What you need to know about your teen’s bad attitude, and how to help improve it

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I used to have a lovely daughter who couldn’t do enough to help around the house, or to please me. My approval was what she craved most in the world, and she was always trying to find ways to make me happy. Gosh, those were good times.

These days, my child is about to turn 14, and she has developed the queen of all attitudes. I never know what I’m going to get when she walks in a room. Sometimes she wants a hug and sometimes she wants a fight. And sometimes she just wants to burst into tears and blame everything on me, or tell her younger siblings how miserable they’ve made her life. It’s a grab bag of fun.

If you’re going through something similar with your teenager, it can feel like you’re losing your mind – or at the very least, your “baby”. But there are three things it’s important to remember when you’re knee-deep in the trenches of teenagerhood that will help you retain your sanity.

  1. It’s not deliberate. It may not help right now, but that behaviour isn’t some planned assault on the family designed to break your spirit. Your teenager is as much a victim of this behaviour as you are. She’s feeling all these new feelings and freaking out about all manner of things, and just doing the best she can. It’s a roller coaster, no doubt. Her brain is changing, peers are pressuring her, she’s feeling impulsive and risk-taking, and she doesn’t have the self-control she’ll need to navigate adulthood yet. It’s important to understand this has nothing to do with anything you say or do.
  2. Reasoning won’t help. Even if you understand what’s going on, it’s not going to change anything. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be reasonable with your teenager – this can model great behaviour when it comes to problem solving and relationships. It might not help right now but it will help in the long run – and parenting is a long game.
  3. Punishment probably won’t help. Sorry. It’s natural to punish your child when they do something wrong, but while they’ve got their teenage brain, it’s not likely to make a difference. Think back to when you were a teenager. Did punishments make you any wiser and more careful? What punishment can do is alienate your child further from you and make it less likely that she will be open and honest with you.

All this doesn’t mean you should just throw up your hands and give up. What it does mean is you need to consider how teenagers work and design your approach around that. Four things you can do to help improve your teenager’s attitude are:

  1. Focus on the positives. When your teenager is helpful around the house, speaks nicely to her brother, or participates in a family discussion around the dinner table, give her some positive feedback. Tell her it was lovely to talk with her, or that you appreciate how helpful she’s been. She might not even show that she cares, but deep down, she still wants to please you.
  2. Keep punishments low-key. If you think your teen’s behaviour really does warrant some form of punishment, take the softly-softly approach. Loss of a privilege is the most reasonable approach but keep it short – being grounded for a month loses its relevance quickly and by the end nobody can remember what it was for in the first place. And try to ensure you combine punishment with reinforcement of good behaviour.
  3. Know when to hold firm and when to compromise. It’s important for teens to have boundaries and to understand when they’re crossing a line, but it’s also helpful if you can find places to compromise and give them some buy-in. This is especially effective if you can choose some areas where you’ve been strict in the past, and now you can give them some wiggle room. This might mean letting her get that crazy haircut she wanted, or staying out an extra hour. Show your teen you’re able to compromise and give a little, and she’s more likely to want to try to earn more of that.
  4. Focus on what works. Sure, she should just pull her head in and behave herself without you having to pussyfoot around her, but we’re not living in a perfect world and teenagers are strange beasts. If you can remember that this is nothing personal, it’s easier to focus on the end result, which is getting through this time with goodwill and your family intact.

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