Parents can learn how to talk to a difficult teenager and reduce arguments and negativity. There are good responses for when you and your teenager fight or argue or get stuck in the same negative communication patterns, but there are three very important principles to consider.
- What you say and do depends on your unique situation, your difficult teenager, and what the problem is. There are no magic words or actions that work for every teen. It’s up to you to experiment–discover which responses fit your child’s behaviors and customize them.
- How you say it will determine success or failure. Doing this well means you must have an iron grip on your own feelings and behavior and not be a parent.
- Improvement takes time. Pace yourself for a marathon.
1. Identify what goes wrong
Difficult teenagers typically sabotage dialogue when they experience mental and emotional overload.
As an adult, you know about managing emotions, but your teenager doesn’t have a clue and is too young to articulate what he/she really means or needs anyway–and they know it. Talking with you makes them anxious and insecure.
Circle your teen’s most common sabotage techniques (below) and address one at a time. Learn to spot them the moment they come up, and plan ahead how you’ll respond. You should not tell them what you are doing because it will only feel like blame or insult.
- Make excuses – It’s not my fault and I shouldn’t get in trouble.
- Lie – keep secrets, fake an attitude to avoid the conversation or hide something
- Exaggerate – revise history or express extreme insult or trauma over minor things
- “Catastrophize” – assume the worst and that it’s going to be forever
- Entitlement – I’m unique, I’m superior, what you say doesn’t apply to me, I get things my way
- Hostility – insults and verbal abuse
- Overconfidence – I’m exceptional, I already know, you don’t know what you’re talking about
- Self-pity – I’m broken and no one cares
- Minimize – make light of others’ needs and feelings, deny their actions have consequences
- Vague – Guess what I’m thinking/feeling. If you’re wrong it means you (don’t love me, don’t care, are stupid).
- Silent treatment – I plan to make you crazy by ignoring you –or- I can’t handle this and want to disappear.
- Keep score – I win and it means I get my way (and you’re stupid).
- Righteousness – I’m an adult and have rights and can make my own decisions.
- Pet me – Praise me, flatter me, agree with me or I’ll make you regret it
- Harp – repeatedly bring up a sensitive issue to get you upset, whine about things long resolved
Don’t waste precious energy fretting about your difficult teenager’s immaturity.
2. Prepare yourself emotionally and learn techniques used by therapists
Be a quiet witness, not a participant
To talk to a difficult teenager, mentally take off your parent hat and become a neutral observer without emotions or bias from bad memories. This is absolutely critical because you must be able to remove any negative tone in your voice. Your child reacts to tone of voice more than what is said. Your feelings are certainly important; just don’t allow yourself to express them.
- ‘Channel’ your inner therapist like an actor who gets into character. Faking it works, and may even help you be more effective. [check out YouTube videos].
- Practice quieting your thoughts, and beliefs, and feelings.
- Remind yourself you are a good, competent parent; trust yourself and your good intent.
- See strengths, pay attention to what’s great about your child
- Avoid justifying or explaining yourself. Your teenager can pick up on something you say and use it against you.
In these examples, the parent doesn’t react to the emotions they feel or try to justify themselves.
Reframe – Present a different point of view of the facts, or reveal details that show the ‘facts’ aren’t what they seem.
Teen: “If I don’t do well in this class, you’re going to punish me by sending me to stupid summer school because that’s all you care about are grades.”
Parent: “Last year you had the same concerns at the end of the term, and then I saw you focus and pass the class with a really high grade and be really proud of yourself. I think you will do this again.”
Paraphrase – Say the same thing you heard using different words. This helps your child know if they said what they really meant, and gives them the option to clarify and provide details.
Teen: “You stupid effing b1tch you never care what I think and keep trying to control me and I hate you!”
Parent: “I hear you telling me you want to make more of your own decisions.”
Use “I” Statements – Avoid saying “you” because your child can interpret it as blame or insult regardless of your intent. Simply owning your feelings or stating your observations doesn’t impose your view and is hard to argue with.
Teen: “You said you would help me but all you want to do is see me fail. You could care less about me and even my friends think you’re a bad parent.”
Parent: “I definitely care; I explained the best I could why I can’t afford the time/money right now. I am frustrated by this situation too.”
Validate feelings and explore why
Teen: “You didn’t listen to me when I told you my teacher was picking on me.”
Parent: “Maybe I misunderstood or didn’t think he was treating you differently than your classmates. I’m listening now; can you give me more details?”
Check the facts
Teen: “My friends hate me and I don’t want to be around them ever.”
Parent: “What happened?”
Teen: “They all went to a movie and I wasn’t invited, and told everyone else what a great time they had.”
