What to Do When Your Teenager Rebels

Few experiences test your patience like living with a rude and sullen teenager. Indeed, those who have never done so would be astonished by how unpleasant some can be. In fact, many could be no worse if they tried!

Problems

The more you understand your surly little monster, the better. And this is something with which many parents struggle. What happened to that sweet little girl who snuggled up to you while read her Harry Potter? When did she change into this banshee, who does nothing but argue and throw tantrums all day? And nothing works, does it? If you get tough, she accuses you of persecuting her; if you reassure her that you understand, she scowls and rolls her eyes; and if you try simple kindness and good manners, she finds you irritating and patronising.

Teenagers often withdraw or pull away from their parents. They don’t want to come on vacation any more, indeed, don’t want to be seen in public with you. Usually, parents put this down to “hormonal changes,” grit their teeth, and wait for things to settle. Sometimes, however, the behavior escalates and they end up like shell-shocked soldiers: moving around in constant fear, nerves shattered, just waiting for the next eruption.

Occasionally, the behavior becomes serious, as they fall in with a bad crowd, develop a drug habit, and so on. Others refuse to go to school, or even turn violent. More often, the problem is not so much their behavior (many teenagers hardly seem to do anything) but their attitude. Some merely become sulky and sullen, answering every question with a grunt, never saying thank you, etc.

Some take out their frustration on their parents. And they can do so with staggering cruelty. Indeed, some teenagers literally bully their family. So, for example, if the family gathers to watch the news, your teen makes a point of yawning or turning away when you make a comment. Without actually saying so, they make it clear that you are not worth their time. Instead, they sing the praises of some cool teacher, or their friend’s “amazing” dad. Their teacher wouldn’t have said what you just said. He’d have said something more original and interesting. Through nothing but body language and facial expressions, your teen makes it clear that you are boring, stupid, old-fashioned, and small-minded.

As awful as the sulky and silent teen may be, his opposite, the one who thinks he knows it all, is even worse. For a parent suffering a midlife crisis, this nasty attitude hurts. It touches a sore spot. And, as obnoxious as your teen may be, they may also be right to accuse you of having turned into a bore, more interested in a sale at the local DIY store than the latest novels and movies.

To make matters worse, some parents have a much harder time than others, which can leave them isolated. For example, the mother of a rude and obnoxious boy needs the support and understanding of a friend. Every evening he disappears without a word and comes home smelling of cannabis and alcohol. Close to breaking point, she invites a neighbor over for coffee. The neighbor’s son is a similar age, and so hopefully she will understand. But to her amazement, the neighbor replies, a little awkwardly, that her son is polite, hard-working, and no trouble at all.

Such problems also put marriages under pressure. Though parents are advised to present a united front, this can be hard. For a start, they feel they have done something wrong. The husband, for example, turns on his wife and blames her for being too soft on their son when he was small, for spoiling him and preventing the father from correcting him when he was naughty. Or the mother, enraged by her daughter’s rudeness, says to her husband, “you treated her like your little princess, and now look at the result!”

Understanding

Parents often speak of the incredible transformation their child has undergone. Rather than a son or daughter, they now appear to have a surly and ungrateful lodger. Even those who prepare themselves can still be shocked. But it is important to remember that your teen probably shares this bewilderment. At no other time in life does the body undergo such profound and sudden change.

The better you understand, the better you will cope. First, it is important to recognize that your son or daughter has little control over what is happening. During adolescence, the brain is quite literally being rewired and reconstructed. New hormonal messages and new experiences affect the amygdala (the part of the brain that controls sex, anger, fear, etc.) like never before. And these changes confuse the child as much as his parents. They are changing into a new person, and trying to work out who that new person will be.

Try to see your teen as a work in progress. This is no joke by the way; they are literally working out who they are. All the shouting and tantrums, the silly clothes and awful music, the contempt for everything your generation like and believe in, is just part of this process.

Overreacting and Interfering

Overreacting and interfering are two of the most common mistakes parents make. Teenagers can be agonizingly self-conscious. And many are so sensitive that life becomes a constant torment. Stop the crude jokes about boyfriends or spots. You won’t win them over like that. On the contrary, you will merely antagonize them.

Make it absolutely clear that you love them and are here for them if they need to talk. But do so in a calm, casual manner. Obviously, you must be sincere, and you must be sure they believe it. But don’t become carried away. Unless they are frightened or distressed, teenagers don’t want hugs, or long, earnest talks about how you’ll always be there for them.

Above all, respect their personal space. Do not just wander into their room uninvited. And be very careful how you speak to their friends. If one thing is guaranteed to enrage your child, it is asking their friends why your son or daughter is so moody, whether they are being bullied, how they get along with their teachers, and so on.

This does not mean you should cut them loose! But when you spend time together, make a point of avoiding personal questions. Just take the dog for a walk or go and see a movie and, once again, speak to them as you would another adult.

Respect and Boundaries

If you want respect, you have to both earn and demand it. You will earn their respect by standing up for yourself. Teenage boys, in particular, often despise a weak father. If the boy rebels and the father responds by trying to placate him, or by caving in to his demands, buying him anything he wants, etc., it will make matters worse. Since the boy is pushing against an open door, he will keep on pushing. Teenagers are looking for boundaries and, when they don’t find one, it scares them.

It is also important to maintain your dignity. Lose that and you will lose their respect. For example, if your daughter is being obnoxious, do not turn to your husband and bury yourself in his arms in floods of tears. Your daughter will almost certainly find this irritating, and may even accuse you of turning her father against her.

But you must also demand respect. Don’t waste your time spelling it out. Parents often resort to clichés like, “Show me respect, and I’ll show you respect,” or “I’ll treat you like an adult when you start acting like an adult.” You have almost certainly said that before and, even if you haven’t, your child has probably heard her friend’s mother say the same thing. Instead, be respectful. And when your child crosses a line, put them in their place quickly and firmly – and mean it.

Treating Them Like Adults

Few things prove so effective as treating your teen like an adult. Again, be careful not to patronize them. So, for example, if a major news story breaks, ask them what they think. If you disagree with what they say, argue with them. But argue as you would argue with an adult. Don’t say “you’ll understand one day,” but don’t be too enthusiastic or complimentary either.

And don’t make a big deal out of treating them like an adult. In other words, don’t say to them “I think you’re old enough to try a beer,” just ask them if they’d like one. And when you say it, say it casually and naturally. When you treat a teen as an adult, you throw them off guard. How can you rebel against someone who is speaking to you as an equal? And if you do speak to them in a mature and civil way, they may be more conscious of, and ashamed of, their sulky childishness.

No one will claim that raising a teenager is easy. At their worst, they can be repulsive, and often you can do nothing right. But, no matter how bad things become, take comfort from this – the teenage years come to an end!

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