Overcoming resistance to change: The strongest argument you can make is not to

Most teens love to resist anything that you might have to suggest to them. Arguing with adults is a daily sport that they love to engage in, particularly when it concerns you trying to make them do something they don’t want to do. They do it at home, they do it at school, they do it with social workers, they do it with youth justice workers. No-one is exempt.

When the change that you want them to make involves some seriously damaging behaviour, either to themselves, others or both, and you want them to stop, then the stakes are really high. It might be aggressive behaviour, alcohol or drug abuse, risky sexual behaviour or criminal activity, to name a few. You want to literally shake some sense into them before it’s too late and they end up doing something with dire consequences.

Due to the urgency of the problem, the temptation is to lecture, even in the nicest possible way, to highlight the dangers, to tell them why they should stop.

Problem is, you argue your case, and they argue back, or they just tell you to get lost and ‘win’ the argument by ignoring you altogether. You’re exhausted, they’re exhausted. You talked, they didn’t listen. They talked, you didn’t listen. You think they’re foolhardy, they think you have no clue. And what is the end benefit of these exchanges? Usually absolutely nothing. They still don’t want to change.

So how on earth do you get them to change? How do you get past their utter resistance to the idea of change?

Pure and simply, you need to avoid doing the one thing that helps them to avoid really addressing the issue- arguing. Even if there is no shouting or expletives, engaging in an argument or debate will likely get you nowhere in effecting change. Why? Because you are creating an environment where they can finely hone their arguments as to why they don’t need to change (resistance talk), rather than doing exactly what you need them to do -exploring change (change talk).

Resistance talk includes:

– statements that deny there is an issue to be dealt with:
‘Get lost, I don’t have an anger problem’
‘Everyone else my age drinks. What’s the problem?’

– statements about intentions not to change:
‘If you think I’m going to listen to anything resistanceyou’ve got to say then you are mad. I’m fine as I am thanks. It’s you with the problem.’

– statements about the advantages of the status quo:
‘I have a boss time when I’m getting high with my mates.’
‘Nicking cars is ‘buzzin’’
‘It beats being stuck in this shit-hole of a house.’

– statements about the disadvantages of change:
‘How the hell else am I supposed to get anyone to listen to me?’
‘What am I supposed to do on a Friday night if I stop drinking? Might as well die, life would be so boring.’
‘I’d sooner die than have to spend any time with him/her.’

– statements of pessimism about change:
‘What’s the point anyway? It’ll make sod all difference to anything’
‘I can’t change. It’s just the way I am.’

– non-engagement:
silence, or change of subject.

Research has shown that with young people the most vital indicator of change is a reduction in this kind of resistance talk (Baer et al 2008). So the most important thing you can do to try and achieve change is to limit the amount of resistance talk a teen engages in. This means that you need to stop trying to argue the case for them to change, stop trying to persuade them, it will only encourage them to engage in this kind of talk.

Arguing against adult’s opinions is a normal part of the teen developmental process. Developing a greater sense of autonomy is a vital part of the pathway to adulthood and the natural partner to this is a greater resistance to adult authority. By trying to tell or even persuade them why they need to change, they will perceive that you are limiting their personal freedoms (and their drive towards greater autonomy and adulthood) and are more likely to have a negative resistant response and to engage in resistance talk (Brehm 1966). The end result is that you both leave the interaction more convinced of your own rightness and nowhere near change (even if lipservice has been paid).

So what can you do if you can’t argue the case for change with them? They need to see the other side of the debate. They’re stuck in their own thinking. If they don’t see the other side, surely they’ll get nowhere?

Well yes, you are absolutely right, someone needs to present the arguments for change, someone needs to consider the pros and cons of continuing in the current behaviour and in trying out some new behaviour. And the best person for the job? The teen themselves. Your role is not to argue or debate with them, to persuade them. Your role is to help them argue their own case for change.

So how do you help them to argue their own case for change? How do you get round all the objections, the arguments, the resistance talk, the sheer bloody-minded opposition?

1. Make it clear from the beginning that they are ultimately in control of their lives, not you

When beginning to try to get them to reconsider a behaviour, if you start off with a statement that conveys that you realise that they are in control of what they do and the decisions they make, then their ears will prick up. For most teens this is a radically different statement from the ones they are used to hearing from adults. They are far more used to being told how what they are doing is wrong and what they should be doing is x, y and z.

Once you have made their autonomy clear you can then explain how your interactions are going to work: ‘I want to pass control keyshelp you make the best decisions for you. I don’t want to lay down the law, I don’t want to tell you what to do. I just want to help you explore what’s going on in your life at the moment and to really understand where you are coming from. I really want to explore together and understand you more so I can help you decide how you want to handle this situation.’

It’s harder to argue with someone when they state that they want to listen to you and respect your right to choose. The most ardent resisters might still throw out resistance talk and continue to avoid addressing the issue. A classic would be, ‘There is no poxy situation. Just piss off’. In which case, you will need to employ one of the other following strategies.

