Category: troubled children

How to respond to a manipulative and difficult teenager

How to respond to a manipulative and difficult teenager

A screaming teenager is a scary thing.

Have hope!

Parents really can learn how to talk to a difficult teenager and reduce fights or frustration, and improve communication.  Below are effective responses to verbal manipulation or accusations from your teen. The right words in the right tone can help you regain your authority and model maturity.

  • WHAT you say and do depends on your unique situation, your teenager, and what the problem is. There may be ‘magic’ words that work for your child but not others.  You’ll want to experiment and modify them over time because your change naturally changes.  It’s up to you to thoughtfully choose which responses below best address your child’s negative behaviors and improve the relationship.
  • HOW you say it may be as important as what you say, because controlling your voice and attitude is a skill you need to be successful. Pulling this off means getting an iron grip on your own feelings and behavior.

1. Identify what goes wrong

Difficult teenagers will sabotage a dialogue for many different reasons.

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, and they may resent your authority.

These are typical argument techniques teens use.  Learn to spot them the moment they come up and plan ahead how you’ll respond.

  • 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.  Work with who they are now.

 

2. Prepare yourself emotionally and learn techniques used by therapists

Be more of a witness than 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, but it’s better to be very cautious about expressing them.

Parent can learn therapy techniques when they talk with their teenager.

  • ‘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:  “It sounds like you’re telling me you just want to make more of your own decisions. Is that true?”

Use “I” Statements – Always void 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 care about them anymore.”

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 go.”

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 or end the communication.

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.  Make yourself some tea and we’ll get back to this later.

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. Improving is more realistic than fixing

It helps to lower your expectations of your teenager.

The goal is not to stop your difficult teenager’s challenging behaviors but teach them how to be appropriate with others.  How you talk to your difficult teenager only needs to be healthy, which is not necessarily 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.

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

Help your 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.  T

his 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” —they already know what you think—but they may be reaching out for help with statements like these.  You can ask what they really mean or offer are other options.  For threats of self-harm, see “Use the “S” word:  talk openly with your child about suicide.”

PATIENT PERSISTENCE.  Results aren’t quick so pace yourself for a marathon

Teens are innocent and pure in a way adults are not.  They have standards and values though it rarely seems that way.  Look for evidence of decency and caring of others or self.   Show appreciation for the little things they do even if your praise creates a backlash.  They WILL remember what you said someday.

Parents should know that even a difficult teenager will love them.
Remember this…
Teenagers can make a parent feel like they've been stabbed in the heart, but it's only words..
…when they do this.

 

Good luck.

 


You can find additional practical and common sense approaches to parenting here:  Solid Wisdom For Parents Of Troubled Children And Teens

Welcome to the 911 Club for Parents of Troubled Kids

Welcome to the 911 Club for Parents of Troubled Kids

You may already be a member of the 911 Club, a community of parents who depend on emergency services for managing their mentally ill child. Our T-shirts are black and blue like bruises. Only people raising a mentally ill child or young adult join. Club rules are simple:

1. Focus on safety first.
2. Continually manage the trauma you and your family experience.
3. Accept that no one is guilty or a failure.
4. Ask others for emotional and physical help.

Every day, an emergency is just around the corner.

Parents with troubled children, no matter the age or diagnosis, are forced to make difficult decisions and take extreme actions… like calling 911.  It’s not something they choose, and they’ll avoid it if possible.  They are like any other parent with a severely disabled or physically ill child—they will do anything to help their child, but instead of wheelchairs or chemotherapy, they need emergency responders.

Ten things that parents of troubled children often do:

  1. Call police
  2. Call an ambulance
  3. Call a crisis line repeatedly
  4. Search a child’s room, especially if the child is a teenager or may be suicidal
  5. Spy on their child: read their email, texts, social media or search histories, read their journals
  6. File criminal charges or get a restraining order
  7. Lock up common household items (matches, knives, scissors, fuel, chemicals, and anything conceivably dangerous in the wrong hands)
  8. Participate in endless meetings, appointments, and therapy sessions. Complete dozens of forms and continually pursue financial or community mental health resources
  9. Block out people who used to be friends, block their child from troubled friends
  10. Never share stories with ‘normal’ people to avoid bombardment with uninformed and unsolicited opinions.


Parents can see an emergency coming, but can do little to prevent it.

All parents of troubled children have barriers to getting help, even when it’s blatantly obvious that the child needs it.  Why?  The aftermath of a recent high school shooting in Florida by provides details:

  1. The tragedy has to happen first: “A neighbor warned the sheriff’s office …and begged them to intervene. She was told there was nothing deputies could do until Cruz actually did something.”
  2. Mental health professionals don’t take history into account; and they are ignorant that children can behave well in their presence: “An investigator … spoke to Cruz, and advised that he was “not currently a threat to himself or others” and did not need to be committed.
  3. Family and other eyewitnesses are ignored by the people and institutions they depend on. “Lynda Cruz’s cousin warned deputies Cruz had rifles and pleaded for them to “recover these weapons.”


Policymakers, mental health professionals, and emergency responders out there:  fix this!

Part of the reason parents or family of the mentally ill person can’t get timely help is because of civil rights laws.  To those in the mental health community, start talking about how to handle this.  The present situation is unacceptable!  Stop protecting an acknowledged dangerous person’s rights over those of innocent victims.  It’s not OK.  This is just like some gun advocates who think it’s more important to sell assault rifles to protect their personal rights over those of innocent victims.

