Category: teens

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

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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.

Unsettling: What psychosis looks like in children and young people

Unsettling: What psychosis looks like in children and young people

kill him street
This eerie painting is by a young woman of 22 diagnosed with schizophrenia. She is encountering a threat, real or imagined, and her paranoia is compounded by being watched from the window above. Note the symbolic references to communications links and satellites.

Odd, eccentric, a little weird:  people experiencing psychosis are living in dream space.  If you haven’t experienced psychosis yourself, it’s a little like the period just before you awake, when you’re in a dream but also aware of your surroundings.  Your dream and emerging consciousness weave together in a wonderful or horrible or simply odd narrative.  If you try to explain it someone, you realize it makes no sense, yet it made a lot of sense while you were dreaming.

To a parent watching a psychotic child, you may observe that they see, feel, hear, move about, and respond to you as if fully conscious, but it’s important to know that they simultaneously inhabit the subconscious. As a result, they don’t notice that what they do and think is any different from anyone else.  The term “anosognosia” refers to their inability to recognize this, and it explains why so many resent being told they have a problem and need treatment.  They simply aren’t aware that anything is different about them.

Evidence of psychotic behavior

Parents of a child who was eventually diagnosed with a psychotic disorder often report that their child was always a bit different from their peers–slightly eccentric, a unique individual who had an interesting way of looking at the world. Parents have also reported the following behaviors when their child was exhibiting psychosis.  (Not all of these are present in each child.)

  • A belief in something that isn’t rational, and the belief is unusual or unreal or impossible.  The person cannot be talked out of the belief.  And rational, logical reason only increases resistance to reason.
    • If the psychotic episode is positive or magical, the person may have powerful religious feelings and a sense of omnipotence or clairvoyance. They may believe they have been instructed to give a message to save the world, for example.
    • If the episode is negative and paranoid, they can become very agitated, fearful, or they may panic.  They may act negatively on irrational beliefs.  They are attracted to paranoid or extremist views, especially those with high emotional content.
  • Smiling or laughing at nothing in particular and for no apparent reason. It’s as if someone has just told them a joke.
  • Yelling or ranting, this could be at an object or at someone or at nothing apparent. The ranting can happen online.  The ranting has repeated themes, and the themes are unique to each person.
  • Intense, crushing anxiety, irritability, accusations, and obsessive troubling thoughts.
  • Talking and gesturing as if they’re in a conversation with an invisible someone. (Normal people also gesture they think, but they are aware they are not literally communicating with someone.)
  • Wandering eyes and shifting body language as if they are seeing or feeling things that aren’t there.
  • Abrupt personality change from seemingly normal behavior.  Often, a child’s eyes will have a disquieting faraway ‘look’, as if the child is not in their body, and a they’ve been overtaken by a demon.
  • Fear, anxiety, and paranoia–they feel watched, trapped, and controlled in some way. They stop trusting people.  They hide or try to block experiences to protect themselves.
  • Intense obsessions with ideas, things, or events (even if they occurred long past). Themes emerge which often refer to actual events that elicited strong emotions.
  • Seeing patterns and connections in events that aren’t connected.
  • Unusual and confusing responses when communicating with others—a comment that doesn’t seem to apply, or a a string of words that defy interpretation.
  • A preference for solitude and closing themselves off from others.  This is for self-protection.
  • Loss of interest in self-care: not wearing clean clothes, bathing, or organizing their surroundings.

The most common diagnoses that have psychotic features are schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, and depression.  This story about schizoaffective disorder gives some real world examples of psychosis:  “Life with a Schizoaffective Teen.”

Psychotic behavior can have a long slow onset

brain degeneration in schizophrenia
The image on the left is of a 15-year-old boy with early onset schizophrenia. The purple regions have normal neuron density, red regions have low neuron density. In the 2nd image, the red area at the top of the brain is in the cerebral cortex, the region of executive function and rational thought.

It’s easy to miss signs of early psychosis!  Sometimes a child or young person starts showing eccentric behaviors that aren’t serious or are easy to interpret as something else: creativity and imagination; immaturity; puberty; influences from immature friends; too much video gaming…  Your child may have been experiencing mild visual or aural hallucinations for some time, even a couple of years, and just assumed it happened to everyone so they never reported it.  As psychosis emerges in the early teens, their thoughts and behaviors start affecting friendships or school work.  The child stops doing things they once enjoyed.  Someone might assume they’re experimenting with drugs.  They seem so much like other difficult, distracted, or defiant teens that a parent can be lulled into thinking they are not seriously mentally ill… but psychosis is very serious.

If this describes your child, immediately (and I mean immediately) find a psychiatrist and get an assessment.  The earlier you can treat psychosis, the better the outcome for your child.  Psychosis is degenerative.  The longer a brain stays in a state of psychosis, the more neurons it loses.  Early treatment via therapies, medication, diet, and other physical supports can literally prevent neuron loss and future psychotic breaks that require hospitalization.

