How did we get here? Who are you? Those are two questions many parents ask themselves when their teenagers slam doors, curse, or call them names seemingly out of the blue. Your warm and sweet children have suddenly turned into angry almost adults. But just as parents have to manage their toddlers, they also have to learn to manage teenagers so these emotionally fraught relationships can one day become functional and adult.
Whatever is causing the arguing in your house, there are things you can do as the parent that will change the dynamic from tense to calm(er).
Step 1: After an argument, don’t go too deep
After an argument or explosion, do not try to have a conversation about your child’s behavior. Digging deep in that moment is just about the worst thing a parent can do, says Ruth Krigbaum Rich, a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Peabody, Mass., who works primarily with adolescents and their families. “Kids want to stay superficial.”
“Move on and move forward,” Rich adds. Be tough and inoculate yourself against the mean things your child says so you can ignore their actual words. Of course, you need to maintain rules, so you’re free to say, “I don’t allow people to curse at me” or “yelling is against the rules.” After you say your one-line response, walk away rather than continuing to discuss their behavior or the actual words they used. In fact, Rich says, do not make a big deal even over big mistakes. Handle the problem, be calm, and then let it pass.
Step 2: Accept them at their word
“Do not analyze them,” Rich adds. Be a good listener by acknowledging the points they are making, even if they are telling you how much you annoy them. Just acknowledge their point. Validate them, just as you did when they were little. If they say you are annoying them, trust that they are telling you the truth and behave differently so you stop annoying them.
Remember, they are likely feeling fragile about the separation process that comes with growing up (whether they consciously know this or not), so err on the side of their wish to separate by not overly engaging them so they can sort things out on their own. If you want to see how they are, text them about neutral, easy topics, and remind yourself that you want your child to feel empowered, confident, and independent rather than having them believe they need you to make decisions or to know what’s best for them. They should be getting to know themselves.
Step 3: Be clueless, not cool
Since you’re staying superficial most of the time, let them talk about their interests and then, in response, ask them questions about that interest.
Teenagers are extra-sensitive about the word “should,” so pretend you are a dispassionate journalist and engage them with curiosity rather than judgment or an opinion. “Stick to their words and repeat those words back to them,” Rich suggests. “The movie was good? What did you like about it?” versus “I heard it was violent” or “I would never see something like that.” Your goal is to make them feel like they can keep talking, so you want to be careful not to shut them down with what will sound like rejection.
Also, don’t try to be the cool mom; instead, be the clueless older person. Ask them to show you how to do something or to help you with something you can’t reach or manage yourself. This will give them a little power in the relationship.
Step 4: Give them space during the day
If you aren’t interrogating them in the morning or after school, there’s a good chance they will come talk to you at night when they are tired, at which point it is your turn to again do some “reflective listening.”
Likewise, try to notice when they are reaching out in friendship, such as by putting gas in the car or putting their laundry away. Just say “Thank you” and appreciate the gesture.
Step 5: Don’t give in to the Facebook fantasy
Just as your mom told you, don’t compare your insides to someone else’s outsides. What someone presents on Facebook — say, a perfect relationship with their child — is often not real life. “Don’t fall for that,” Rich says. “Remind yourself that an argument is real, and real life is good. You’re in the thick of an honest relationship. It’s not fake or superficial.”
Remind yourself, Rich adds, “that you have 16 or 17 years of a strong foundation with this child, and this moment of anger or drama is not the only reality. Take the big-picture view and get perspective, because your teenager will come back to you as a happier, calmer adult.”
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