Parent: “Wasn’t that the day you lost your phone charger? Could they have tried to contact you but your phone was dead and you never got the message?”
Reflect on the bigger picture
Teen: “School sucks. It’s never helped me and everyone there is an a55hole and I already know what I need to know anyway. Don’t try to make me stay.”
You: “OK, school isn’t working for you. Do you have plans if you drop out? a job or a class for a new skill or occupation? You are growing up and will be on your own someday, and you will want your own money.”
Deescalate a heated moment without placing blame or accepting blame. You might apologize or change the subject temporarily.
Teen: “Stop f**king treating me like you’re my therapist!”
Parent: “I’m sorry that it feels that way. I’m not your therapist but a parent trying to communicate with their son/daughter the best they can. I need to check my messages so we’ll talk about this later. Can you go make yourself some tea?”
Other ways to deescalate:
Take a time out so you and your difficult teenager can calm down and gather your thoughts.
Converse via text, even in the same house, even in the same room. No talking, only texting. This works surprisingly well.
Talk to your teenager through a door, you do not need to look at each other, and perhaps your teen feels safer in another room.
3. Accept the limits
The goal is not to stop your difficult teenager’s challenging behaviors but teach them how to manage. How you talk to your difficult teenager only needs to be healthy, which is not necessarily positive or comfortable.
A healthy conversation means both parties:
Feel heard and understood even if there’s disagreement
Feel safe because they expect no emotional assaults
Feel enough trust and to talk again later
4. Pay attention to what improves or wrecks a conversation.
Visualize yourself as a wild animal trainer trying to teach an uncooperative creature to perform a task. You try various techniques and expect the animal to resist. You keep trying until the resistance diminishes, and then you start supporting with positive feedback. Some of the techniques below will work; some will fail spectacularly. When you find those that work, mix them up or your difficult teenager will catch on and try other tactics.
Let your difficult teenager rant for a while. Teens often vomit out emotions regardless of how they sound or if they make sense and parents don’t need to respond.
Ask why and how. Explore the underlying cause by using simple questions that can’t be answered with Yes or No to help them identify and articulate what they mean and need.
Redirect. Change the subject, or have a pre-planned list of actions for ending a tough dialogue.
- DEFLECT for manipulation and button-pushing:
“Consciously ignore” (pay attention but mentally or physically withdraw) – Pretend you didn’t notice when he/she resorted to blaming, demanding etc.
Change the subject – ask what they want from the grocery store; ask if they remember an upcoming event
Escape – excuse yourself for the bathroom. Say you forgot to call someone back who left an important voicemail.
- SUPPORT for anxiety, whining, and obsessive thoughts:
“We’ll get through this together;” “I am looking after you.”
Confidently reassure, and point out what’s going well.
Consciously ignore behavior intended to distract you from something you’re doing
Deny false charges against you without explaining, just state the fact. “I did not say that;” “I am not accusing you…” Period.
Apologize immediately when guilty. “You’re right. That was not the right thing to say and I apologize,” nothing more. You may be guilt-tripped into apologizing multiple times, so say something like: “I apologized and it was the right thing to do. I haven’t done it again and won’t apologize again.”
Set simple boundaries like you might for a fussy young child. “You can get angry and run to your room, but you can’t slam the door.” Remember that anger is normal, but harm is not acceptable. Screaming is normal, but ugly insulting words are not acceptable. Depression and sadness is normal, but isolating is risky–they need to be in the presence of others.
No offering reasons or lessons. Conflict is not a teachable moment. Your teen absolutely cannot reason when they’re flooded with emotion. Trying to teach something can seem patronizing and disinterested in their concerns.
Appeal to a higher self: During a fight or argument, listen carefully for something your child says (without prompting) that reflects good values and character, even the tiniest teensiest thing. Incorporate their stated good values in all your communications.
5. Help your difficult teenager think about their future
You may have tried to motivate your teenager to think about their future, but ultimately your teenager takes responsibility for the details. This helps: Provide a list of open-ended questions, worksheet-style, which they answer for themselves. Examples:
- What do I care most about?
- How can I feel better when I’m upset?
- How can I cope with boredom?
- What am I good at?
- What are three things I’m most thankful for, why?
- Who do I trust and why do I trust them?
- Where do I see myself in 5 years? How will I get there?
Ideally they share their answers with you but this should be optional. If you do see them, absolutely avoid guiding or correcting answers even if you think they’re wrong! The point is to start them pondering and exploring. If they write “kill myself” or “run away” or “use drugs”, let it be—they KNOW what you think—what you do future conversations is appeal to their higher self and values.
You can find additional practical and common sense approaches to parenting here: Solid Wisdom For Parents Of Troubled Children And Teens