“My teenager is selfish and rude! How did I raise a child like this?”

"Just a Blur" — Franz Klammer by Mimi Stuart
Live the Life you Desire

Teenage rudeness is a normal attempt to separate from the parent. Teenagers respond to what they perceive as overly-involved behavior by pushing the parent away. A parent may not think he or she is overly involved, but teenagers are very sensitive to even the most minor hints and suggestions, often seeing them as controlling and manipulative. Sometimes feelings of being controlled are related to how strongly attached a child feels to the parent.

The basic conflict between teenagers and parents revolves around the parent’s desire to protect the child versus the teen’s desire for autonomy. On the one hand, parents want to make sure their children don’t get hurt and tend to take care of them as they did when they were younger. It is difficult to gradually let go and risk seeing your child make mistakes or get hurt.

On the other hand, children gradually become more autonomous and capable. They want and need to make more of their own decisions and mistakes — age-appropriately of course. This desire for autonomy, in addition to adolescent hormones and school and social pressures, causes them to react with strong emotions.

Rudeness is a rudimentary attempt to gain independence and demonstrates that the teenager feels fairly secure that the parent won’t become overly punitive — not a bad thing.

In contrast, in the presence of a cold or neglectful parent, teenagers may not feel so secure. Instead of feeling the need to separate, they might feel defeated in their longing for more togetherness.

When teenagers become rude, it may be a sign that the parent should become more detached. Detachment does not mean becoming overly permissive and it does not mean not caring. It means not getting overly-involved emotionally. A parent can be concerned and detached by eliminating reactivity and the appearance of urgency.

A parent needs to increasingly resist micro managing and hovering over a teen as a child grows up. While it’s important to be there for guidance, emergencies, and setting boundaries, parents should refrain from being reactive to the teenager’s intense emotions of outrage and grief. Rather than jumping in trying to solve their problems or, alternatively, trying to minimize their emotions, remaining calm will benefit the teen. If the teen is open to engagement, instead of hastily giving your opinion, ask questions, such as, “What do you think about the situation?”

In addition to becoming more detached, the parent can suggest more effective ways to criticize, withdraw, or ask for more independence. “Instead of slamming the door, just say that you need some time alone.” “Instead of rolling your eyes and saying, ‘What do you need to know that for?!’ just tell me that you’d rather not talk about it.” They may not say so, but they will appreciate your recognition of their need to set boundaries.

Overly strict expectations, with no room for the emotional inexperience of adolescence, will backfire. If you expect your teen to never roll her eyes at you or melt down after a bad day at school, you will find yourself criticizing and nagging constantly, and your teen will withdraw or rebel or take her behavior underground.

~Wendy Mogel, PhD, Author of “The Blessing of a B Minus”

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Recommended Reading: “The Blessing of a B Minus” by Wendy Mogel, PhD

Read “Parenting to strictly: ‘Because I said so!'”

Read “Setting Boundaries.”

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29 Responses to “My teenager is selfish and rude! How did I raise a child like this?”

  1. Crystal Lynnknudson says:

    Well if your son is liked that don.t let him disrespectful you and show love and affection to him sometimes teenagers to that because they want attention maybe he going flews thing a school or work and such anger about maybe you should teach him how deal with anger

  2. norah says:

    Hi Alison,
    My son is 16, he was diagnosed with borderline ADHD when he was 5 years old. Needless to say that my husband and I have always had a rough time with raising him although we have tried to do it in a loving, compassionate and faith-based way because we are Christians. He used to be hyperactive and that thankfully has slowed down but there are things that still trouble me today. He has plenty of positive qualities but also negative ones. I read many books and articles to learn more about ADHD and symptoms and the one that stood out was selfishness. My son never liked to share his food or toys with others. Now as a teen, he’s still the same way, does not like to share food, does not think of others, barely does a favor for anyone, does chores only because we give him an allowance and complains if he doesn’t get his way. He never sees anyone else’s point of view so we end up arguing about things, big and small, it doesn’t really matter. I have tried to explain to him in many different ways that it would be best for him if he learns to think of others because it is rewarding in the long run. I have used biblical examples and also real life examples but he insists that he’s just fine. I have turned out to be a strict/firm parent because I wanted to set boundaries and help him along the way to learn to respect and obey rules at home and in society. But i’m afraid he is still on his way to becoming a lazy, selfish, narcissistic adult and i hate to think of all the problems that brings in life; depression, failed relationships, loss of jobs and other opportunities, etc. He is happy when everything is going well, but when we talk to him about his grades(he tends to have very low or failing grades in several classes) in spite of being very bright and having a high IQ or if we question his lateness to classes, rudeness towards teachers on occasion or defiance towards us, he throws a little kid tantrum and says he feels depressed and can’t talk to us about it. When i get upset and put my foot down and demand respect and punish him he thinks its unfair. My husband is very laid back and super forgiving, basically this leads my son to prefer talking to my husband because he gets his way sometimes. My husband thinks i’m too strict but then realizes his mistakes when our son does something wrong. When we do agree to punish our son by taking his phone away or grounding him then my son thinks we are both wrong and that whatever he did was not a big deal and says that he’s not really going to change his way of thinking. I’m at a loss of what to do.

