Adolescent Behavior Changes

Dr. Purushothaman
September 5, 2013

If you’re the parent of a teen, you’ve probably heard a version of this coming from your child’s lips—or expressed with an eye roll or door slam. It’s very painful for us when our children suddenly can’t stand the sight of us, and act like they’d rather die than be seen with us. On top of that, many kids become disrespectful when they go through this phase of adolescence. They resort to name-calling, insults and other hurtful behavior. When your child starts doing this, you might look at him and wonder, “Who is this person, this kid who used to love me last year, but suddenly is embarrassed to be with me?”

You have to keep the emotions out of it. It’s not about you; it’s about your child and his behavior.
Related: How to stop letting your child’s behavior hurt you.

Buckle up, it’s quite a ride ahead. This behavior is basically the warning sign that adolescence is approaching. We often see it emerge in the pre-teen years, when kids generally don’t have the best communication skills. Your child is not going to say, “Please mom, I need a little space right now. Could you find something else to do?” Instead, she screams, “Leave me alone!” and slams the door in your face. Part of parent survival here is remembering that this is part of a stage your child is going through. As painful and annoying as it is, understand that your child actually needs to go through this individuation process on the way to adulthood.

How can you deal with this as a parent? Here are three things you can do to get through this difficult time with your teen:

Don’t take it personally: When your child starts ignoring you or pushing you away, try not to take it personally. (More later about how you can handle it when your child uses foul language or is verbally abusive.) Remind yourself that this is a stage they’re going through, and it’s up to you to deal with it in a mature way. If it’s hurtful when your child is embarrassed by you, come up with a slogan you can tell yourself in the moment like, “This is normal; it’s part of adolescence and it’s what he’s supposed to be doing. It’s not about me.”

Give space when possible: When your child is pushing you away, try to remain rational and focus on what needs to be done. If you get emotional, it just makes that push-pull worse, until it turns into a tug-of-war.

Let’s say you’re out shopping with your 15-year-old daughter and she’s ignoring you and maybe walking ahead of you. Catch up with her and say, “Listen, we have to buy you a pair of jeans today. Let’s figure out how we can do that together. When we’re done, you can have an hour to shop on your own, as long as you tell me where you’re going and take your cell phone with you.” If she objects and insists on going off by herself, don’t get mad. Just say, “We’re here to get you some jeans. If you can’t cooperate, we can leave.” Remember, you don’t have to buy her a pair of jeans if she can’t comply with your simple request.

Related: Natural Consequences vs. Setting Limits: Why both are important

One important note: When giving your child space in the form of independent activities, you have to feel like she’s old enough and that the situation is safe. You can start with small steps and then graduate to the bigger step eventually. You might feel better about your daughter going with a friend at first, for example, than letting her go alone.

Look for Glimmers: During this stage in your child’s life, you may only see glimmers of the relationship you had when he was younger. It’s worth looking for those glimmers. When kids are in adolescence, their peers become more of the draw than their parents. Sometimes, in order to establish those connections with their friends, they reject their parents a little (or a lot!) and the relationship turns into a push-pull—the more you try to pull them toward you, the more they push you away. This is confusing for parents, because the messages you’re getting from your child are, “Take me to the basketball game, but don’t be seen with me.” The underlying feeling is this: “I really need you, but it’s tough for me to admit it, so I’m going to act like I don’t like you—especially when I’m around my friends.” Some days it can feel like a test—your teen is testing you to make sure you’re still there, but she also wants to be able to push you away when she needs space.

What can you do? I think you have to be there with your child in a different way than you were before. They’re not going to come and sit on your lap, but they might sit in the car with you on a road trip and talk. As parents, we need to adapt to our kids becoming more independent, while also trying to find ways to come together. Rent a movie that your child wants to see, for example, and talk about it together afterward. Use it as a springboard for a conversation about their views on life, and just listen—don’t judge them or tell them what they should think. The time when your child was young and thought you were the most amazing person on the planet might be over, but a new phase—one where you’re able to have interesting discussions about the world—is beginning. Look for those glimmers, and remember, our kids are not there to make us feel good, especially when they’re adolescents. If you’re counting on that, you’re going to be disappointed. It’s just not their job.

