I recently interviewed a mother of four, who is struggling with deteriorating relationships with her teenagers, ages 14 and 16. While this is not necessarily typical, such situations are relatively common.
My client described a relatively healthy family background, with a solid marriage, comfortable lifestyle, and no abuse or mistreatment. The kids have done well academically and athletically, and she considered them to be well adjusted.
However, the last several years had produced deteriorating relationships with her older kids. She found herself often trying to be nice to her kids, while they continue to be verbally abusive, disrespectful, and demanding.
With just one minor shift in her approach, she discovered a remarkable change in a matter of one week. I am going to discuss that shift with you in this article.
However, first I will briefly discuss the mistakes that she was making, and then discuss a very simple rule to eliminate those mistakes.
Mistake #1: Failure to recognize a pattern of behavior.
Let’s be clear. All of us have our good days and our bad days. We can be grumpy, a bit irritable, and not so easy to get along with.
With teenagers who fall into a pattern of disrespect, anger, ugliness, and demanding, it’s important to acknowledge that this is a PATTERN. This just means that it’s not an occasional ugly moment, and it’s not situational. It becomes a rather consistent and predictable response. When it has become a pattern, it’s essential to recognize it as such, and to change your strategy.
Mistake #2: Being consistently nice to your kids, when they are consistently ugly toward you.
Notice that this is part of the pattern…you trying to be nice…when they treat your poorly. They wake up on the wrong side of the bed. They seem to stay on the wrong side of the bed. No matter what you do, they just snarl back at you.
The only time that they are reasonably nice to you is when they want something from you. Otherwise, if you ask something of them, you just get the attitude and disrespect. Mistake #3: You’re working harder at this relationship than they are.
Notice what it feels like when you think about your relationship with a difficult teenager. Doesn’t it feel like you’re working diligently, day in and day out, to try to promote a healthy, cooperative atmosphere? The problem is that the more that you overcompensate (work harder than they do)…. the more this creates a license to abuse you. Mistake #4: Teaching kids they live in fantasy world…rather than reality.
Let me ask you. If you treated others the way your teenager is treating you…what would they do? Would they keep being so nice? Would they keep working so hard to make things work? Would they keep driving you to work…or going out to dinner?
NO! So the biggest mistake is a failure to teach your teens about reality.
Stop it. Stop working harder at this than they are and stop training to live in some other reality. Instead, I encourage you to take a different approach. This is the approach that will consistently and predictably turns around a deteriorating relationship.
The get real strategy.
1.) Let your kids know that Mom and Dad have been living in la-la land.
That’s right…. you have been living in la-la land. What’s been happening looks nothing like reality.
When they’ve been ugly and disrespectful, you’ve tried to be nice. You’ve tried to negotiate with them. You’ve tried to convince them to treat you better.
You’re not going to do that anymore. Instead…
2.) It’s time to get real.
Let your kids know that you’re going to start living in reality a bit more. Tell them that you’re not expecting them to do anything different at all (because it doesn’t make any difference)…but that Mom and Dad are going to be different.
You’re going to walk away from:Disrespect.
And anything similar.
Lets imagine that you are shopping for a blouse for your teenage daughter, and she starts complaining about your choices. You put down the top, and walk out of the store. No discussion. No negotiation. Just walk away.
Lets imagine you stop by Friendly’s for a bite of dinner. Your son starts complaining because he wanted to go to McDonald’s. I would encourage you to pick up your pocketbook, and simply walk out. Leave him sitting there. When he comes to the car…simply drive home. No McDonald’s. No Friendly’s. No thing.
On of the most common experiences...you’re at home and your teenager is being grumpy before they even get out of their bedroom. Rather than trying to be sweet and nice, simply walk away.
Or they come home from school and they walk in the door, and you’re always there to greet them with a warm hello….only to get a snarling response. Notice: you can usually see the snarl before you even say a word. So instead of initiating a warm hello, and trying to get a conversation going just walk in the other direction.
Or maybe you’re trying to have a discussion about how soccer practice went, and all you get is a grunt. Then you ask a second question and you get another grunt. Then you try another angle, and you still just get a grunt.
Walk away. Walk away. Walk away.
Regardless of where you are at or what the circumstances are….you won’t be able to convince them with your words to treat you differently. Instead, they need a dose of reality.
Reality: The world will walk away from such garbage. Healthy individuals walk away from disrespect. Healthy employers fire people who talk that way. Healthy professors refuse to work with students who are this grumpy.
Reality is that most of the world will walk away from such ugly behavior. You need to let your kids know that you’ll do that…and then do it.
3.) Resonate with the level of interest they show in relating to you.
Resonant with where they’re at…rather than trying to force them to resonate with where you’re at.
What does this mean? If they’re not wanting a conversation…. don’t try to force it. If they don’t want to be in the room with you…don’t be in the room with them. If they don’t like the place that you’re shopping for them….then walk out.
Don’t try to force it to happen. This will not work. All you have to do is pay attention to the way things are unfolding and you can see that this is true.
Instead, start to pay attention. When they show interest, you show interest. When they ask a question, gladly respond. When they say hi, say hi.
Just don’t try to force it. Don’t try to push it. Don’t try to make it happen.
When I suggest that you walk away from their ugliness, I am suggesting that you do this without emotional attachment. It’s like a radio station that you don’t want to listen to…. you just walk out of the room and tune it into another station.
Again, this is in keeping with reality. In reality, most people aren’t going to invest in your child’s ugliness, disrespect, complaining and whining behavior. They’re just going to walk away.
Thus, your kids need this sort of reality based training…in order to be more prepared for real life.
And the benefit? Well…. you test it and see what happens. See if your child doesn’t come around more often. See if they aren’t more interested in initiating conversations. When it does come time to have a serious moment…notice if they aren’t more receptive to your input.
You can begin to build a relationship based on mutual respect and mutual investment in the relationship. Stop working harder than they are. Disengage when it is ugly. And be ready, calmly and persistently…. ready to resonant with their growing interest in you and relating to you. It will come…. even though it make take several days to several weeks…. it will come.
Dr. Randy Cale, a Clifton Park-based parenting expert, author, speaker and licensed psychologist, offers practical guidance for a host of parenting concerns. His Web site, www.TerrificParenting.com,, offers free parenting guidance and an e-mail newsletter.