“Julia is so sensitive I can’t say anything to her without it causing a big blow-up!” exclaimed Julia’s mom. “How am I supposed to raise this kid when I can’t even talk to her?!”
Julia’s mother had a good point. She needed to be able to “parent” her daughter without worrying what the fallout would be. But Julia was typical of many teenagers who feel entitled to impose their moods or frustrations on others simply because they feel, well, moody or frustrated. Shrewd and savvy, these teenagers have learned to exploit their parents’ wishes to avoid a bigger, louder and messier argument.
Then, in turn their parents, calculating the “cost” of speaking out, become increasingly tentative or self-conscious about addressing their teen’s behavior or attitude. The teen picks up on his or her parents’ hesitation and ramps up the drama while the parents, trying to avoid an even worse argument than the one they’re already having, back down. And so it goes.
Breaking out of this vicious cycle takes mindful parenting and a willingness to engage with your unhappy teen even if might be uncomfortable or escalate the tension. Parenting mindfully in this situation means responding to your moody or acting out teen not reactively with what you feel you should do in that moment, but reflectively, by taking a few moments to understand what your teenager is actually trying to make you feel or do.
Being willing to engage means saying, “Look, I can see you’re feeling lousy and I’d help you if I knew what you needed. But I can’t keep letting your moods rule the household the way they do. I’ve avoided confronting you because I knew it would just escalate the tension between us, but I’m not doing you or our family any favors. I understand that no one can control what they feel, but everyone needs to learn to control how they express it.”
Most teenagers would be disarmed by such thoughtful, candid response from their parent and simply want to exit stage left. Let them. Pressing a point too hard or too long only annoys kids. Besides, the more important thing here is to put your teen on notice that she should not expect to be able to casually spread her misery without some push back from you.
Also keep in mind that…
- … getting you to back off is exactly what your teenager is trying to do. She does this in order to escape accountability for her mood, attitude, or behavior. But accommodating repeatedly to your teenager’s sullen mood or unpleasant attitude allows her to avoid becoming aware of how her behavior affects other people. It is an unfortunate lesson she will likely take with her into adulthood.
- … at the same time you are asking your teen to better control her behavior, it’s important to try better appreciating her genuine grievances and dilemmas. Many of the things kids complain about can sound superficial, but have real significance in their lives and matter tremendously to them even if they don’t to you. Parents insult their kids when they react dismissively to their problems, making it seem as if the only problems that matter are the ones adults have.
- … it’s important resist the temptation to look past behavior problems you think are too minor, too infrequent, or too inconsequential. Little things do matter, and give you a chance to address issues that are too volatile to address constructively when they are bigger and everyone’s temperature is higher.
The idea that kids are hard-wired to become moody and self-absorbed once they hit adolescence has got to be one of the most destructive, self-fulfilling prophecies ever perpetuated by our cultural beliefs about teenagers. Adolescents are so much better than that, and deserve to be held to a better standard.
We sell them short when we hand them exemptions from being good citizens—conscientious, responsible, capable of caring deeply—just because of a collective, and largely unexamined, conviction that they can’t control themselves. Of course they can; they do all the time— in school, among their friends, in front of their friends’ parents. There’s no reason to accept anything less at home.
Dr. Janet Sasson Edgette is a psychologist dedicated to helping parents raise conscientious, respectful children they enjoy having around. Her work with families is consistent with her belief that respect, accountability, and prudent transparency are the cornerstones to healthy, enduring relationships between loved ones. Stop Negotiating With Your Teen: Strategies for Parenting Your Angry, Manipulative, Moody or Depressed Adolescent is her popular parenting book, and her most recent book is The Last Boys Picked: Helping Boys Who Don’t Like Sports Survive Bullying and Boyhood. www.JanetEdgette.com