Kids Who Are Verbally Abusive

While some of the bad attitude and back talk you’re experiencing are a normal (if unpleasant) part of adolescence, some kids cross the line and become verbally abusive to parents. Let me be very clear: This is not something to be accepted and it’s not okay. If you’re in this situation and your adolescent has started to call you foul names or threatened you, it’s important to set limits around this behavior immediately. Again, you have to keep the emotions out of it. It’s not about you; it’s about your child and his behavior.

Let’s say you tell your 16-year-old he can’t go to a party; you have it on good authority that alcohol and drugs will be there. Your child really wants to go because “all my friends will be there,” but you stick to your guns: the answer is still no. He calls you a “f------ b----,” tells you you’ll be sorry, and slams his bedroom door in your face. You’re standing there seething, thinking, “Now what do I do?” And just how do you keep your emotions out of it and find a way not to personalize the behavior? Let’s face it, it’s hard not to take it personally if someone’s calling you a terrible name.

Related: Does your child swear at you, threaten you, or call you names? How to stop the behavior now.

Here are 3 things to help you deal with a verbally abusive child:

1. Don’t get emotional. Don’t yell back if you can help it. Step away from the door and from the argument. Go take a minute (or an hour, or several hours) to calm down. Separate from your child because remember, this is about pushing and pulling. Go have a cup of tea or do something that relaxes you. If you have someone you can talk to about it that will calm you down, give them a call.

When this is happening, I know it makes you feel like you need to be in charge and make them stop. You feel impotent and suddenly not very empowered. But generally, trying to control the situation just makes it worse. When you step into an argument, it usually escalates from there. It starts with name calling and all of a sudden you’ve grounded your child for a month. He’s heated up and he can’t hear you in any rational way because he’s so angry. Here’s the truth: The most powerful thing you can do is step away from the fight until you can have a rational discussion, where you will set rational limits.

2. Talk about it later. Don’t try to have any kind of conversation with your child until you’re both calm. If he’s in his room by himself after he screamed at you, that’s a great time not to speak with him. When you’re cool (and that may be an hour or two later) you can tell your child that you don’t appreciate being called foul names. You can even say, “I know you were mad at me because I said ‘no’ to you. But if you’re mad at me, you have to find a different, appropriate way to say it. Cursing at me and verbally abusing me are not okay and there are consequences for that.” Try to be as matter of fact as possible—otherwise it becomes about you and the argument, and not your child’s behavior.

3. Set limits around your child’s behavior. If swearing and name-calling is a pattern of behavior with your child, you need to give him consequences. This behavior needs to be dealt with very strongly—there’s no excuse for abuse, verbal or otherwise. During your conversation, let him know that calling you names and threatening you is unacceptable. Tell him that he will lose his cell phone, for example, for a specified period of time. You can handle that by saying, “You can’t have your phone back until you don’t curse at me or call me a name for 24 hours.” If your child calls you a foul name again six hours later, the 24 hours starts all over again. The other piece of this limit that you’re setting is that your child should go to his room and write a letter of apology to you, which can be a brief paragraph. And what the letter has to say is, “This is what I’ll do differently the next time I want to call you a name.” It should include the apology—and more importantly, a commitment not to do it again.

Related: A step-by-step guide to managing acting out behavior.

Ways to Cope

One of the best ways to make this phase of adolescence feel more normal is to talk to other parents. Find someone with older kids who can tell you stories about their own experiences and give you good advice. I also think it’s important to look for the humor in the situation to get past the bad feelings you may have.

And it’s also good to try and remember what it felt like when you were that age. You probably didn’t want to be seen with your parents either, and felt like your friends knew everything and your mom and dad were out of touch.

While your relationship will never be the same as it was when your child was small, it will eventually get better—usually when your child is older and they get more of a sense of themselves. He needs to know that you’re okay with him becoming more independent. If you can let go of some of the expectations of closeness and of your child being there for you, he won’t need to push you away as hard.

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