Psychosis can emerge abruptly

For disorders on the schizophrenic spectrum, this is common in young men in the late teens and early 20’s.  However, adults in their 30’s and 40’s have also been known to have sudden onset of psychosis.  It’s tragic, you witness this young person launching into adulthood, studying in college or starting employment, and suddenly his or her personality changes.  Their behavior worsens, and it becomes evident they’ll never be able to have the future they planned.  They need immediate treatment, possibly hospitalization if the psychotic break reaches a crisis point.  If this is your child and they are past age 18, use every means possible to get help for them!

Kendall art
Self-portrait by a 24-year-old woman diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. Her image is a modified mug shot photo taken of her after an arrest.

What worsens psychosis and what you can do to relieve it

  • Poor sleep and reduced sleep.

Help your child get enough hours of sound sleep. The best sleep environment is a cool very dark room.  Once my child became unable to attend high school, I allowed her to nap any time of the day.

  • Closing themselves off from the world.

Your child needs mental and sensory stimulation to keep their mind from spinning out on their obsessions, hallucinations, and paranoia, but the amount must be tolerable.   Stimulus must come from the tangible, sensory world (e.g. not screen time, videos, books).  Concrete interaction with reality diverts their attention from obsessive thoughts or voices.  They will benefit from regular (perhaps limited) social interaction*, an undemanding therapy animal, creative work (such as art and music), and being out in nature.

  • Marijuana use–specifically the THC in marijuana

CBD in marijuana has many medical benefits and is considered safe, but the THC is not.  THC is also addictive, and available in very highly concentrated oils… extremely dangerous.  Like THC, any addictive substance, from alcohol to methamphetamine, will interfere with treatment for psychosis.  The drug’s influence trumps everything.  Drugs are literally self-induced psychosis.  See:  “Marijuana is Uniquely Harmful to Troubled Teens”;  “Marijuana is Dangerous.”

  • Continual exposure to things they already obsess on or that make them paranoid, angry, or anxious.

In every way possible, keep your child away from any material, people, or messages that upsets them.  These only add gasoline to the fire and increase the likelihood of future psychotic breaks.  They may obsess on the same things for the rest of their lives.  If someone who’s psychotic is exposed to intense emotional experiences that feed their obsessions and paranoia, people have been known to do to horrible things to themselves or others.  An example at the time of this writing is of a young woman with psychotic bipolar mania who tragically pulled out her own eyes.

Find ways to redirect your child’s attention elsewhere and help them get a grasp on the reality.  Help them calm down (“deescalate” them) and help them learn ways to calm themselves down.

A diagnosis of an illness that includes psychosis is devastating

Face to facePsychosis and/or a psychotic crisis in a child who previously led a normal healthy life blindsides everyone, especially the family.  Allow yourself to go through the stages of grief as you would after any death…  because it can feel like the ‘death’ of your child and their future and your hopes for them.  Get help from others as you would after any death.  Here you are, grieving, but your child needs you to be strong!  Get help for your own mental health.

Reason for hope

Children who receive regular social support from family and loved ones do well over the decades.  They can avoid homelessness, hospitalizations, harm.  They can get advanced education, keep strong relationships, maintain employment.  They get a life of wellbeing.  This has happened with my adult child after years of horrendous experiences.

Cognitive Enhancement Therapy

A relatively new therapy has been developed and tested that meaningfully helps people with chronic psychotic disorders.  “CET attempts to increase mental stamina, active information processing, and the spontaneous negotiation of unrehearsed social challenges. It does so with a focus on enhancing perspective taking, social context appraisal, and other components of social cognition… CET has been shown to have remarkable and enduring effects in a study of persons with schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder…”
–CET Training LLC, “approved and recognized by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) as an evidence-based practice.

What are your experiences?  Have you found anything that helps?

–Margaret

 

*Social Interaction Increases Survival by 50%
Psychiatric Times. July 30, 2010

Theoretical models have suggested that social relationships influence health through stress reduction and by more direct protective effects that promote healthy behavior. A recent study confirms this concept.  Findings from a meta-analysis published in PLoS Medicine indicate that social interaction is a key to living longer. Julianne Holt-Lunstadt, PhD of Brigham Young University and colleagues analyzed data from 148 published studies (1979 through 2006) that comprised more than 300,000 individuals who had been followed for an average of 7.5 years. Not all the interactions in the reports were positive, yet the researchers found that the benefits of social contact are comparable to quitting smoking, and exceed those of losing weight or increasing physical activity.

Results of studies that showed increased rates of mortality in infants in custodial care who lacked human contact were the impetus for changes in social and medical practice and policy. Once the changes were in place, there was a significant decrease in mortality rates. Holt-Lundstadt and colleagues conclude that similar benefits would be seen in the health outcomes of adults: Social relationship-based interventions represent a major opportunity to enhance not only the quality of life but also of survival.”


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