Category: borderline personality disorder

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

Borderline children – how they function and how you can help

Borderline children – how they function and how you can help

Children with borderline personality disorder are both wonderful and horrible.
Borderline personality disorder makes a child wonderful yet horrible; lovely yet vindictive; a great friend or manipulative bully; anguished or glowing with joy; self-hating yet self-important; self-centered but also charitable.

Are you ready to bang your head on a wall?  Or praying for the day your child turns 18, when you can change the locks on your doors?  Children with borderline personality disorder (BPD) can traumatize everyone around them.

Children with BPD believe others will abandon them, and this makes them do one of two things:

    1. Do everything possible to obtain and keep love and admiration;
    2. Or if they detect the slightest hint of disapproval, blame themselves or others so as to feel they made a decision to break or run away from a relationship.  This can disguise  horrible feelings of abandonment.

 

A borderline child can be very engaging and affectionate… sometimes at random and sometimes when they want something.  Because they can be vindictive, they may also turn on charm as a way to embarrass you in front of others (such as in a meeting with a teacher or family counselor).  Since they often seem wonderful to other people, parents have been judged.  People often suggest they take care of their own issues instead.

Even if their manipulation or drama can be relentless, strive for compassion.  Trust me, your borderline child will suffer more than you in every important aspect of life.  They can make a mess of their relationships because of hurtful or clingy behavior.  Or they create a toxic work environment.  Or they drive away good friends, hate them for leaving, and suffer from loneliness.

A borderline child or teen is not a “drama junkie” on purpose.  There brain is primed to overreact.

A study published in 2008 in Science showed that brain activity in people with borderline personality disorder was abnormal—their brains lack activity in the ‘cooperation’ and ‘trust’ regions, called the bilateral anterior insula.  People with borderline personality disorder do not have an internal, natural sense of fairness or social norms, and distrust is their default mentality.  Some suggest that borderlines do not receive the attention they need as an infant and toddler.  Early neglect is also a predictor of reactive attachment disorder, which has similar trust issues.

The brain scan of a normal person shows the areas which make them cooperative.
When playing a game that requires teamwork, the brain of a normal person shows activity in the bilateral anterior insula.
A brain scan of a person with borderline personality disorder shows they do not cooperate.
The brain of a borderline person showed no activity whatsoever during the teamwork game.

Another study reported, “The disorder occurs in all races, is prevalent in females (female-to-male ratios as high as 4:1), and typically presents by late adolescence.”  It is estimated 1.4 percent of adults in the United States have this disorder.  A different study reported that BPD occurs as often in men and women, and sufferers often have other mental illnesses or substance abuse problems.  (In my observations, teenagers with borderline personality disorder have many bipolar disorder symptoms.)

From infancy, those who were later diagnosed with borderline personality were more sensitive, had excessive separation anxiety, and were moodier. They had social delays in preschool and many more interpersonal issues in grade school, such as fewer friends and more conflicts with peers and authorities.

As teenagers, borderline children can be promiscuous; impulsive and assaultive; more likely to use drugs and alcohol; and more likely to cut themselves and attempt suicide.  “…research shows that, by their 20’s, people with the disorder are almost five times more likely to be hospitalized for suicidal behavior compared to people with major depression.”

A child with borderline personality disorder can scream and be very hurtful.

Evidence for hope

Borderlines have the thinnest skin, the shortest fuses and take the hardest knocks.  In psychiatrists’ offices, they have long been viewed as among the most challenging patients to treat.”

Advances have been made in recent years.  One study tracked borderline patients who had been hospitalized at least once over a 10 year period.  With follow up treatment  “93% of patients achieved a remission of symptoms lasting at least two years, and 86% for at least four years.” Published in The American Journal of Psychiatry, the research argues that once recovery has been attained, it appears to last.  (from “Trying to Weather the Storm”, by S. Roan, September 07, 2009, Los Angeles Times)

“…our message to families is to please stay the course with your (child) because it’s crucial to their well-being.”
(Perry D. Hoffman, president of the National Education Alliance for BPD http://www.borderlinepersonalitydisorder.com.)

