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Dealing with Daily Teen Behaviors

Parents express many specific concerns about their adolescent's attitudes and behaviors. However, before addressing some of the specific topics in later sections, here is some general information on effective techniques of behavior management that should help you deal with your child on a daily basis. How do you get the child to cooperate more around the house? What can you do to get him to clean his room or to have him come in on time? How do you improve her flippant attitude or get her to stop aggravating her sister?

Some of the techniques presented here are guaranteed to make your day run smoother and reduce some conflict in your home. I suggest you read this section before proceeding with the rest of the book, because many of the sections that follow are based on the techniques presented here.

In general, you will first want to analyze the behavior you are trying to deal with. Then spell out the rule or expectation and the consequence at the same time, before the rule is broken. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Follow through with what you say and be consistent.

Analyze the Behavior
In discussing the adolescent's behavior, many parents remark: "He does not want to be part of the family," "My daughter is depressed and unhappy," "She's not motivated in school," "His problem is he's always angry," "My son is constantly irritating everybody," "She is immature." My first response is to ask the parent, "Can you give me an example of what you mean when you say he does not want to be part of the family?" "What behavior is the child showing that makes you think he is angry?" "What is he doing to irritate everybody?" "What is your child doing that makes you think she is immature?" In other words, I ask the parents to look at the behavior in more specific terms rather than in general terms. What I mean when I say, "My daughter is depressed," might be that she has lost interest in things that were important to her. What you mean when you say, "My daughter is depressed," might be that she stays in her room all the time and cries easily. Lack of motivation in school could mean a variety of things: the child is capable of A's and B's, but is getting only C's; she is not studying for tests; she does not complete homework; or she daydreams in class.

Be Specific
Before any behavior can be dealt with or changed, it first must be specified or stated in detail. Although it might not be possible to make your son become more a "part of the family," you may be able to get him to spend more time out of his room and become more involved in family interaction. If you say your teen is angry, what exactly is he doing? Is he continually muttering under his breath, making faces when you try to tell him something, slamming doors, or generally getting very upset and volatile over minor difficulties? What is the immaturity you worry about in your daughter? Is she fifteen years old and still needing your help in getting dressed for school?

Many parents find it somewhat difficult to look at specific behaviors, because it is normal to talk about our children in very general terms. However, the first step in changing any behavior is to be specific. Try to avoid vague, general terms, and identify the exact behavior or behaviors that are of concern and what you would like to change.

Look at the Behavior Sequence
Once the behavior has been described in detail, you can then analyze the entire behavior sequence. For example, let's take the child who will never take no for an answer. How did he get this way?

Parent: My child will never accept no for an answer.
Psychologist: What do you mean by that? Can you give me an example?
Parent: I just can't tell him no. If everything is going his way and he is getting to do whatever he wants and is not told no, everything is fine. However, when we tell him he cannot do what he wants, he gets upset and argues and cannot accept what we have told him. He used our car all last week; then last night when he asked to use the car again, we refused and he became very upset and started arguing.
Psychologist: What did he say to you?
Parent: He was really shouting and told us how mean we were and how all his friends' parents let them use the car whenever they wanted to. He also mentioned that we used to let his brother have the car whenever he wanted and that we were putting too many restrictions on him. We were not being fair and did not understand his situation.
Psychologist: What did you do?
Parent: We told him that we need to use the car and that he just could not have it whenever he wanted. A car is expensive to operate and he would have to try to use it less often and get rides with his friends. He can have it to go specific places, not just to joyride all around the city. After many attempts to try to reason calmly with him and explain why we said no, my husband and I became upset with his attitude and unwillingness to see our position.
Psychologist: What happened next?
Parent: Because he had an answer for everything we told him, pretty soon we started arguing back at him. After a while, we became totally exasperated and tired of the verbal battle, so we gave him the keys to the car and told him to leave in order for us all to calm down.

In the above example, if the child listened to his parents he would not use the car. However, by aggravating, not taking "no" for an answer, he was able to use the car. The reason this behavior occurs - and continues - is because it works!

Let's take another example, the child who does not cooperate without an argument or fuss, and who always has something to say if you ask her to do something.

Parent: Every time I ask my child to do something, she complains, "I'm not a slave. Why do I have to do this? My brother doesn't have to. You're always making me do things." She has just a few jobs to do around the house, but each time we ask her, she'll either put off the chore and not do it, or give us a hard time.
Psychologist: Give me an example of what you mean.
Parent: The other night I asked her to put out the garbage. She started mumbling and complaining and making faces, then grabbed the garbage can and dragged it out to the curb, banging it every inch of the way. You would think I had asked her to paint the house or resod the lawn.
Psychologist: But she did put out the garbage?
Parent: Yes, but the whole time she was complaining and acting as if she did not want to do what she was asked.
Psychologist: What did you do next?
Parent: I tried to ignore most of what she said but she was starting to irritate me, so I began explaining everything that her father and I did for her. I asked how she would like it if every time she asked us to do something we made a scene or complained. I told her that she had only a few chores to do and that I did not feel as if it were a burden for her to do a few simple things for me when I did so much for her. She continued mumbling and I continued yelling, and she eventually stalked off to her room.

In situations like the above, what I have asked the parents to do is to analyze the behavior. They should not only look at the behavior - the unwillingness to take no for an answer (example 1) or the mumbling and complaining (example 2) - but also look at what comes before the behavior (antecedents) and what comes after it (the consequence). In any behavior sequence there are three parts:

Antecedents, Behavior, and Consequence Graphic

In looking at the entire behavior sequence, we have taken the first step in dealing with the behavior. We have not only looked at the specific behavior, but have also seen what comes before the action and what comes after it. We have to look at the entire sequence before attempting to change it.

