First Posted: 6/4/2014
I’d heard about the teen attitude. I even remember having one a few decades ago. Friends of mine with older children would vent about it, and I marveled at how my kids were different, how they were somehow still generally respectful and appreciative of all we do for them.
We had our first 13th birthday in the house this month and all of that has changed. I’m not saying it happened overnight. There were signs in recent months. But suddenly, my husband and I are at our wits end. I finally realized I had reached my breaking point this past weekend when I found myself fully engaged in an all-out, adolescent-level verbal altercation with the new teen and, hours later had to pull over to the side of the road due to a blinding migraine.
The scenario that served as my wake-up call happened on Saturday afternoon. Our family was preparing to go on a road trip to visit life-long friends out-of-state. Packing up on a busy Saturday was not going to be easy. It was going to take all the energy and determination my husband and I could muster to get this family on the road on time, considering a full schedule of other chores and obligations.
We spent the morning across town taking apart a swing set that I had bought off of someone’s lawn. This chore, that will pay off in the joy it will give our two-year-old, is nonetheless a miserable, muddy task, the kind that always takes three times as long as anticipated and cannot be completed in one day.
Next we had to get our middle child to her softball game. We love to attend them and cheer her on, but that was not to happen on this day, as we still had to load up the minivan. As we frantically worked to clean ourselves up, pack bags and coolers and try to at least get to the softball game before it ended, I made the mistake of asking the 13-year-old for help. Since she was reclining on the couch with headphones on and thumbs flying over the face of her iPhone, I figured she had some time to jump in and assist. The task laid out to her was to empty and load the dishwasher. This personal affront was met with an exasperated sigh.
“Why should I have to do it?!” she moaned under her breath as she dragged her feet to the kitchen.
“Because you are a part of this family and I need help right now,” was my response.
“I didn’t decide to go ahead and have all these kids,” she replied with a venomous tone. “That was you.”
I went on to explain with ever-increasing tension and volume that we brought her into this world, she is a part of this family and she has some responsibility to pitch in. I was interrupted with an often-used response.
“Well, none of my friends have to do chores!”
When I finally got into the shower to wash away the morning’s mess before heading out on our family adventure, all the stress seemed to wash away. I found myself daydreaming about seeing our old friends and connecting around a campfire later in the evening. I kept my eye on the prize as I toweled off, telling myself that as soon as we got everyone and everything loaded in the minivan, stopped at the game and dropped off the dog, we would be done with the work and on to the fun. I opened up my make up bag and realized several items were missing.
“Have you seen my makeup?” I called out into the living room. She looked up from her phone long enough to shoot me a vicious glare and respond in the surliest tone she could elicit.
“Yeah, I used it.”
“Could you get it for me then?” I replied in a sing-song voice, struggling to maintain my calm demeanor.
“It’s packed,” she hissed.
“Well go get it then,” I relied through clenched teeth.
Eye roll, hair fling, exasperated sigh, stomping feet (while baby is napping).
She arrived at the bath room and emphatically placed, or rather flung, the items on to the counter before me.
The long day moving heavy, muddy structures along with the attempt at organizing everyone’s packing, comingled with the guilt of knowing that my mild-tempered, ever-grateful middle child was probably sitting on the bleachers, already waiting for us …all came together to form (what felt like) a blinding ball of stress in my head, and I lost it. I yelled in her face. I called her names. I reduced myself to engaging in an adolescent battle of wills.
As we finally veered the minivan out onto 84 East with all of the chores of the day behind us, the migraine hit.
I felt better by the next day and spent a wonderful, relaxing weekend reflecting on the situation. My dear friends who are parenting alongside me had parallel stories to share. We talked about coping mechanisms and strategies. I really listened and came to understand that my teenager is behaving in a normal way for her age and the only thing I can do to change it, is to react differently to it.
Hormones: Teens are moody and easily triggered because their bodies are being flooded with hormones over which they have no control, causing an emotional roller coaster ride where extreme drop-offs are often and unforeseen.
Blurred Lines: They have hit the developmental phase between child and adult where they are compelled to start to break away from their parents, yet they still desperately need them. They start to look down their noses at their homes because, if the nest is too warm and comfortable, the bird won’t ever want to fly away. This is not a personal attack; they are testing the boundaries for behavior in a setting where they feel the safest.
Stay Calm and Carry On: This is where we can role-model and show our child how we act under pressure. Take a deep breathe and don’t yell, swear or let yourself be reduced to name-calling. When my two-year-old started repeating the phrase,”Sissy is a brat,” as often as she said “Go to the playground?”, I knew I was sending the wrong message.
Disengage: When the behavior begins, remove your attention. Teens are a lot like toddlers on hormones. When a toddler has a tantrum, we know that ignoring the fit is the best remedy. When a toddler ceases to get attention for a tantrum, the tantrum ends. So if the interaction with the teen has become disrespectful, then leave the room, hang up the phone or stop the car and tell the offender to walk. If you must speak, calmly say that there will be no further discussion, transportation or whatever it is they are looking for, until the conversation is conducted in a mutually respectful tone.
Pick Your Battles: Some behaviors are healthy venting mechanisms for teens, coping skills that may avert something worse. The scowling, eye-rolling, exasperated sighs, muttering under the breath and predictable responses like “Whatever” and “Fine” can be ignored. True disrespect in the formal of verbal abuse cannot. Escalated behaviors like saying, “I hate you”, name-calling, swearing or the kind of door-slamming that shakes the house, must be addressed.
Calm and Caring Retorts: Faced with a barrage of insults, create stock responses like, “You know I love you, right?” and “I hope you realize we are all human beings with feelings, just like you.”
Cooling Off Period: Mandate a cooling-off period in the bedroom, a break for both parties involved, then approach with questions like, “What’s going on? Is something bothering you?”
Focus on the Relationship, Not the Behavior: Keep the relationship as the most important priority, not the behavior that is certainly a temporary part of it. Take time to spend together over a cup of coffee, a leisurely walk, a mutual workout or a trip to peruse the books at the library. Give a good morning hug and another when she walks in from school.
“This Too Shall Pass”: When all else fails and you find yourself stressed out, apologizing for your behavior or at a complete loss, just remember this wonderful phrase that got so many of us through sleepless nights with infants, the Terrible Twos and potty-training.