Treatment

Psychotherapy is the primary treatment of BPD, and the gold standard is dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), which helps the person attain and maintain lasting improvement in their personality, interpersonal problems, and overall functioning.  It simply teaches coping skills so patients learn to control their emotions, calm down, and not destroy relationships. Medications support the therapy by reducing depression or anxiety and self-destructive behavior.

(from “What Therapy Is Recommended for Borderline Personality Disorder in Adolescents (13-17 years)?” by M. Muscari, 2005, http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/508832)

When to hospitalize:Borderline children high rate of emergency hospitalizations for suicide attempts.

In an emergency, when your child has serious suicidal thoughts or an attempt, and/or is an imminent danger to others, or is incapable of calming down and functioning.

Consider psychiatric residential care when your child has persistent suicidal thoughts, is unable to participate in therapy, has a co-morbid (co-existing) mental disorder (e.g. bipolar, depression, narcissistic personality disorder), a risk of violent behavior, and other severe symptoms that interfere with living.

Other mental health supports your borderline child may need:

  • Treatment for substance abuse.
  • Therapy that focuses on violent and antisocial behaviors, which can include emotional abuse or physical abuse, baiting, bullying, and sexualized behaviors.  (The most effective therapy is DBT or Dialectical Behavioral Therapy.)
  • Therapy that also focus on trauma and post traumatic issues if present.
  • Reducing stressors in the child’s environment.  Most children with BPD are very sensitive to difficult circumstances, for example:  an emotionally stressful atmosphere; internal and external pressures to succeed or change; inconsistent rules; being around others who are doing better than them.


What parents and caregivers can do

  • With a co-parent or support person:  Maintain a united front.
  • Communicate privately with each other to effectively set limits.  A BPD child will do everything in their power to split authority figures against each other!
  • Have each other’s back even if you’re not in full agreement.
  • Never ever give away power by making democratic decisions or explaining your reasoning. Anything you say or do will be challenged or used against you in the future.

Maintain family balance.

Keep things relaxed.  If you need to set boundaries and apply pressure, do it only to maintain  appropriate behaviors and reminders for self-calming.  Let other things go.

Use praise proactively.  Borderlines crave attention and praise.  When they deserve it, pour it on thick.  And pour it on thick every single time they demonstrate good behavior and positive intention.  One can’t go too far.  When an argument or fight comes up, search your memory banks for the most recent praiseworthy thing they did or said, and bring it up and again express your gratitude and admiration.  This does two things:  it reinforces the positive;  and it redirects and ends a negative situation.

Become skilled in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT).  It is the gold standard for treating
Borderline Personality Disorder.  It is the only therapy proven to promote genuine behavioral change and improve mental health.  You can ask questions or bring your child back to reality with the following examples
.

  • Did your friend really intend to upset you?  It sounds like they were talking about something else.
  • The delay wasn’t planned just to make you mad, perhaps you were just frustrated by being asked to wait, and it was no one’s fault.
  • The tear in your jacket isn’t a catastrophe.  It is easily fixed and I can show you how.

For specific examples of what your borderline child will say and for how you can respond, see:  How to talk with your difficult teenager – what to say and do.

 

Parents made a business card to ask for help from others for their borderline daughter.

Prevent dangerous risk taking – Teens with borderline personality are exceptionally impulsive and prone to risky behavior.  Consequently, parents should consider:

  • Tightly limiting cell phone use, email, texting, and access to social networking sites
  • Using technology to track their communications (this is legal), or disabling access during certain time periods
  • Reducing the amount of money and free time available
  • Searching their room (this is also legal)

A couple I know fully informed their borderline son that all internet activity would be tracked, as well as cell phone calls.  The father also installed cameras in the home, at the front and back doors, in plain sight.  Nevertheless, their son continued with bullying and verbally abusing his siblings right in front of those cameras, and he would get caught and deny it each time.  His denials in the face of clear evidence became a great source of private amusement for his parents.

