Many parents are anxious about the arrival of their child’s teenage years. During this time, kids experience a great deal of change and growth, both physically and mentally. As they develop, they’re learning who they are and how to navigate the world while inching closer and closer to adulthood, which may result in some uncomfortable power struggles. 

Limits are tested (and so is your patience.) Resistance leads to arguments. Battles ensue. Watching your sweet child turn into a defiant adolescent right before your eyes makes the terrible twos seem like a cakewalk in the park. 

Engaging in constant power struggles can lead to a cycle of negativity that puts a strain on your relationship. However, there are things caregivers can do to avoid falling into these unproductive confrontations. Here are five tips for avoiding those uncomfortable moments with your teen.

Establish family rules

One of the best ways to avoid power struggles is to develop ground rules for your family with your family. Gather everyone around the table and address the most important aspects of your home life. Together, create several non-negotiable rules along with clear set consequences that will take place in the event the rule is broken. 

Each rule should be linked to a specific privilege– something your teenager values, such as screen time, an allowance, etc. For example, one rule might be that they must complete all their homework before they can go hang out with their friends. Allow them to give input and agree to the rules and consequences. If your teen puts up resistance regarding one of the rules, simply remind them that the family rules are non-negotiable.

"Resist the temptation to argue...follow through with a consequence," says child and adolescent psychologist Caroline Fulton, PsyD. "Make it clear that they don't have to like your decision, and it's fine to be upset. Their emotions are always welcome, but that doesn't change that they need to follow what you say. So, aim to stay calm and empathetic while also staying true to your choice."

Parents who enforce the rules every time and consistently follow through with consequences have fewer power struggles. If you give in to your teen’s resistance and arguing, they will come to view it as a way to get what they want, and you will find yourself being confronted with this issue more and more.

Choose your battles 

While guardians are urged to stick to their guns regarding the set family rules, important matters of safety and well-being, it is also beneficial to choose your battles wisely. You may cringe at the sight of your son’s sagging skinny jeans but his fashion choices really aren’t hurting anyone. 

For less significant matters, realize that not every battle is worth it and know when to let things go. Ignore the bad attitude, agree to disagree and walk away. This does not make you seem weak or diminish your parental power in any way.

“A key skill I teach parents to use when they are confronted with a child who wants to drag them into a fight is the technique of ‘Avoidance,’” explains James Lehman, MSW. “Think of it this way: when you engage in an argument with your child, you’re just giving them more power. In effect, you’re increasing your child’s perception that they have the power to challenge you.”

Don’t take it personal

Though your child’s defiance may seem like intentional disrespect toward you, that is rarely the case. As Kristen Craren, a licensed Professional Counselor, shares, the teenage brain functions differently than the adult brain.

“You have a fully developed brain, and you are able to access the prefrontal cortex, which enables you to make well-thought-out decisions,” she said. “Your teen’s amygdala—which is a part of the brain that processes emotions—is quite active, so their decision-making is expected to be more emotion based.”

Figure out what it is your teen really wants. They may be trying to advocate for themselves, or they may want to be left alone. Sometimes adolescents behave defiantly to get attention and feel seen. They might really want to be understood, but are unable to clearly or appropriately express their wants and needs. Take the time to listen to your teen and try to understand their point of view. Empathize with them, validate them and make them feel heard. This will strengthen the relationship between the two of you.

Help them build problem-solving skills

Help your teen develop problem-solving skills that will allow them to navigate difficult situations on their own. The skill set they attain will prove valuable to them throughout their lives and aid them in their relationships with others. Helping your adolescent work through problems is a great way for them to learn.

To do this, first, identify the problem. Next, aid your child in understanding why the issue requires a resolution. This can be achieved by discussing the ways in which they will be negatively affected if the problem goes unresolved. Then, brainstorm possible solutions together. Aim for three or four different options and decide which will work best. Finally, put together a plan of action detailing how and when they will carry out the action.

During this process, it is important to listen to your teen with an open mind. Avoid the temptation to give them the “answers.” Rather, guide them and work through the problem with them. The goal is for them to eventually be able to exercise these skills on their own when they need to.

Loosen the reins

Give your teenager space and autonomy, and allow them to make more decisions within the limits that you have set. For example, instead of dictating that they do their homework immediately after they come home from school, you might simply require them to have it completed by bedtime and give them the freedom to decide when to do it. Perhaps they will engage in another activity after school and do their homework after dinner. Or, they may work on it incrementally throughout the day. 

Allowing teenagers to make their own decisions does not equate to parents becoming disengaged or permissive. It means finding a healthy balance between enforcing clear limits and helping them develop the skills they will need to become independent and successful in life. And the good news is, youth who are given freedom and limits generally become more self-disciplined individuals.

“This cannot be overstated: Healthy, self-disciplined, motivated teenagers have a strong sense of control over their lives,” says Christine L. Carter Ph.D. “A mountain of research demonstrates that agency is one of the most important contributors to both success and happiness. Believing that we can influence our own lives (through our own efforts) predicts practically all the positive outcomes that we want for our children: better health and longevity, lower use of drugs and alcohol, lower stress, higher emotional well-being, greater intrinsic motivation and self-discipline, improved academic performance and even greater career success.”