Sometimes it seems as if the people we love tend to do the exact opposite of what we want, no matter how sincerely, how nicely, or even how not so nicely that we ask. It’s not just your family…so don’t worry, because there’s nothing inherently wrong with you and yours.  This behavioral tendency happens to be part of human nature and shows up in varying degrees of intensity in any relationship containing an emotional connection.  Husband to wife, between friends, between co-workers, and ESPECIALLY WITH TEENS as the relationship is not on equal footing due to the parent/child power differential. It can happen in any relationship.  

This stubborn stance comes in all shapes and sizes: the more one partner pushes for an increase in time together, the less time and energy the other seems to have available. The more parents push for extra effort in school or for adherence to rules, the more kids resist and insist on other paths. It can even be as simple as begging your friend to go see a new movie with you; and the more you beg, the less he wants to go.  This movement in the opposite direction is a natural reflex action to what’s called emotional demand.  The survival instinct part of our brain can sometimes kick on what I like to call our “Rebel Reflex” when it senses that another is attempting to control or change us.  People have two instinctual reactions to anxious pressure, to conform to it, or to rebel against it.  Just like other human reflexes, these behaviors are housed in a much deeper and stronger part of our brain than the judgment center; meaning, these actions happen before we realize we’re doing them…if we ever realize them at all.  They are part of our “auto pilot” for interacting with our environment.  

So what gives someone’s brain the perception that they are being controlled? There are two big things that convey emotional demand every time.

  • The first is the level of emotion and anxious need one shows when speaking. Signals like tone of voice, facial expression, volume, posture, and body language are constantly monitored by the human brain to sense the level of tension/anxiety/frustration in those around us. If the way we are approaching our loved ones sends off the message that we absolutely need them to change or to do “X” so that we can be ok, then the odds of that change happening decrease drastically.

Try and deliver requests or boundary statements with your volume, tone, and posture at “room temperature”.  Demands that get delivered “hot” may get a conforming response in the moment but it adds to the anxious pressure building and fueling the reaction on the next go round.  Demands that get delivered “ice cold” convey just as much discomfort and can have the same effect.  Many times, the more emotion that is transmitted alongside the communication, the more potential fuel we provide the other person for a reaction of defiance.

  • The next big thing that feeds defiance is how a parent or a loved one sets a limit or boundary. The first instinct in setting a boundary is to tell the other person what they can and cannot do. “Here’s the line, don’t you dare cross it!” It places the focus on the other person and boxes them in. For many people, especially teens, these are fighting words!

Teenagers are going through the developmental stage of awkwardly practicing what it’s like to be an individual, and when they haven’t figured out how to do that yet they try to get started by fighting every limit placed on them.  So with rebellious teens, their Rebel Reflex is locked and loaded.  Try instead setting the limit on your own behavior and making “I” statements instead of “you” demands.  Let’s look at the difference with a common struggle:

Setting a controlling boundary on them looks like: “If you don’t stop being disrespectful then you can’t play video games for two weeks!”

Setting a limit on what you will do if your personal boundary is crossed looks like: “If I continue to hear disrespectful language then I’m going to take up the video games for at least a week. If I continue to hear it throughout that week, I will add another. You’re free to choose which path it will be.”

Shifting the focus from the reaction of family members to the way we are approaching them and the limits we put on our own behavior, moves the issue to an area we have power over: self. How we proceed with those two points has a great influence on whether or not the other person is reacting to us or responding to us. If you have been in a reactive delivery cycle with someone for a while it may take working on removing the emotional demand and setting limits on what you will and won’t do for a while before getting a non-reactive response. Don’t give up because if you hold your ground and keep your focus on your manner of engagement, things will start to improve. If you don’t want someone to move in the opposite direction, don’t get locked in a push/pull battle, attempting to control another’s behavior. Nothing kicks in the rebel reflex like needy pressure and control.

Here’s what makes this so important for teens especially one with behavior problems. The more teenagers either conform or rebel to emotional demand, the less ability they develop to make responsible decisions for themselves.  Conforming to or rebelling against parent pressure or anxiety is a reaction, not a choice.  These two things happen in different parts of the brain.  Choice is housed in the frontal cortex (upstairs brain) and our reactions to pressure/anxious demand are housed in our limbic system (downstairs brain). If you want your child to develop the ability to make good choices, then they have to have the chance to practice making choices, not just reactions to emotional demand. When we don’t regulate our emotional demand we increase the amount of functioning they’re naturally doing in their downstairs brain.  Practice these two methods and they will have plenty of chances to practice making decisions and linking their consequences to those decisions by using their upstairs brain.