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How to talk to a difficult teenager – what to say and do

How to talk to a difficult teenager – what to say and do

Have hope!

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.

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”, don’t push back—they KNOW what you think—you might ask if there are other options.

Teens are innocent and pure in a way adults are not.  They have standards and values (unless they are a sociopath).  Look for opportunities to appeal to these values.

Remember this…

…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

Mothers and Teenage Daughters: a School Counselor’s Story

Mothers and Teenage Daughters: a School Counselor’s Story

This article contributed by Benjamin Dancer.

I’m a high school counselor, which means I work with parents every day. Because I’ve made a career out of my work with adolescents, I see what a parent might be seeing for the first time. This includes a long list of unfortunate life events.

Back when we were teenagers, there wasn’t a massive network of servers positioned strategically across the globe to capture and record, forever, the embarrassment of our adolescent choices.

As a parent, I have a lot of empathy for other parents. It’s not easy, especially when you’re going through something for the first time. My life, on the other hand, is a little bit like Groundhog Day. In a sense, I’ve never left high school. Every school year I see the same things. Different kids, but the same behavior: alcohol, drugs, tobacco, bullying, kids running away from home, pregnancy and something new: sexting.

Take an adolescent boy with an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, which by definition means he is incapable of fully contemplating notions such as consequence; take this teenager raging with sex hormones and give him a tiny device that he will carry with him everywhere, a device capable of sending messages instantly to anybody, anywhere in the world, and install a camera in that device. What do you imagine might go wrong?

When you and I were adolescents, we were no less reckless, no less idiotic with our choices, no less eager to use our bodies as grownups. The difference is that our stupidity has been forgotten by history. Back when we were teenagers, there wasn’t a massive network of servers positioned strategically across the globe to capture and record, forever, the embarrassment of our adolescent choices.  Sexting changes everything.

Over the last seventeen years in my work of mentoring adolescents and partnering with their parents, I’ve seen a lot of parenting styles. I’ve learned some important strategies in dealing with the situations teenagers present–strategies the average parent doesn’t have the time, through repetition, to learn. I feel confident telling you that there are some really good ideas out there. And some really bad ones, too.

Because I’m a writer, it occurred to me to write it down, what I’ve learned over the years. I’m a parent. I know it just as well as you do. We need a little grace in our lives.

Excerpt from SEXTING AT SCHOOL:

The police called the sexting child pornography. So I understood Nicole’s concern: she wanted to talk to me about her daughter. Jessica was fourteen and three years younger than her boyfriend. He had been distributing images of Jessica through his phone. Nicole was worried; she was scared, and understandably so.

Jessica still thought she was in love.

“He calls her a bitch,” Nicole told me. “I read the texts. He says horrible things to her.”

“And she still wants to be with him,” I said.

The pain I felt for her was communicated in my voice. As a teacher, I see the scenario every year, but Nicole was experiencing this for the first time. Jessica was her daughter. Not long ago she was her baby. I could only begin to imagine the suffering the situation provoked. Nicole was in no position to hear how common this was.

Why do girls throw themselves at boys who treat them badly?

In Jessica’s circumstance there was a tremendous amount of grief. She had barely processed the loss of her dad. He was killed in an accident over the summer.

“I can’t stop her from being with him. I’ve tried. I took away her phone. I grounded her. She sneaks out of the house. I drop her off at school, and she ditches to be with him.” The mascara was now running beneath Nicole’s cheekbones, “Last night, she told me that she wished it was me who was dead. He was waiting for her out front. I saw her get into his car.”

“I can’t imagine what that’s like,” I told her. “I’m sorry.”

“Unless I physically restrain her, she will find a way to get back to him.”

I allowed for a long silence, as I thought there might be more Nicole needed to say.


“What did I do? What did I do wrong?”

I didn’t answer her question. And I didn’t dismiss it. I sat with her in it.

