end of the argument. From there I could finally reason with him, joked a little bit while still talking and finally made my point firmly.He went to bed giggling and in an excellent mood.

In conclusion, it all goes down to a power struggle. The key is not to get engaged in it, since you'll be playing the teenager's game. You need to make that struggle as subtle as you can during most of the conversation, or at least until you consider the person is ready to acknowledge the fact that there is a "chain of command" and his way is not a viable option. In the process you will gain respect, a sense that what you want is not a whim and last but not least, you'll look as someone approachable in his eyes, which will help in future occurrences.

Fernando Tarnogol is an Argentinean psychologist, currently working as Program Coordinator at the Devereux Foundation in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

He has studied Psychology at the University of Buenos Aires and Human Resources Management at UADE (Argentinean University of the Enterprise). His professional experience includes work in HR for HSBC Bank Argentina and in two mental health facilities performing psychological evaluations and other clinical work.

Visit his blog at

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