2. Get them to tell you how they see the situation

Whatever you do, don’t tell them what you see the situation as being, e.g. drinking too much, being too aggressive etc. Even if it is well meant and framed helpfully like, ‘I really want to help you with your over-drinking’ or ‘I really want to understand why you get so angry that you lose control so I can help you’, all the teen will hear is that you are more interested in your own take on things than you are on listening to them. They’ll try and avoid listening to you, will dig in their heels and will resistance-talk till the cows come home to avoid having to engage with you.

If you tell them how you perceive the situation you are also missing out on an opportunity to understand better how they view their behaviour and how much and what sort of work you need to do with them to get them to a place where they will contemplate change.

A straightforward way of getting them to tell you how they see the situation is to ask them an open-ended question about what why they think they are having this conversation / are in this session with you: ‘Why do you think you are here?’ (If you have experienced further resistance as highlighted in point 1, moving the conversation onto this question could be a way of moving the conversation on).

For example, if the issue is drinking, you might get the following answers and these will give you some indicator of their readiness for change (for more on stages of change see here):

– ‘because you think I drink too much?’
[They probably don’t really think they have a problem, or if they do have some realisation they clearly don’t think it is as big a problem as you do. Some way to go before ready to make a change]

– ‘because the court said I had to’
[I’m not really interested in change, I’m just here through coercion]

– ‘because I drink too much’
[possibly receptive to idea of changing behaviour as owning the behaviour]

– ‘I have no idea’
[May just be nervous, or have no idea that their behaviour is a problem and therefore nowhere near change]

One simple question like this can allow a teen to express themselves and provides you with valuable information as to what they see the issues as being and how resistant to change they really are. Most importantly you avoid creating an argumentative environment that resistance talk thrives in, by avoiding putting words in their mouth.

3. Avoid using the term ‘problem’

Don’t refer to their situation or the issues in their lives as ‘problems’. This will be perceived as judgmental. no problemIf they think you are judging them then they are more likely to clam up or to engage in resistance talk, arguing why they do not have a problem. Terms like ‘situation’, or ‘issue’ are far less negatively perceived.

4. Disarm their resistance talk with neutrality, reflection & open-ended questions

Have you ever tried to argue with someone who refuses to argue with you? Have you ever tried to argue with someone who is really listening to you and trying to understand a situation from your perspective? It’s virtually impossible.

So when they throw out resistance talk to try and get you to argue with them or to make you go away, disarm them by refusing to argue or debate with them. Go Swiss and take a neutral position.

The underlying ethos of remaining neutral is that it prevents interactions from going down a conversational dead end as occurs when a debate or argument ensues- you both get stuck down the entrenched viewpoint cul-de-sac. Instead if you keep the conversation flowing and constantly seek to elicit information from your teen, you can direct the conversation so that they end up providing themselves with their own arguments for change.

The most important tool you have in maintaining your neutrality is the tool of reflection– reflecting back at them what they have said. It provides you with something to say when you don’t know what to say, and particularly when you disagree with what they have said. They don’t indicate agreement but they do keep the conversation going without it getting stuck on their resistance and without you both being led down an argumentative dead-end.

Reflections also allow you to direct a conversation to highlight and address important key issues, such as contradictions in their thinking, confusion and ambivalence, without you having to tell them this directly and therefore without you having to get their backs up in the process.

It is often only when they hear what they have said reflected back to them that they can see for themselves that their thinking is confused, incomplete or contradictory. The use of carefully worded open-ended questions in light of their elaborations can also move the conversation forward and hopefully closer to considering change.

Open-ended questions can also provide opportunities for you to neutrally present them with some additional generalised information. You can then enquire as to what they make of it, providing them with an opportunity to consider, in an unthreatening manner, how it relates to them.

Reflections can take the following main forms: repeat, paraphrase, and emotive.
(For further more complex forms of reflection such as amplification and minimisation I can highly recommend this book).

The following scenarios illustrate the differences between the types of reflection and the power of open-ended questions:

YP: ‘This is such a load of bollocks. I don’t see what the problem is with taking drugs. All my mates do it and we’re just fine’

You: ‘So you don’t see a problem with taking drugs.’(Repeat)

YP: ‘No I bloody don’t. It doesn’t do anyone any harm. It’s just a bit of fun.’

You: ‘So drugs don’t do anyone any harm.'(Repeat)

YP: ‘Well I suppose some people die of overdoses and shit. But I’m not on the hard stuff.’

You: ‘So drugs can cause harm, some people die of overdoses. (Paraphrase) Are there any other sorts of harm that drugs can do?’ (Open Question)

YP: {Gives some examples…}

You: ‘I’ve also heard and read examples of how some people have committed really violent crimes when on drugs and didn’t even know what they were doing. They were totally shocked at what they did. None of their friends or family thought that they could do something so violent. Neither could they. What do you make of that?’ (Open Question)

YP: ‘That’s totally mad. God that’d be total badness. You could end up banged up for ages. Oh my days, wouldn’t let that happen to me, no way.’