* * * * *

My role with Nicole is not all that different from my role with Jessica. It doesn’t matter whether you’re fourteen or forty, what you need is for someone to listen. What you need is for someone to understand.

Jessica and I talked later the same day.

“She went through my phone,” Jessica was angry. “She read my texts.”

I let her know that I understood her frustration.

“She won’t let me leave the house.”

“Why?”

“She’s trying to keep me from him.”

“Have you told her that you love him?”

“Yes.”

“And…?”

“She hates him. She doesn’t want me to see him.”

“Why does she hate him?”

At this Jessica paused. We had already talked about the pictures. She had told me stories about the boy. The way he had flaunted his sexual conquests. He was in my English class, and I had seen it firsthand: there were countless other girls.

After a long silence, she answered my question, “She thinks he’s not good for me. Is he?”

It was ground we had already covered. In past conversations Jessica told me that she respects her mom for trying to protect her. I handed Jessica a box of tissues. She wiped the tears and told me, “No. He’s really, really mean.”

I listened to her cry for several minutes. I was thinking about her father. I knew the man well. I liked him. I was thinking about her mother. I was thinking about my own daughter.  It was true for all of us. What we need is empathy.

“I’m sorry,” I told her.  She questioned me with her eyes.

So I answered it, “I’m sorry you’re so alone.”

Jessica’s whole body shook when she sobbed.

* * * * *

The last time Nicole was in my office she asked me if she should return Jessica’s phone. We had a similar conversation the day she asked me if she should call the police.

“What do you think?”

“I think Jessica needs to figure this out for herself. I’ve tried to protect her, but I can’t. I just can’t protect her from everything.”

“Does that mean you’ll give it back?”

“No. She’s not ready for that.”

“I don’t know the answers to the particulars,” I told Nicole, “but I know this. You’re a good mom. Jessica needs you right now. She needs you to be confident in your role.”

I saw the tears washing through the mascara, gave Nicole the box of tissues, and kept on going.

This is universal: the teenager wants desperately to have her independence, and she is terrified of it.

“Jessica loves you, and she knows that you love her.  Jessica is not aware of the fact that she is conflicted about this. She’s just a kid. As much as she pushes you away, she wants you to be strong, to love her.”

* * * * *

I talked to Jessica again a week later.

“Do you still see him?” I asked.

She was embarrassed, “Yeah.”

“Is he good to you?”

“Sometimes.”

“How about last night?”

She hesitated then said, “Last night he left me in a parking lot. I had to borrow a phone and call my mom to come pick me up.”

“Why’d he leave you?”

“To hook up with someone else.”

“Will you see him again?”

“Probably.”

“I have a vision for you,” I said.

Jessica smiled, like she had heard lines like that from me before.

But that didn’t deter me. I have an advantage over most parents of teenagers: I’ve made a career out of the adolescent. Their behavior can be alarming, infuriating and even demoralizing, but after seventeen years of guiding teenagers as they come of age, I have established proven routines.

I have a pretty good idea of how many repetitions it will take, of how many times I’ll have to say it before Jessica can even make sense of the words, of how many more times I’ll have to repeat it before she begins to adopt the language as her own.

So I told her again, “In my vision of your future, you will love yourself too much to let a boy treat you badly.”

* * * * *

The story above is a composite of a dozen mothers and a dozen daughters I’ve work with over the years. In my FREE e-book, I analyze that narrative–elucidating what I believe to be the important parenting considerations.

Find out more at: SEXTING AT SCHOOL, a FREE download at Goodreads.com, or if you’re feeling generous, you can buy it for $0.99 at Amazon.com.

About Benjamin Dancer:

Benjamin is a high school counselor at Jefferson County Open School where he has made a career out of mentoring young people as they come of age. He wrote the novels PATRIARCH RUN, IN SIGHT OF THE SUN and FIDELITY. He also writes about parenting and education. You can learn more at:

Website: BenjaminDancer.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/benjamin.dancer

Twitter:        @BenjaminDancer1


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Margaret