    • Alison says:

      Hello,

      I’m sorry you are facing such difficulties. I do have to say that most of what you describe is not uncommon among teenagers, particularly when the parents are either too lax or too strict, or one of each. It’s hard for me to know what’s really going and to know how much is simply a matter of in-born personality or a normal rebellious dynamic of a teenager who is bored at school and is feels controlled yet doesn’t have any pursuits he is passionate about. But let me just respond to a few of your comments.

      I believe that almost all little children don’t like to share their food and toys. Even older children and adults often have ulterior motives about when to share food and toys with others. Only few develop the ability to be giving for pure reasons, without wanting credit or acknowledgement for sharing. Does your son have any siblings? I really don’t think this sharing of food and toys needs to be an issue. I personally don’t like to share my food unless there’s plenty. 🙂

      “Now as a teen, he’s still the same way, does not like to share food, does not think of others, barely does a favor for anyone, does chores only because we give him an allowance and complains if he doesn’t get his way. He never sees anyone else’s point of view so we end up arguing about things, big and small, it doesn’t really matter.”

      I don’t think any of this is unusual behavior for a teen behaving toward his parents, particularly if the parents are focused on the child. If, for instance, both parents are working and there are four other siblings, there is less focus on any individual child. Such children often crave the attention of their parents rather than become dismissive of it. Often disrespectful behavior is a way to create separation at an age where the child has a lot of hormones raging and feels very engulfed by too much advice from his or her parents. I’m not suggesting that a child is better off with two very busy parents who don’t have time for him or her. I’m just suggesting that disrespectful behavior from a teenager probably means that it’s appropriate to separate emotionally from the child more, by giving less advice and giving less punishment, though natural consequences are still appropriate. I would also avoid spoiling him, which you may not be doing anyway.

      I would definitely stop arguing with him. He has heard you talk to him many times about all sorts of things like thinking about others. There’s no need to continue to lecture him on any level when he’s 16. Lecturing will cause anger, rebellion, or a closing off toward people doing the lecturing. He has already heard all you have to say, even though he looks like he hasn’t heard you. I’m not suggesting that you become permissive. But don’t lecture and don’t punish. If you give me some examples of what he does that causes you to argue, I can give you some suggestions about how to respond in a neutral but self-empowered way–without any contempt.

      Please also note that often kids can be rude at home while still being polite to others. Is that the case with him?

      “if we question his lateness to classes, rudeness towards teachers on occasion or defiance towards us, he throws a little kid tantrum and says he feels depressed and can’t talk to us about it. When i get upset and put my foot down and demand respect and punish him he thinks its unfair.”

      Sorry to say this, but the way you respond to him is a lot like having a tantrum. By over-reacting, getting angry and punishing him, you are manipulating him emotionally. Yes there should be consequences, but not a big emotional reaction. I think you need to learn to back off and also to use nonviolent communication. For example, “I feel sad when you fail a class that I know you could pass. Please let me know if you think you should get help, go to a different school, or if there’s anything we can do to help. They are your grades, but they may limit your options for your future.” The key is that he gets the feeling that he is making decisions about his life, not yours. If you are too emotionally reactive to his life, he may decide to separate from you by rebelling and making these bad decisions. He may think that you want to control him, and bad behavior becomes his unconscious way of showing you that you can’t control him. Tell him you will help and support him if he asks for it. But you are not going to manipulate him into doing what you want. If he senses that you are living your life, and that his life is up to him, he may start re-evaluating his actions. At this point his actions and non-actions may be in response to your actions. But if you focus on him less and with less emotional heat, he may have nothing to get so reactive about. I don’t know whether grounding him and taking his phone away are helpful. At this age, a teenager who feels cut off may find a way to get even by doing whatever hurts his parents (such as more bad grades, disrespect…) Even though you don’t want to coddle someone who is misbehaving, it is helpful to be respectful to find out what’s going on.

      Is boarding school an option? Often teenagers thrive at boarding schools, where there are rules and consequences but no arguments and emotional reactivity with the adults in charge.

