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Teen Attitude, Teen Trouble

Eleven ideas for parenting a difficult teenager.

bridges&balloons, Flickr/CreativeCommons
Source: bridges&balloons, Flickr/CreativeCommons

Adolescents are famous for giving their parents grief, so you know you’re not alone in finding it hard to parent a teenager. It’s actually a healthy part of growing up to challenge one’s parents—so at least some of the trouble your teen is causing you is necessary to their growing into a competent adult who can solve their own problems.

But if your teen is openly insolent, refuses to do household chores, and is frequently defiant and surly with you, you might need help. Sometimes, it’s a matter of fine-tuning your own attitude, and sometimes, it takes a lot of time and trouble, but always, it’s worth doing everything you can to solve the problem of a problem teen.

Here are eleven ways to rein your teen challenges back into the healthy range:

1. Expect power issues and conflict; argue as needed. Also, be warm and loving.

A hot debate is a great way for your teenager to discover what you care about, and why it’s worth caring about. According to the research on optimal human development, you’re doing your parenting job well if you and your teenager are arguing a lot, as long as there’s also love and warmth in your home.

2. Stay calm. Stay cool. Own the parenting space.

Difficult kids appear to take pleasure from pushing your buttons and making you crazy. But on a deeper level, they may be crying out for your help or your attention. They need you to stay strong and calm. Just like a toddler who challenges the rules, teens feel safest when they know they can trust their parents to be solid, no matter what grief they give them.

So, do whatever you need to do to stay grounded and calm. Learn how to use breathing techniques, count to ten, practice mindfulness, take a walk in nature, give yourself a time-out. Do what works to keep yourself sane and reasonable when interacting with your teen. If none of your usual methods work—that is, if your teen has totally pushed your buttons and you feel like exploding—do your best to defer saying anything until you’ve calmed down.

3. Stay connected. Establish dependable together-time, every day and every week.

Make sure you have a time each day where your total focus is on your teen, a few minutes when you can listen and hear anything they might want to talk about.

Make a regular date once a week to do something together. It can be going out for ice cream, taking a walk in the neighbourhood, or taking an exercise class together. They might groan, complain, and try to get out of it, but you should proceed regardless, and try to think of it and act as if it is a highlight of your week.

Your kid almost certainly won’t let you know this—at least, not until they’re all grown up—but your together-time might be a lifesaver.

4. Smile. Attune to your sense of humour and your empathy.

Being a teenager can feel impossible, as the teen experiences all the changes and conflicts involved in growing up and becoming oneself. With a little effort, you can almost always find humour instead of aggravation, and share that with your child. Let them feel they have someone on their side who doesn’t take it all too seriously, but at the same time, sees how hard it is and loves them all the same. Obviously, don’t laugh at your child—ever—but rather at the absurdity of the situations you find yourselves in.

When your teenager is making you crazy, try completing this sentence in your own mind: “It must be hard…” For example, “My daughter is so difficult. It must be hard to crave independence while living with your parents.” Or, “My son is so angry when I talk about academics. It must be hard trying to be an adult and finding your schoolwork challenging.”

Go lightly on yourself, too, observing yourself with humour and empathy, even as you over-react to your teen’s over-reactions.

5. Be positive. Don’t judge. Don’t micro-manage.

One of the reasons it’s hard to be a teenager is the pervasive sense of being judged. Children are blissfully unaware of the perceptions of others, but teens are painfully, brutally aware, and believe that everyone is looking at them with critical mocking eyes.

So, intervene only when truly necessary. Avoid nagging and criticism. Trust your teen to figure out the small stuff, even if it means they’re suffering consequences you could have warned them about.

No matter the provocation, make sure your teen feels your positive gaze. That can make the difference between them losing their way in harmful directions, and finding and living their strength.

6. Write the house rules together.

  • Ask your teenager what they need in order to want to be at home. It’ll probably include having no rules, no nagging, and total freedom, among other things. Have them write all that down in the form of house rules.
  • Then talk about your requirements for a happy home—occasional peace and quiet, everyone doing their chores, whatever—and write that down.
  • Look for shared objectives. Then talk about the practical details, the best ways of meeting your shared objectives (like there always being good food in the kitchen).
  • Once you’ve nailed down the rules for meeting the objectives you agree on, consider your apparently competing objectives (like their having access to internet all night long vs. you wanting to restrict internet access to certain times). Think together about compromises that allow you both to feel some degree of comfort with the solution. (Note: Building in rewards and change over time can help with that. If your 13-year-old wants unrestricted internet access, and you want their devices off by 8 p.m., think about providing extensions and exceptions as rewards for compliance in other areas, like housekeeping help.)

