Parenting Styles: Managing Your Teen's Oppositional Behavior


My husband and I have just discovered that our 14 year old daughter who turns 15 in August has been supposedly sleeping out at friends’ houses and then sneaking off to parties and even getting drunk.  We are really shocked by her actions as we felt that we had a very communicative and open relationship with her.  She has been asking quite often to be allowed to go to parties but even in her own words she has been telling us that all they do is get drunk.  So it comes as no surprise that we won’t allow her to go to such parties.  We are protective and have said previously on numerous occasions that next year when she is 16 we will review the situation but even then there will be enquiries as to supervision, where party is etc.  Since finding out, we have removed privileges such as dancing, mobile phone, msn chat line on the net and any outings.  Now, we are wondering, how do we get that trust back?  How do we know that she understands why we have removed privileges?  Does she know how hurt we are?  Are we wrong in being so harsh or are we not harsh enough?  We have even worried that although we have both spoken to her about our concerns and about how we feel….that we could have handled that wrong too.  We welcome your advice and hope to hear from you soon.


First of all, I think your immediate response is on the right track.  By limiting and/or removing privileges, and by letting your daughter know, in no uncertain terms, how hurt and disappointed you have been by her actions, you send a strong and important message of care, and you let her know that her behavior has more far-reaching consequences than she may have thought initially.  Without a doubt, your daughter’s behavior is not only deceptive, but it is also dangerous, as this pattern of high-risk behavior increases her own risk for developing problems with alcohol and drug abuse, sexual promiscuity, legal troubles and other delinquent behaviors.  Furthermore, the more your daughter behaves in these ways, the more distant and disconnected from you she becomes.  As you well know, as her parents, it is your responsibility and duty to take care of your daughter, and to look out for her best interest.  In this situation, your daughter’s behavior signals that she is “out of control” and not exercising sound and healthy judgment.  Where she is out of control, it is your job to take control for her….until she can resume some of that control again.

In this situation, I recommend that you seek help from a mental health professional in your area, and that the focus of this important work should be in two main directions.  First of all, it seems important that you try to figure out what your daughter’s deceptive and dangerous behavior pattern means.  Why is she acting this way?  Like most adolescents who get into trouble in these ways, your daughter seems to be “acting out.”  This usually means that she is choosing behaviors that communicate thoughts and feelings that she can not fully articulate, more directly, with words.  It may not be that she is doing this deliberately, but that given where she is in her own psychological development, she simply may not have figured out how to identify her feelings that well, and/or how to talk about those feelings directly with those who love her the most.  It is actually possible that your daughter is afraid to talk with you about her feelings because of what she perceives you might do in response!  Ironically, by choosing the behavior pattern she has chosen – knowingly or not – she has begun to discover how you are responding.  Try not to fall into this trap!  For optimal success, at least from my perspective, it is important that you maintain a firm but caring and understanding stance as you set limits and try to guide your daughter through this crisis.  So, the first order of business is to try to determine what your daughter is really up to as she chooses these risky behaviors.  No doubt, she is seeking peer approval, and greater degrees of independence from you – both of which are developmentally appropriate goals.  Somehow, however, her means of trying to obtain these goals are both dangerous and counterproductive.  Understanding more about her agenda – FROM HER PERSPECTIVE – will help guide you in more effective parenting.  A skilled therapist could help your daughter, gradually, to articulate her feelings more openly and directly, without her needing to resort to indirect behaviors that jeopardize her health and safety.

The second area of focus for your work with a mental health professional would be for you to explore your own parenting styles.  It may come as no surprise to you that your children’s behavior, over time, is directly related to (but not caused by!!) the ways in which you parent them.  Historically, child psychologists have studied and discovered how different parenting styles influence children in various ways.  In general, research in this area has shown that for the most effective discipline, children need to know that their parents are accepting (supportive of who they are) AND also firm in their limit setting (supportive of a kind or “right action).  “Children, as a rule, are far more likely to do what their parents tell them when they feel they that their parents love them and have their best interests at heart,” writes Lawrence Steinberg (1996).  In his book, Beyond the Classroom, Steinberg outlines three distinct parenting styles:  authoritarian, described as the “Do it because I said so” attitude, a rigid and characteristically inflexible style; permissive, described as the indulgent approach, as these parents tend to adopt a laissez-faire attitude, focused on keeping their children “happy” by not setting limits and by avoiding conflicts; and authoritative, described as responsive parenting, as these parents do not hesitate to set appropriate limits or to maintain appropriate standards for their children to live up to while they simultaneously nurture and encourage their children’s growing autonomy.  As Steinberg writes, these parents are “firm without being harsh, strict without being psychologically stifling.”

This second order of business, exploring your own parenting style, is a worthwhile endeavor by itself, but it is especially important as you focus your efforts on how to help your daughter now.  One of the most useful ways in which this endeavor could help you immediately would be to let your daughter know that while you expect certain changes from her, you have also begun to examine how your own parenting style may have made it more difficult for her to be more open and direct with you.  Essentially, by letting your daughter know that you are also working on how to be more effective parents, you are communicating to her that her behavior pattern is bigger than “just her,” that it may be indicative of a kind of “family problem,” and that you, the adults, are taking charge and trying hard to consider all these variables, and to address the problems directly.  Anyway, this is an area in which a skilled therapist can be of real help.

At the age of fifteen, it is not likely that your daughter is – or can be – as tuned in to your feelings as much as you might be able to be tuned into hers!  While her behavior is meaningful, it is probably not malicious, and she is probably eager to get your trust back.  “Getting that trust back” takes time, and is achieved by your daughter’s earning it back, gradually, by her being able to demonstrate, over time, that she understands more of your perspective, and is capable of acting with that understanding in mind.  When will that be?  Hard to say at this point.  This is another reason why having a skilled therapist, someone who can serve as a “third party” resource, can be very useful.  Talking these issues through over the next few months will be very important  Having a trained mental health professional to help you sort out your concerns, as they come up, will help you to make the most effective choices.  Finally, there will, undoubtedly, be times when it seems like your daughter and you are not communicating effectively, and that the problems may seem to be getting worse!  At these times, a skilled therapist can help to mediate these discussions, making the ultimate goal of mutual, effective communication between your daughter and you more likely.

Thank you for your question.  I hope this response is helpful.  Feel free to let me know how things unfold in this family situation.


David L. Gleason, Psy.D.
Licensed Psychologist