Surly looking teenager

How to Deal With a Difficult Teenager

posted in: Coaching

Dealing with a difficult, surly, moody teenager with an attitude can be impossible at times. But some practical strategies and psychological tactics can help.

Teenagers Test Their Parents

It’s high drama. First, there’s the eye-rolling, followed by stomping across the room and door-slamming when they’re asked to do a chore or be home at a certain hour. Then you get the sullen and condescending look that fairly shouts how stupid they think you are. The arguments seem to never end, mostly over pointless things.

Wondering what happened to that sweet kid who once adored you?

It’s adolescence, it’s here, and as a parent, you’re full of fear. But if you think it’s bad dealing with a testy pre-teen or teenager in your house, pity the poor school teacher who every day faces a classroom of 30 of this scary species.

“They’re testing limits, their hormones are raging, and they’re getting more responsibility thrown at them — and they’re not sure they want it yet,” said Trygve Moulton, a sixth-grade teacher. He’s talking about what happens during the school day — but acknowledges that it’s “the same at home.”

Understanding is Key to Knowing How to Respond

So what’s a parent — or teacher — to do when what some call “the ingratitude attitude” kicks in?

Understanding what stage of development pre-teens and teens are at may help parents cope with what’s going on. One way to characterize this stage is “the Terrible Twos times 5,” said Dr. Eric Meyer, executive director of the Adolescent and Family Institute.

“At around age 10 to 12 they’re beginning to develop some sense of independence again,” he said, just as they tried to do back when they were two. Of course, this time around, they have the verbal ability to let you know exactly how they feel about your attempts to reign them in.

Allow Some Room for Debate

But if your first reaction as a frustrated parent is to quash any kind of dissension from adolescents in the house, Dr. Meyer said it’s healthy to allow some argument and discussion from kids this age.

“It’s when limits get out of hand that there’s trouble,” he said. “It’s an issue of accountability … you decide how much and where” those discussions happen. For example, parents may be able to put up with a certain amount of argument at home, as long as the child understands it won’t be tolerated at or school, or wherever limits are imposed.

Disrespect Should Not be Tolerated

Heated, though civil, arguments are one thing, but disrespect is quite another — and above all, parents of pre-teens and teens don’t have to put up with that. “The longer you tolerate disrespect, the worse it gets,” said Dr. Meyer. Once parents have made that clear, they should work to teach kids early on exactly how to have an argument.

“You decide what you’re willing to put up with, whether it’s the occasional door slamming or whatever,” he said. “But no matter where you draw the line, you’re teaching children: ‘This is how we have discussions in this house.’ That’s healthy for kids and gives them that sense of assertiveness they’re seeking.”

Build Relationships and Maintain Boundaries

Ruthann Zlogar, a 25-year veteran of teaching, says the best strategy she has for avoiding “the attitude” among her 6th graders is to “work on building a relationship with them.” Zlogar listens to her students and they know she cares; in return, they know they’re responsible for their behavior in the classroom.

“You have to choose your battles, too,” said Ms. Zlogar. “Rolling the eyes … I can ignore that. But if it turns into flouncing across the room and slamming into a chair, and other kids are watching that and thinking it’s acceptable, then we don’t ignore it.”

“I also try to catch them doing the right thing, rather than always focusing on what they’ve done wrong,” she added. “Humour is important, too … but I never use sarcasm with my kids: It hurts.”

Moulton said parents need to set boundaries at home, so that pre-teens and teens know their responsibilities. If there are no expectations at home, a child is likely to carry that same attitude of irresponsibility to school, he said.

Dealing with an Angry Teen

And what if anger is the primary emotion you’re getting from your about-to-be teenager?

Parents shouldn’t try to reason with an angry child, according to psychologists with the Love and Logic parenting program that provides resources on ways to forge good family relationships. The program offers this tip for dealing with an angry kid: Say something like, “It sounds like you’re mad. I want to listen and understand, and I will listen when your voice is as calm as mine. Come back then.”

That phrase may have to be repeated many times over, but ultimately, such an approach “teaches children that they are respected”, according to the Love and Logic approach.