Be patient – You are unlikely to receive your child’s respect, love, or thanks in the short-term.  It may take years.  But be reassured that your child will thank you for your firm guidance and limits once he or she matures to adulthood.

A borderline child will stab you in the heart with their words.
Never expose your heart like this!  Armor yourself emotionally.  Visualize those knives as fluff balls, or visualize your child as a toddler with a just another temper tantrum.  Find something that works for you and help the co-parents and siblings armor themselves too.

Address your own PTSD!  Families who live with a borderline child often need help coping with bullying, wrenched emotions, and the instability that person brings into the household.  A parent or family member may need their own therapy, antidepressants, and self-care skills for reducing anxiety.

Simple self-care for you and other family members

  • Three or more (very) deep breaths when stressed, the brain needs oxygen to begin a calming process.  Singing is a superb option.
  • Magnesium or Kava kava, these substances naturally help calm nerves
  • Sleep in a dark, cold room is the best way to promote deep sleep. Avoid screen time an hour before bedtime.
  • An activity that feeds your soul, such as a hobby, a loving pet, a gripping novel, just playing
  • Direct support from a trusted friend–face-to-face is ideal, but calls, texts, and emails as needed are really helpful too.


Characteristics of untreated borderline personality disorder in adulthood

Good things:  They can be very financially and publicly successful in many fields and hold positions of authority, and often succeed in the creative arts and especially acting.  They are so perceptive that they can ‘channel’ any person they want.  They can be enchanting, and alluring, easily attracting devoted fans, friends, and lovers.

Most challenging things:  Signs and symptoms of BPD may include significant fear of real or imagined abandonment; intense and unstable relationships that vacillate between extreme idealization and devaluation; markedly and persistently unstable self-image; significant and potentially self-damaging impulsivity (spending, sex, binge eating, gambling, substance abuse, and reckless driving); repeated suicidal behavior, gestures, or threats; self-mutilation (carving, burning, cutting, branding, picking and pulling at skin and hair, biting, and excessive tattooing and body piercing); persistent feelings of emptiness; inappropriate anger or trouble controlling anger; and temporary, stress-related disconnection from reality and paranoia.

Help your borderline child with each of these aspects!

  • Chronic fear of abandonment which results in a constant search for companionship, no matter how unsatisfying.
  • Clinging and distancing: Disruptive relationships due to the person’s alternating clinging and distancing behaviors.  When clinging, they may exhibit dependent, helpless, childlike behaviors. They can over idealize the person they want to spend their time with, constantly seeking that person out for reassurance. When they cannot be with their chosen person, they exhibit acting-out behaviors, such as temper tantrums and self-mutilation. They distance themselves by being hostile and insulting, usually arising from discomfort with closeness.
  • Splitting: Splitting arises from the person’s inability feel people are safe, and is the primary defense mechanism in BPD. They view all people, including themselves, as either all good or all bad.
  • Manipulation: Separation fears are so intense that people become masters of manipulation. They will do just about anything to achieve relief from their separation anxiety, but their most common ploy is to play one individual against another.
  • Self-destructive behaviors: Threats are most often manipulative, but some acts can prove fatal.  Cutting is very common.  Suicide attempts are common yet often happen in relatively safe scenarios, such as swallowing pills at home while reporting the deed to another person.  Another behavior is to set up a scenario where they are victim so as to get attention and love.
  • Impulsivity: Extremely rapid shifts in mood can lead to substance abuse, binge eating, reckless driving, sexual promiscuity, and excessive spending or gambling.  These are similar symptoms of bipolar mania, but BPD behaviors happen for different reasons, usually in response to real or imagined abandonment.

You really can turn your borderline child’s future around.

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My site is dedicated to helping parents of troubled children, teens, and young adults, and information is drawn from up-to-date best practices and research.  Use the search box to find information about managing challenging behaviors and self-care for parents. You really can turn your family’s lives around and help you child reach a safe, functioning adulthood.  This happens all the time.