Teenagers generally experience a roller coaster of emotions, feeling superior and independent one moment, then discouraged and needy the next, resulting in mood swings that leave a parent as stunned and confused as the teenager. Frequently distracted, they may not hear their name being called. But if they purposely ignore you, it’s good to speak up: “Alexa, even if something’s bothering you, please acknowledge me when I talk to you.”
Irritability and testiness are understandable in teenagers; they are experiencing a lot of social pressures, academic stress, and increased hormone levels. Yet, any contempt in the form of verbal attacks has to be addressed with both seriousness and compassion. When anyone slams the door or makes remarks like “just go back to bed,” it’s time for you to establish boundaries. 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 can express some inner strength.
While you do not want to be contemptuous yourself, it’s important to drop the sweetness and to express your personal power. Extending privileges or trying to buy friendliness when kids are behaving like this lowers their respect even more for you. You may want to say, “Don’t speak to me with a demeaning tone of voice. If something is wrong or you have a problem, you can tell me, but talk to me respectfully.”
Avoid in-your-face lecturing, which they will tune out, and avoid hostile withdrawal, which hurts them more than they let on. Instead, speak up and then withdraw a bit to give the teenager time to process. You can say something brief such as, “I know school is hard and you may have a lot going on, but it is not okay to treat me this way.”
It’s helpful to remember that you are role modeling the way you would like them to handle others who are rude. You want them to be effective. So you have to show a balance of respect, personal power, and compassion yourself. Be ready to be compassionate if they explain or become apologetic. Your goal is not to punish but to teach a more effective way of dealing with life’s difficulties.
Don’t expect behavior to permanently change after having a couple of conversations and meting out a few consequences. It’s normal for insolence to creep in again and again. It’s like teaching a small child to say “thank you” — you have to remind them a thousand times.
When parents realize that these moods are fleeting and when they can maintain some calm during the storms, the moodiness will eventually stabilize.
by Alison Poulsen, PhD