Whether you are a parent or a teacher, the teenagers who are most likely to try your patience or cause you to question your competence are oppositional defiant adolescents.
Oppositional defiant teenagers are those who defy adults and authority figures, go against established rules and procedures, and look for excuses to irritate adults. These are also the teens who are likely to elicit from you those primitive impulses – the ones you try to hide or suppress. When a snippy, bratty, or defiant adolescent pushes your buttons, you may have angry or aggressive feelings that you haven’t felt in years. My own personal barometer to help me identify an oppositional defiant teen is to recognize that when I feel like slapping a teenager, the chances are that he or she falls into this diagnostic category.
In my work (in which I have never given into my more primitive urges, by the way) with delinquent adolescents on probation to a juvenile court, I frequently encountered teens with Oppositional Defiant Disorder. These are kids who seem to devise new and unique ways of exasperating their parents, teachers, and other adults who enter their lives.
One such teenager recently threw a pen during a treatment group at another teen on the other side of a table. When I looked at her, her immediate response was: “I didn’t do anything.”
My simple response was to ask her to go around the table and pick the pen up.
“No. Let Jordan pick it up, he’s closest to it,” she said.
“You threw it and I want you to pick it up,” I replied.
“I’m not going to,” she said, staring at me with an “I’d-like-to-see-you-try-and-make-me-pick-it-up” look.
I didn’t take the bait, but sat with my hands clasped in front of me. It was apparent to her and others in the group that nothing would happen until the pen was picked up. The other kids were intently watching both of us to see what would happen next.
“All right!” she finally said in an agitated voice. “I’ll do it. But just because you asked me to!” She picked up the pen and returned to her seat and the group continued.
If I had taken the bait and tried to force her to pick up the pen or if I had threatened her, she would have become more defiant and angry. The situation could have escalated and become ugly.
At another session I had with teenagers recently, a 15-year-old boy got up mid-way through the group and said he was leaving.
“I don’t like being here and you can’t make me do anything!” he said as he walked toward the door.
“You’re right,” I said. “And you’re welcome to leave.”
“I can leave?” he asked.
“Of course,” I replied. “You’re free to go.”
“But you’ll tell my probation officer, won’t you?” he said.
“I guess you would find that out if you left,” I said softening my voice so it didn’t sound threatening.
He looked at me, mumbled under his breath, and returned to his seat.
Again, if I had taken the bait by telling him he couldn’t leave or threatening to tell his probation officer, he would have been justifiably (at least in his own mind) angry and that would have been sufficient reason for him to belligerently defy me. When I told him he was free to leave, then he had no reason to be either defiant or angry.
Once he had no justification to be angry (if he didn’t like being there, he could leave), then he could think rationally about his options and he obviously decided it was in his best interest to stay in the court-ordered group session.
There’s a knack to dealing with teens who present this kind of oppositional defiant behavior. Confront them or try to act tough and they will show you they can be tougher and more defiant. In effect, if you try to coerce them to do something they don’t want to do, they will see you as just another unreasonable authority figure who deserves their anger and opposition. Undercut their reason to be angry (which often has nothing to do with you), and give them a chance to make their own decisions, they are likely to be more reasonable and even compliant.