True Story

An upsetting thing happened in my city about 10 years ago that could have been my story. A man took his grown son to the emergency room because the son had been insisting he was going to stab someone—he suffered from untreated schizophrenia. When there, the staff found no reason to hold the son despite his history of violence and his father’s testimony. The father pleaded with them to put his son in a 72-hour hold and they refused.

Within minutes, the son ran off into the surrounding neighborhood, and within an hour, had stolen a steak knife from a restaurant, and ran out and stabbed a man walking on the sidewalk. (The victim lived, fortunately.) The father told the reporter that he’d been trying every possible means to stop this from happening in the hours before the event. Getting the son to go with him to the ER was an extraordinary feat in and of itself. He was beside himself with frustration and sadness and anger.  Now his son had aggravated assault and attempted homicide charges, and faced prison instead of a hospital.

–Margaret

 

U.K. needs to be a “999 Club”; Germany needs a “112” Club; a “110 Club” in China…

Your child’s ADHD diagnosis could be wrong, leaving other issues untreated

Your child’s ADHD diagnosis could be wrong, leaving other issues untreated

Inattention and distractibility are caused by many medical conditions and life situations.  You child may not have ADHD or ADD if they didn’t show signs when they were young.

Children don’t just catch ADHD or ADD

If your child has a behavioral change you haven’t seen before, there may be an underlying medical or co-occurring mental disorder that’s causing ADHD symptoms… especially if they’re on ADHD-ADD medications which are not working well.

“It is vital not to mistake another medical or psychiatric condition as ADHD.”
Richa Bhatia, MD, Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association

The medical conditions listed below produce ADHD and/or ADD symptoms such as slow processing speed, impulsive behavior, and limited attention and focus.

  • Epileptic seizures: some types cause a brief freeze in thinking–the child’s brain goes blank for a few moments (“absence seizures”)
  • Diseases of the brain: Lyme disease, HIV infection, parasitic and viral infections, brain tumors
  • Brain damage from head injury or toxins (e.g. narcotics)
  • Chemotherapy side-effects, “stupor”
  • Hypothyroidism.  Too little thyroid hormone results in memory, attention, and concentration problems. It decreases blood flow in brain regions that mediate attention and executive functioning (the hippocampus and cerebral cortexes).
  • Hyperthyroidism. At the other extreme, too much thyroid hormone causes anxiety and tension, irritability and impatience, and hyperactivity and distraction.
  • Sleep apnea. A condition where a child stops breathing during sleep, for a few seconds to a few minutes several times per night.  The following day, the child can’t pay attention, remember, or follow a sequence of steps.  It also causes hyperactivity and belligerence.


Mental health disorders with ADHD-like symptoms:

Anxiety disorders are common to most other mental health conditions, and create problems with concentration.  The chronic stress from anxiety affects the brain regions responsible for memory and cognitive functions.   If a child does not have a history of ADHD symptoms, than significant and pervasive anxiety may be the cause of inattention and distraction.

Abuse or trauma. Difficulty concentrating is one of the core symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and recent abuse or trauma can cause agitation, restlessness, and behavioral disturbance—symptoms that mimic ADHD.

Depression – Difficulty concentrating also is a criterion for major depressive disorder.

Bipolar disorder – ADHD symptoms are apparent in children with suspected bipolar disorder. Both disorders can cause distractibility, increased energy, and instant mood swings. (Some children are eventually diagnosed with both disorders.)

Drug abuse using marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy, produce similar symptoms of ADHD because they affect the same brain regions affected by anxiety.  MRI scans of the brain were taken of young children who were exposed to cocaine in the womb. The scans revealed frontal lobe malformations which predicted long-term problems with attention and impulse control.

Common stimulant foods and beverages with excess caffeine or sugar

Insomnia from medical conditions. Sleep plays a huge role in memory and attention. Sleep disorders (e.g., sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome) can produce chronic tiredness and significantly reduce attention, concentration, and cognitive functioning in children, adolescents, and adults.

Plain old lack of sleep in healthy children can cause inattention and reduce academic achievement.  There are many causes of sleep loss:  early school hours; screen time at least an hour before bed (because the blue light suppresses sleepiness); or allowing the use of technology in the bedroom at nighttime.  What helps getting to sleep and staying asleep:

  • A cool, dark room
  • Thirty minutes of reading or drawing on paper before lights out.
  • Removing phones, laptops, or desktops from the bedroom at night.


Learning disorders:
Children with an undiagnosed learning disorder often present with ADHD symptoms. An undiagnosed reading or mathematics disorder (dyslexia), or an autism spectrum disorder that’s not yet diagnosed, can have a significant impact on classroom behavior.  The child might not be paying attention because of his (her) restricted ability to grasp the subject matter, or because they are frustrated and irritated with the struggle to keep up.

Caution:  Teachers often report a student’s inattention and confused thinking to parents, and suggest a diagnosis of ADHD when the real problem may be lack of sleep or something else.  It’s useful to hear classroom observations of your child, but teachers are not trained in mental health diagnosis—get a second opinion from a professional!

More on the consequences of untreated ADHD or another underlying disorder is in this article:  “ADHD kids become troubled adults.”

–Margaret


Subject matter was drawn from this article by psychiatrist Dr. Richa Bhatia.

“Rule out these causes of inattention before diagnosing ADHD”
Richa Bhatia, MD, FAPA, Current Psychiatry. 2016 October; 15(10):32-C3