In analyzing a behavior, it is also important to see how often it occurs - that is, how many times a day, hour, or week. Does it occur ten times a day, once a week, or three times an hour? There are a couple of reasons for looking at how frequently a behavior occurs. I have had many parents tell me, "Once I started looking at the behavior closely and keeping a record of how frequently it occurred, I realized that it was not as bad as I thought it was. I thought he and his brother were fighting continuously but the fights only occurred a couple of times a day." Another reason for looking at frequency of behavior is that the child usually does not wake up one morning behaving a certain way. The behavior develops gradually over a period of weeks, months, or years. Therefore, in changing the behavior, a similar process will occur. A gradual improvement over time will take place.

Usually, when parents look at the child's actions in general terms (e.g., anger, immaturity, uncooperativeness), they cannot see the small changes that occur. For example, parents may tell me, "Our child never talks to us. He never communicates anything, and we don't know what is going on in his life." I might then try some interventions and give the parents suggestions to improve the communication. After a few weeks, if the parents looked only at the overall behavior, they might still feel the child was uncommunicative and not as talkative as he used to be when he was younger. However, if they had observed the child's behavior more closely in order to see how frequently he was communicating, they might have seen an improvement. They might have realized that before the treatment plan was started, the child spoke to them only a couple of times or only when he needed something. However, after a few weeks of trying some interventions, the child was now communicating five to seven times a day and was volunteering information about school, friends, and activities. Looking at the overall behavior and comparing it to when the child was younger, it may still seem as if he is not talking very much. However, if we look at the frequency of the behavior, knowing that behavior changes gradually, we can see a considerable improvement from when the treatment plan was started. We have to look for small improvements and movements toward a goal, and not for a dramatic change overnight.

In analyzing behavior in this way, we look at the important factors in behavior change - the consequences. The reason most of us do what we do is that we know the consequences of our behavior. If the consequences of behavior were always the same, and, for example, you were paid whether you went to work or stayed home, you would be foolish to go to work. The same holds true for adolescents. The teenagers in the two examples behaved the way they did because they already knew the consequences of their behavior. They got what they wanted.

The following may be somewhat similar to what goes on unconsciously, or sometimes consciously, with your child.

Psychologist: Your mother tells me that you never do anything the first time you are told. She has to tell you over and over again, and get upset and yell, before you do anything, such as cleaning your room.
Adolescent: My mother is always talking and telling me to do stuff. She gives me a hundred lectures a day and asks me to do a lot of stupid things, like cleaning my room. I usually put off doing what she says because the first thirty times she tells me, she uses a normal tone of voice and is pretty calm, so I don't think she really means it.
Psychologist: Then what happens?
Adolescent: Around the thirty-first time, her voice starts getting a little bit louder. She's getting upset now, and around the thirty-second or thirty-third time, she starts hollering and saying in a very angry voice, "I really mean it. You'd better clean your room!" Somewhere around the thirty-fourth and thirty-fifth time she says it, the vein in her neck starts sticking out, her face turns red, and she's really screaming now.
Psychologist: What do you do then?
Adolescent: Well, finally I know she means business, because the hair on the back of her neck is standing up. So I go clean the room or do whatever else she wants me to do.
Psychologist: It sounds as if you wait for the right signal or cue that tells you a consequence is coming or something is really going to happen. When you know she means business, that's when you do what your mother requests.
Adolescent: That's right.

There are many other examples that could be used, but the point is that people often behave as they do because of the consequences of their behavior - what they get out of it or what happens to them as a result of it. Many behaviors in the adolescent are present because of the consequences. Whenever people relate to or interact with one another, parents and adolescents included, they teach each other certain behaviors based primarily on consequences. When we interact with our children, we are teaching them behaviors and they are teaching us to respond to them in certain ways. We may teach children how to be dependent, fresh, or immature, or how not to take no for an answer, not to listen, or the like. At the same time, they may teach us how to scold, nag, scream, get upset, criticize, or worry. It stands to reason that if we can teach children certain unacceptable behaviors, we can also teach them acceptable behaviors. This is true, but most of us go about it the wrong way, by focusing directly on the children and trying to change them. It is very difficult to change another's behavior without changing our own. It is much easier if parents change the way they relate to their teenagers, and, as a result, the youngsters change their behavior and the way they relate to the parents. I am not implying, as some mental health professionals do, that parents are the cause of all behavior difficulties in children. Children can cause problems in a family as well as parents can cause problems in children. However, it is easier for adults to change their behavior than to try directly to change the teenager's behavior.

Much of the behavior seen in people is the result of consequences and a person's response to environmental conditions. Often, without a change in environment, it will be difficult to change the behavior. If the surroundings and reactions of others are modified, however, it will be easier to alter it. While it is much easier to modify a young child's environment than an adolescent's, your behavior and your response to the child are part of the environment and can be changed. By responding to children differently, you can change the influence of their behavior. Just as important as analyzing the child's behavior, parents need to look closely at what they themselves are doing and how they are responding to situations. If parents can change both their reactions and the types of consequences used to deal with the teenager, they in turn may modify their teenager's behavior.


From Keys to Parenting Your Teenager by Don Fontenelle, Ph.D. Copyright 2000 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc. All rights reserved. Used by arrangement with Barron's Educational Series, Inc.

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