You: ‘So you wouldn’t let that happen to you. (Repeat) How would you stop that happening to you? (Open Question)

YP: ‘I don’t know why Mr Jones is making such a big deal about this and focusing on me. Everyone else was doing it too.’

You: ‘Mr Jones has some concerns, but it isn’t an issue for you.’ (Paraphrase)

YP: ‘Well I was only tagging the wall. It looked well boring how it was. That’s why we did it.’

You: ‘You all tagged the wall because it looked boring.’ (Paraphrase)

YP: ‘Well I was tagging it, but everyone else thought it was a good idea. They got away with it though. Mr Jones has it in for me.’

You: ‘You’re angry with Mr Jones for focusing on you. (Emotive) Why do you think he singled you out?’ (Open Question)

5. Reframe their statements to support the idea of change

You can often change the emphasis of a conversation from resistance to change by reflecting then reframing what they have said. You essentially show that you are listening but you introduce the idea of change. For example:

reframingYP: ‘Teachers are such a bunch of dicks. They are always on my case, always.’

You: ‘Teachers are annoying you. (Emotive Reflection) I wonder if there is some way we can get them to give you more positive attention? (Reframe)


So if you have a teen who is resistant to the idea of change, don’t try to argue or persuade them, it only encourages them to focus on why they don’t want to change and to engage in resistance talk. Your focus instead should be on neutrally exploring their viewpoint and guiding them to think about reasons for change, what that change might look like and how it might be achieved.

Don’t get me wrong. This approach is no easy or quick fix. For the most disengaged and the most resistant to change, you will need a truckload of patience. There will be no overnight cure.

The key to it all in my opinion is to stop being impatient, no matter how urgent the resolution of the issue might be. You need to take the time to listen to them, to explore ideas with them and endeavour to understand them more, to understand how they tick. The best way to achieve this is by getting them to talk and being neutral helps you to sweep aside the biggest barrier to this- their fear that you are going to try and control them, make them do something they don’t want to do, and force them to change.

Telling them what they should do because that seems like the quickest way to effect change is wholly counter-productive. The only person who can make the change is the teen themselves and engaging in debate or argument pushes them further away, not nearer to change. All you can do is guide them, provide them with helpful information and help them to understand themselves better so that they can make better decisions for themselves.

Guide them to a place where they begin to argue their own case for change. You are merely a provider of dots, they have to join them in their own time. Give them that time and that space. It’s the best route to change.

The strategies outlined in this post form part of the Motivational Interviewing method. For a background on this method read my post, ‘Motivational Interviewing: The Change You Can’t Make.

I also highly recommend the book, ‘Motivational Interviewing with Adolescents and Young Adults’. This is an extremely accessible and engaging book that is very practice-oriented and geared directly towards working with adolescents. It shows a wide range of applications for the method, with excellent strategies and phrases to employ. If you really want to understand the Motivational Interviewing method and how to practically apply it in your work with teens, buying a copy of this book is highly recommended. Amazon has ‘Look Inside’ so you can take a look without purchase- click on the links here.

Bauer, J.S. et al (2008)’Adolescent change language within a brief motivational intervention and substance use outcome’, Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 22, 570-575
Naar-King, S., Suarez, M. (2011) Motivational Interviewing with Adolescents and Young Adults (New York: Guilford Press)

Anger management not working?

7 comments On Overcoming resistance to change: The strongest argument you can make is not to

  • Thanks so much for sharing all this wonderful advice.

    I’m going to try this out with my teen. It may be a bit trickier to implement as a parent but it’s worth a try…

  • Thanks! Would love to know how it works as a parent rather than professional. Good luck!


  • this article hits the nail on the head, thank you, really useful, and actually Dorlee, I think it is just the same to implement this as a parent. There are some really good tips here. I like the idea of not engaging in the argument, but instead using your relationship to facilitate reflection. The other point I really like, and fins rather liberating is to emphasise that they are in control, not us. I think we need to realise this as much as them. We can control what we say and do but not what young people are doing or saying. better to create an alliance than a battle..
    Thanks Sam, very clear and easy to put into practice!

    Sometimes the argument back is not about the topic though, it could be about the fact that you, as a youth worker are showing care. if you dont mind me shamelessly plugging my article on this, it may also be useful when working with traumatised kids.. http://knightlamp.blogspot.com.au/2012/05/inevitable-rupture-why-traumatised.html

  • Hi Stephan,

    Thanks for commenting! Took a look at your article and it also hits the nail on the head regarding teens pushing back at you demonstrating care. Kids who have been ‘messed with’ by people who are supposed to care for them will test you until they are convinced of your genuineness. I also cover some of these ideas in my post, ‘I promise you, I will try and piss you off.’


  • I love ‘I promise you, I will piss you off’! Nicely written in the first person too. I will refer my staff and others to this one. Congratulations, what a nice way to demonstrate the importance of care persistence.

  • Make it clear from the beginning that they are ultimately in control of their lives, not you -this the BEST statement of all…they need to get this in their head early or else they wake up as adults wondering “Who’s in charge here?”

  • You are brilliant! This aligns nicely with Life Space Crisis Intervention!

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