      People are born different. He is less likely to be selfish and narcissistic if the people around him are generally less reactive in times of anxiety (differentiated.) So the best help you can give him is to become more differentiated and less reactive. If he is to be selfish, there are plenty of interesting selfish people in this world too. Steve Jobs for one extreme example. Moreover, the greater your push for him to become generous and thoughtful, the more likely he is to polarize and become even more selfish. Perhaps it’s best if people around him become a little more “selfish” or focused on their own interests.

      You might consider talking to him and saying something like, “I apologize for being reactive and giving you a lot of advice. I just want you to live a fulfilling life, and I experience fear when I see you getting to classes late and not trying in school. I feel sadness when you are rude to me. I am going to back off, although I still expect respect and help around the house. You are 16 now and the decisions you make affect your life. I don’t want you to make bad decisions just in order to rebel against me. So I’m going to ease my lecturing etc. But just know that I am on your side and want what’s best for you. But it’s up to you to figure out what that is.”

      All the best,

      Alison

    • Alison says:

      Good morning,
      Here is a quote I just found from Dr. Murray Bowen that explains part of what I was saying: “Overachievement and underachievement are in the same category. Overachievers are approval oriented and bind anxiety by their successes. Underachievers are also relationship oriented, but bind [attach] anxiety by promoting the involvement of others in their failures and by thwarting others’ efforts to change them.” Less reactivity from others will make his actions less powerful and thus less satisfying.

  3. Julie says:

    My son is 20, but we are having a great deal of trouble with his selfish behavior. He stays at home and commutes to school, and this summer he is basically just doing what he wants (although he does have a part time job) and getting angry and impatient if we ask for help around the house. He doesn’t respond to his grandfather’s appeals for visits, he often speaks disrespectfully, and he has a very short fuse. He is always willing to accept gifts and the generosity of others, but doesn’t make much effort to say thank you (or downplays his thank yous, saying them in a cartoon voice). He does not say words of love, nor does he ever offer positive affirmation to anyone. If I complain about this, he says I am a “martyr” and “focused on myself.” He is highly critical of other people and talks about all of our extended family members behind their backs (and yes, I always protest when he does this).

    He swears often even though he knows I don’t like it. He blames other people when confronted about his own attitude. He is highly sensitive about being confronted but almost always calls other people names and speaks harshly of them.

    He definitely has a good side and can be very funny and entertaining. However, today I had such a negative encounter with him, in which he demanded something from us to which he felt he was entitled, but correspondingly has done very little for us this whole summer, that I ended up feeling depressed, as though I had failed as a parent. My husband and I like to think we are good role models; neither of us drink or smoke (in fact, my husband gave up both of these habits for health reasons), we don’t swear, we’re not abusive, we raised our children in a faith community, and we try to do things that model other-centered behavior. We are not particularly demanding of our children, but we do ask them to be kind, and it’s his lack of kindness that bothers me most of all.

    Any feedback you can offer would be helpful.

    • Alison says:

      Hello Julie,

      This is a common situation, although a painful one. I believe your son resents you because he is an adult yet he is dependent on you, and life has been quite easy. He will probably turn out fine in the end (unless he has always been rude and selfish.) What he needs is more independence, yet he can’t pay for it. I think the best alternative would be for you to give him just enough money to pay for a small room or small basic apartment while he’s finishing school and let him earn the money to pay for food, or give him $40 a week for food. (There’s an article on the internet the shows how a college student can buy decent food for $40-$60 a week.) You may not want to pay money for him to live elsewhere when he could live at home for free. But he would gain self-respect, respect for you, and respect for other people.

      You could be very honest with him, and make sure he knows that this is not a punishment. It’s a gift. You can say that you love him, but you are dismayed by his lack of generosity, his criticisms, and his apparent resentment. It’s clear that he needs separation. It is your home, and you don’t want to have anyone in your home who is rude or critical. You understand that at 20 he would feel resentment at being dependent on you. You have decided that for YOUR OWN SAKES as well as his, that you would like him to live on his own. Make sure that you state that you are not interested in being criticized and taken for granted but that you know he is better than he has been behaving. So you are willing to pay something ($200 or $600??) a month for him to find a room for two years if he decides to finish college. Ask him to find a place in the next month. If you don’t want to pay for this, then call it a loan, and see if he’ll pay you back. Saving money while allowing him in his early 20s, when his prefrontal cortex is developing, to remain dependent, mean and resentful, is a terrible waste of that saved money. This is the time when young men should be challenged (living on their own, meeting daily challenges (more than simply school), trying to earn money to cook their own meals, and as a result becoming grateful for their families.

      Once he’s on his own, I guarantee he will appreciate a once a week or every two week dinner at your house. At the beginning, I would not check in on him too much. After he feels a bit more separate, he will gradually become more kind, IF you don’t mollycoddle him.