This process of articulating house rules can take several meetings, and involve many drafts. The rules themselves should be flexible, changing over time and with changing circumstances. Try to make the rule-making process as easy and stress-free as possible. Keep your focus on simplicity. The fewer the rules, the easier they will be to remember and enforce.

Note: You can count on your teen to challenge the house rules until they know they can trust you to keep them safe.

7. Listen. Support your teen in solving their own problems.

When your teenager seems troubled, let them know you’re happy to listen or to do some problem-solving, if they want that. Let them come to you if and when they’re ready. Don’t push it, but your being available when they ask for that can make the difference between a good decision and a dangerous one.

When your teen does want to talk, be fully present (no distractions, no devices), and be fully positive (no criticism, no judgement). Offer no solutions, just patient attention and acceptance. If your child asks what you think they should do, do your best not to give an answer. (That’s hard. You will think you KNOW the answer.) Instead, try to ask the questions that lead them to identify the best possible solutions. Any solution they feel they’ve invented will be worth a hundred solutions you’ve given them.

8. Encourage relationships with extended family and community members.

A network of supportive adult relationships can be critically important in an adolescent’s life. Do what you can to encourage your teen to maintain connections with extended family, friends, neighbours, and other community members. Support them in participating in positive community groups of interest, whether artistic, athletic, religious, political, or other.

Other adults can provide alternative perspectives when your teenager is feeling out of tune with you and the rest of their family. Connecting with grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends of the family, and others can help your child see you and themselves through different eyes, as well as providing a safety valve for talking about what’s bothering them.

Many teens feel dramatically misunderstood by their parents, and therefore lonely in their own home. Decisions based on a feeling of loneliness are rarely wise. Feeling connected in a network of social support, on the other hand, can support your young person in finding more confidence and a healing sense of connection.

9. Let your teen suffer the natural consequences of their actions, as much as possible.

It’s better that your teenager learn about natural consequences while they still have a home and at least one caring parent to rely on.

If your teenager drops their dirty clothes on the floor, they won’t have anything clean to wear. (Do not pick up their dirty stuff and wash it.) If your teenager doesn’t do their homework, or doesn’t attend class, they’ll start failing courses. (Do not rescue them from looming deadlines, or drive them to school if they’re late.) If they don’t get enough sleep, or don’t eat nutritious meals, they won’t feel so good. (Do what you can to model and encourage good habits, but don’t nag about it. The time for doing that has long passed.) If they’re bad-tempered and indulge their bad moods at school and elsewhere, other kids won’t want to spend time with them. (And you don’t need to point this out, either.)

With more serious bad decisions (drugs, vandalism, aggression, etc.), it’s time for professional help.

10. Respect cultural and other differences. Know that’s tough for your kid.

Teenagers experience a conflict between the need to be a totally unique individual, and the need to fit in and be "normal." They experience extra pressures on the normal side if they come from a family that looks different than the mainstream. If you’re an immigrant, a single parent, a member of a cultural or religious minority, or you’re in something other than a heterosexual monogamous relationship, your child may feel a conflict between their home values and what they see as their peers’ values.

Kids from minority situations do best when their parents are flexible, and respect their kids’ needs to create their own unique blend of mainstream values, and their own family’s values.

11. Put it in perspective.

Remind yourself in all the ways you know how that your child once was a wonderful human being, and is doing their sticky imperfect unconscious best to become that again. When my now-wonderful adult daughter was a teenage nightmare, I found a photo of her as a sweet four-year-old. I taped that photo to the fridge. In times of extreme trouble, it helped me stay strong and loving, which is what she needed most of all.

If these ideas don’t work for you, or if you’re dealing with a more seriously troubled teenager (drugs, violence, etc.), it’s time to look for professional help. Take advantage of the small parenting window you still have before your teenager is an adult. Follow these suggestions, but also get the help you need to provide them a more solid foundation for moving into independent adulthood.

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