My 13-year-old son is acting very defiant. I feel he is getting out of control. How do I set boundaries?

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Hi, I'm Jenna with Atlanta Center for Relational Healing and this is a great question. There's so many things going on here and gosh as mama's it is so hard to parent or adolescent boys effectively in these circumstances. There are a couple of pivotal things that you mentioned that I want to touch on. The first is that his behavior has shifted in the last few weeks and I think that's really important to recognize. 

Any time we see a shift in our child's behavior, we want to be more curious about the shift than we are initially about the behavior. Because sometimes this means there has been a life experience that could be something like bullying starting or exposure to pornography. These could be things that the child is willing to talk about or not willing to talk about. But as a parent our most effective tool here is curiosity and compassion.

So, during a calm moment, when tensions are not escalated, invite the child to sit down and have a conversation and say:

"Son I love you so much and I'm a little bit confused. There's some behavior that I have seen from you over the last several weeks that doesn't seem like you and I'm wondering if anything has happened, maybe something that you're afraid to tell me about and if so, you don't have to talk to me about it. We can arrange for you to talk to someone else that you would trust. If it doesn't feel comfortable talking to one of us as your parents. But I want you to know that if something has come up we are here for you and we want to support you, and you're not in trouble."

Number two, you mentioned that your son is 13, and oh my goodness parents, this is such a developmentally complex age because our little 13-year-old's brains are getting flooded with puberty hormones and as any of us who have had hormonal swings know that can be a very moody and temperamental time and it can feel like our moods and behaviors are a little out of control. So, one thing that can be helpful is normalizing mood swings for our adolescent and explaining "hey all 13-year-old kids go through this roller coaster of emotion. That is normal. We want to come alongside you in a way that doesn't feel punitive, but that also holds boundaries and balance to help you find restraint and make good choices. So let's talk about that."

And, just really engaging your child in that way so that they know that what they're experiencing inside, which can feel very confusing and overwhelming, is developmentally perfectly normal and it won't be this way forever. And, everyone is going through it. Their little brains will not fully develop until they're 25, bless their hearts. So, that's an important thing to acknowledge and also give a little latitude for. But, when it comes to holding the consequences for the behavior, I want to encourage you to match the consequence to the behavioral infraction. So, for example, if the child hangs up on you when you're calling them taking the phone privilege away for a period of time would be an appropriate matched consequence. If the child speaks disrespectfully, then engaging a consequence that is around positive speech, would be another appropriate one.

Sometimes as parents we feel like we're at our wits end and grounding is really the only thing we can think of, but with a 13-year-old their brains are very moldable. And, so what we're trying to do the end result is to teach them to think through their behavior in the end to the outcome and the best way to do that is to match our consequence to the behavior.

So rest assured Mama you are doing a great job. This is hard work and the most important thing at the end of the day is maintaining that connection with your child as he goes through the ups and downs and ins and outs that do comprise puberty. It's hard on everybody and you're doing a great job.

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Answered by:

Dr. Kevin Skinner

Dr. Kevin Skinner