On the last track, we discussed teens with oppositional disorders who are prone to truancy and failing grades. We also presented techniques to help keep a truant teen in school. These techniques included: Working with the School; Back to School; Positive Praise and Recognition through Role Playing.
On this track, we will examine a common oppositional defiant teen outburst in five levels and communication skills useful in diffusing each level. These five levels of confrontation are: whining and complaining; stubborn refusal; verbal abuse; threats of violence; and acts of violence.
One common aspect among oppositional defiant teens is angry outbursts. When these occur, some parents will often try and remove themselves too early from the conflict, either because they do not know how to handle the situation, or because the teen has threatened them in such a way as to make them fear for their lives or property.
When Kate, mother of Devon, an overly aggressive teen, came into my office, I stated, "While Devon is trying to form an identity, he will try to use force and intimidation in an attempt to undermine your authority." I feel that one of the ways to reestablish this authority is through conflict management during a highly explosive teenage outburst.
5 Levels of Confrontation
Level #1 - Whining and Complaining
The first level of a defiant teen’s confrontation is whining and complaining. All parents encounter this. Usually, this is harmless and is a way for the teenager or child to test their own boundaries. Also, it’s a method of annoying the person in authority to such a degree that they will eventually back down and give the child what he or she desires.
Kate’s 14 year old son Devon was a notorious whiner. Kate stated, "First, it’s the role of the eyes and then a long drawn out, ‘Why noooooow!? Can’t I do it laaaater!?’ He says it just like a nine year old kid would and it gets on my nerves to no end. Once in a while, it will work, if I’m tired or had a hard day at work." I explain to Kate that by allowing Devon to manipulate her, she loses her authority and will eventually make future problems for herself.
One technique I gave to Kate is to try reflectors. Reflectors include words like, "Nevertheless" or "In any case". These words acknowledge the teenagers claim while at the same time negating it of any influence. Kate stated, "Regardless of what you’re doing right now, you have to clean your room."
There are times when teenagers will ask for explanations. I told Kate that if she can, to give a reason for her demand. "Devon, you need to clean your room now because if you wait, you’ll be too tired or won’t have your homework done for tomorrow." If she doesn’t have a good explanation, that still does not mean that her request is not justified. The important concept is to keep from allowing the teenager any leeway.
Level #2 - Stubborn Refusal
The second level of teenage confrontation is stubborn refusal. Beyond whining and complaining, many teenagers will outright reject the request and try to make the parent become defensive. Kate stated, "When Devon doesn’t get his way, he tries to bait me. He’ll say things like, ‘You always do this to me! God, why don’t you just leave me in peace?’ It hurts me when he tries to make me the bad guy. I know in my mind that I’m just trying to get him to take responsibility and he’s making as though I’m the wicked witch of the west."
At this point, I emphasize to Kate that keeping short and to the point will also keep her from flying off the handle, which is exactly what a teen is usually trying to provoke. In addition, I asked Kate to try bringing in a consequence for the teen’s actions. Without seeming too confrontational, this can also exhibit Kate’s own authority.
A few sessions later, Kate stated, "The next time he got in my face, I stayed calm and said, ‘If you don’t do it now, you can’t go out with your friends this evening.’ When he realized I would prevent him from going out with his friends, he got up and did it, although begrudgingly."
Level #3 - Verbal Abuse
In addition to whining and complaining and stubborn refusal, the third level of confrontation is verbal abuse. At this point, a teen is in great danger of flying off the handle. He or she may begin to hurl abuse at the parent if they sense a lack of confidence or if they are just not ready to back down yet.
I asked Devon what he would usually say to his mother, Kate, when he reached this point in the altercation. Devon stated, "Well, sometimes I’ll call her a bitch and tell her that she’s so stupid, that she doesn’t know anything." I then asked Kate, "What do you feel when he becomes verbally abusive?" She stated, "I felt like it wasn’t my son anymore, just an angry person who is trying to hurt me."
Technique: Exit and Cool Strategy
I suggested that Kate try the Exit and Cool strategy. Often, in these cases, the parent will begin to be angry and hurl their own abuse back at their child. This, of course, will only escalate the problem. By Exiting and Cooling, a parent can take in the situation. I told Kate that when she had cooled off sufficiently, to come back and administer the consequence. Kate stated, "The next time he started throwing insults, I said, ‘I’m done and we’ll talk later.’" Evidently, Kate had begun to maintain her authority without falling prey to her own anger. Think of your Kate. Do you think exiting and cooling could help him or her diffuse a confrontation with their teen?
Level #4 - Threat of Physical Abuse
The fourth level of confrontation is threat of physical abuse. Usually, teens do not go beyond the third level, but if a teen is prone to anger and violence, he or she has begun to threaten the parent. Even though many people associate teen violence with boys, I have seen the same level of anger in girls as well.
Heather, a 16 year old client of mine, frequently threatened her mother, Helen, with violence. Helen stated, "I don’t know where it comes from, but she all of a sudden explodes. She says ‘I hate you, I’ll beat your ass!’ all because I wouldn’t let her stay out until two in the morning. At this point, I usually start crying or sometimes I’ll start yelling back."
I explain to Helen that her current method of dealing with the situation is in fact making it worse. By crying, although it is a natural reaction, Heather will feel as though she’s won some sort of victory. By yelling back, it will incite Heather to take it a step further. Again, I emphasize the exit and cool strategy and if the teenager is really in danger of hurting the parent, themselves, or anyone around them, to call the police.
Level #5 - Acts of Physical Abuse
In addition to whining, refusal, verbal abuse and threats, the fifth and final level of confrontation is acts of physical abuse. Helen stated, "One time, Heather actually did slap me and started to pull my hair. I tried to get away, but she just followed me." I told Helen that if Heather ever became violent like that again to step away from the situation and call the police. Heather needs to know that she will be held responsible for her actions.
I told Helen, "At this point, she does not respect your authority, so you need to bring in another authority figure, one that can restrain her efficiently." Think of your Helen. Could playing this track in a session be beneficial to him or her?
On this track, we discussed a common teenage outburst and ways to diffuse it, in five levels: whining and complaining; stubborn refusal; verbal abuse; threats of violence; and acts of violence.
On the next track, we will present the three key steps involved in writing an effective Family Agreement Contract. These steps include: streamlining the problems; creating concrete rules; and creating a well-written consequence.
- Sells, Scott P., Ph.D; Parenting Your Out-of-Control Teenager: Seven Steps to Reestablish Authority and Reclaim Love; St. Martin’s Press. New York, NY. 2001.
Online Continuing Education QUESTION 9
What are the five levels of confrontation?
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