      I’m leaving town for a couple of days, and can’t respond more fully right now. But I’d be glad to answer more questions in couple of days.

      Best of luck. Also, you might enjoy seeing the movie “Failure to Launch,” although the circumstances are quite different.

      Alison

      • Julie says:

        Thanks, Alison–I appreciate your feedback! This sounds like an excellent idea, and I’d actually love to give him the gift of some geographical independence, but the reason he’s not dorming at school is that we have limited money, and basically have not much left after we pay bills twice a month. There is no such thing as 600 “extra” dollars. Whatever money doesn’t go toward bills heads to his tuition payment.

        I agree that a little distance would probably help a lot of things, especially because our house is small.

        • Alison says:

          Too bad. I would highly recommend finding a way for him to live elsewhere. Talk to him about it. Maybe he can do chores for an elderly person in exchange for a room. I think that even talking to him about finding another place to live for him to become more of an adult, and for you all to not have to deal with unwarranted criticism and rudeness, might help him see his situation as aa fortunate situation rather than one that he’s entitled to. Only through separation and working for his lodging and food will he gain self-respect and appreciation for others. Good luck!

        • Alison says:

          PS I would also ask him to do more chores, and I would let him cook his own meals or cook for everyone and clean up. Do less for him but without being nasty about it.

    • Alison says:

      PS Or, figure out how much you are spending on your son while he lives at home, and then make that money available to him to live on his own. The key is to explain honestly but neutrally, with good intentions, that this would be best for everyone. Not only will this make him a better person, you will be role-modeling appropriate boundaries. Who in their right mind would allow an entitled, rude, critical person to live in their home for free, right?

      He is 20. You may think of him as a child but we have 18 year olds fighting wars. He doesn’t feel good about himself because he is remaining in the position of a child. Yet he’s too comfortable and afraid to change the situation. SO you can help him out in a compassionate definite way.

  4. katherine says:

    Hi, in response to your blog on teenage rudeness and the need for autonomy, I am curious how you would reconcile what you say in your “about” section
    quote “The basis of healthy relationships is mutual respect. Mutual respect involves not only respecting other people, but respecting yourself by learning to take care of your own needs and desires in a positive way” when my teenager is rude and disrespectful to me. This morning for example, on her first day of school, I went to say goodbye to her as she was leaving, she didn’t respond when I called her name, and as I was about to say, “have a good day,” she erupted and said, “just go back to bed,” and slammed the door in my face. I can set boundaries by telling her, ” I do not want you to speak to me so rudely and disrespectfull. It makes me mad when you do.” BUT the behaviour is not changed. She will modify for a time in response to having consequences to repeated behaviour but she does not change and she is not willing to talk about her frustrations except to say, “you are annoying…just leave me alone..you don’t have to be in my life at all” other times, of course, she is sweet, compliant, affectionate, etc.
    I don’t treat her the way she treats me. I understand about letting her have autonomy but how do you set boundaries and establish mutual respect when the other person repeated violates your boundaries?

    • Alison says:

      Thank you for writing.

      I would definitely call my child on a comment like “just go back to bed” or even simply ignoring me as a parent. I would not let that slide.

      Sometimes children are distracted and don’t hear their name being called. But if they purposely ignore you, I would say, “Don’t ignore me when I call your name. If something is bothering you, tell me. Ignoring people only makes relationships worse.”

      Slamming the door and saying something like “just go back to bed” is very rude and full of contempt. I would say, “Don’t ever speak to me with such contempt. If something is wrong or you have a problem with me, you can tell me, but do it directly and with respect.” While you don’t have to become contemptuous yourself, it’s important to drop the sweetness and to show some seriousness and personal power, while being ready to be compassionate if there is an apology or explanation. Do not extend privileges or try to buy friendliness when they are behaving like this. That just lowers their respect even more for the parent

      If this continues, I would tell your child that you will be seeking joint counseling (at school or somewhere) because you are not willing to be treated so disrespectfully and that you are not being a good parent and doing her any favors by letting her behave that way.

      A little grumpiness and irritability is understandable in a teenager with all the social pressures and hormones, but real rudeness and slamming of doors has to be addressed with seriousness and a bit of compassion. For instance, “I know high school (middle school) is hard and you may have a lot going on, but it is not okay to treat me this way.” Teenagers usually feel worse about themselves when they are allowed to walk all over their parents. They actually feel more secure when they sense that their parents have some inner strength (not brutality though.)

      Good luck to you. It is hard.

  5. John says:

    A don’t ever want to have problems with my teens regarding issues on defiance and disobedience. I was able to solve this problem when I ran across various articles that deal with the issue. I got a few tips from here and there. I did all I can to follow those tips and to my surprise they were effective.

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