I have heard so many parents say that they do not understand how their teenager can behave for teachers, with their friend’s parents, with relatives but not with them. This often causes parents to question their parenting abilities and can create a lot of negative feelings between parent and teenager. What is likely happening if you are in this situation, is that you are receiving the biggest backhanded compliment from your teenager. It feels more just like a backhand period…but it many ways, it really is a compliment.
What happens is that teenagers walk around confused, unsure and often feeling out of control much of the time. You, as their parent, are their “safe person”. This means that they know (whether consciously or unconsciously) that despite their behaviors, you are still there every day and they know you will take care of them. They know that you will still love them and that you will not “cut them off” like friends may do if they acted out with them or “kick them out” like schools may do if they were to act out too much there. When teenagers act out with their parents, they typically don’t even understand what is going on. They just feel a wave of strong emotion and it all gets released towards parents who are the safest. With this said, it is not okay for your teen to continue to do this. Understanding it can help you reshape their behavior, but this is not behavior you should tolerate ongoing from your teenager.
Below are some suggestions for addressing this with your teen so that you do not continue to be on the receiving end of all their difficult emotions:
1. Be realistic about changes: if your teenager has been yelling, screaming and swearing at you – understand that this will not change overnight. Be clear about what you need to change first and focus on that (i.e not screaming and slamming doors, not swearing at you, etc).
2. Be clear: during a period of calm, talk to your teen in a non-blaming way. Let them know that you have been thinking about things and that you want both of you to work on making changes. Then be clear about what needs to change, what you will do to work on it and then try to allow them to come up with a plan for what they will do. If you avoid blaming them, they will be more likely to engage with you and will be more likely to feel understood and cared about.
3. Let them know the consequences: come up with a clear consequence if they continue to engage in the problem behavior and make sure they understand it. You will need to be committed to enforcing this each and every time as needed or else none of this will be effective.
4. Don’t escalate the behavior: if your teen begins to escalate themselves, don’t allow yourself to escalate to their level (easier said than done!). This is really important – try speaking calmly, in a soft voice and let them know you should both take some space if they continue to escalate. Then you can come back to the situation when you are both feeling calmer.
This is a process and will take committment and work, however, you should not be subjected to all your teenager’s challenging emotions. Instead, you want to teach them self-control and how to express themselves appropriately which is a skill they will need for the rest of their lives.