10 WAYS TO DEAL WITH YOUR DIFFICULT OR NEGATIVE TEEN
“Judge nothing, you will be happy. Forgive everything, you will be happier. Love everything, you will be happiest.” ~Sri Chinmoy
I love him to death, but it’s draining to talk to him. Every time I talk with my son, I know what I’m in for: a half-hour rant about everything that’s difficult, miserable or unfair. Sometimes he focuses on the people he feels have wronged him (like his mother and I) and other times he explores the general hopelessness of his high school life. He never asks how I am doing, and he rarely listens to what’s going on in our family life for more than two minutes before shifting the focus back to himself. I tell myself I keep making the attempt to connect because I care, but sometimes I wonder if I have ulterior motives–to pump up my ego offering good parental advice, or even to feel better about my own reality of being the head of this family.
I’m no saint, and if there’s one thing I know well, we only do things repeatedly if we believe there’s something in it for us. Even if that something is just to feel needed. Is that what my son is feeling?
I thought about this the other day when a client asked me an interesting question: “How do I offer compassion to my son when he doesn’t seem to deserve it?”
While I believe everyone deserves compassion, I understand this feeling.
One mother spoke to me about her daughter saying she is offensive and emotionally exhausts everyone around her in the family. Is she hateful of her life already at age 16, or is she just terribly depressed? Some teens seem to have boundless negative energy that ends up affecting everyone around them.
How do you interact with negative or difficult teens?
Teens who seem chronically angry, belligerent, indignant, critical, or just plain rude.
When your teen repeatedly drains everyone around them, how do you maintain a sense of compassion without getting sucked into their doom?
And how do you act in a way that doesn’t reinforce their negativity–and maybe even helps them? Here’s what I’ve come up with:
1. Act instead of just reacting.
Oftentimes we wait until our teen gets angry or depressed before we attempt to buoy their spirits. When you know your teen is dealing with difficult feelings or thoughts (as demonstrated in their behavior) don’t wait for a situation to help them create positive feelings. Give them a compliment for something they did well.
Remind them of a moment when they were happy–as in “Remember when you scored that touchdown? That was awesome!” You’re more apt to want to boost them up when they haven’t brought you down. This may help give them a little relief from their pain.
2. Dig deeper, but stay out of the hole.
It’s always easier to offer your teen compassion when you understand where they’re coming from.
However, that can’t completely justify their bad behavior.
When you show negative people you support their choice to behave badly, you give them no real incentive to make a change (which they may actually want deep down).
It may help to repeat this in your head when you deal with them: “I understand your pain. However, I’m most helpful if I don’t feed into it.”
This might help you approach your teen with both firmness and kindness so they don’t bring you or the rest of the family down with them.
3. Disarm their negativity, even if just for now.
You know your angry and depressed teen will rant about life’s injustices as long as you let them. Part of you may feel tempted to play amateur counselor or therapist –get them talking, and then help them reframe situations into a more positive light.
Then remind yourself you can’t change their whole way of being in one minute or perhaps even in one day. They have to want that. You also can’t listen for hours on end, as you’ve done in the past. However, you can listen compassionately for a short while and then help them focus on something positive right now, in this moment. You can ask about any upcoming activities or school events. You can remind them it’s a beautiful day for a bike ride or walk.
Don’t think you can fix your teen.
Just aim to help them now.
4. Don’t take it personally–but know sometimes it is personal.
Conventional wisdom suggests that you should never take things personally when you deal with your angry and negative teen. And yes, I do think it’s a little more complicated than that. You can’t write off everything your teen says about you just because they are being insensitive or tactless.
Even an abrasive teen may have a valid point. Weigh their comments with a willingness to learn. Accept that you don’t deserve the excessive emotions in their condensing tone, but weigh their ideas with a willingness to learn.
Some of the most useful lessons I’ve learned came from caring friends I wished weren’t right.
5. Maintain a positive boundary.
Some people might tell you to visualize a bright white light around you to maintain a positive space when other people enter it with negativity.
This doesn’t actually work for parents and their teens because most parents and teens respond better to ideas in words than visualizations. So tell yourself this, “I can only control the positive space I create around myself.”
Then when you interact with your teen, do two things, in this order of importance:
~ Protect the positive space around yourself. When their negativity is too strong, you need to walk away.
~ Help your teen feel more positive, not act more positive–which is more likely to create the desired result.
6. Maintain the right relationship based on reality as it is.
With your teen you may always be wishing they could be more accepting and more positive. Do you consistently put yourself in situations where you feel bad because you want to help, because you want them to be happy?
Please realize the best you can do is accept them as they are, let them know you believe in their ability to be happy, and then give them space to make the choice. That means gently bringing your conversations to a close after you’ve made an effort to help.
Or cutting short a night and going to your room when you’ve done all you can and it’s draining you. Hopefully your teen will want to change some day. Until then, all you can do is love them, while loving yourself enough to take care of your needs.
7. Question what you’re getting out of it.
We often get something out of relationship, even with our negative teens.
Get real honest with yourself: have you fallen into a caretaker role because it makes you feel needed by your child? Do you have some sort of stake in keeping the things the way they are?
Questioning yourself helps you change the way you respond–which is really all you can control.
You can’t make your teen act, feel, or behave differently.
You can be as kind as possible or as combative as possible, and still not change reality for them. All you can control is what you think and do–and then do your best to help them without hurting yourself.
8. Remember the numbers.
Research shows that all people with negative attitudes have significantly higher rates of disease and stress. Someone’s mental state plays a huge role in their physical health. When your teen is making life difficult for their family and other people around them, you can be sure they’re doing worse for themselves. What a sad reality. That your teen has so much pain inside them they have to act out just to feel some sense of relief–even when that relief comes from getting a rise out of people. When you remember how much your teen is suffering, it’s easier to stay focused on minimizing negativity, as opposed to always defending yourself.
9. Resist the urge to judge or assume.
It’s hard to offer your teen compassion when you assume you have them pegged. He’s a jerk. She’s dissatisfied. He’s rebellious. Even if it seems unlikely they will wake up one day and act differently you need to remember it is possible.
When you think negative thoughts, it comes out in your body language.
Someone prone to negativity may feel all too tempted to mirror that.
Come at them with the positive mindset you wish they had.
Expect the best in them.
You never know when you might be pleasantly surprised.
10. Temper your emotional response.
Negative teens often gravitate toward others who react strongly–people who easily get angered, outraged, or offended. I suspect this gives them a little light in the darkness of their inner world–a sense that they’re not floating alone in their own anger, bewilderment or sadness. Your teen will remember and learn from what you do more than what you say. When you feed into the situation with emotions, you’ll teach them they can depend on you for a reaction. It’s tough not to react because we’re human, but it’s worth practicing. Once you’ve offered a compassionate ear for as long as you can, respond as calmly as possible with a simple line of fact.
When you’re dealing with an angry, confused and rude teen, you may want to change the subject to something unrelated: “Your favorite TV show is on tonight. Planning to watch it?”
You can’t always save your teen.
But you can make their world a better place by working on yourself–by becoming self-aware, tapping into your compassion, and protecting your teen from self-destructing or self-harming.
Dore E. Frances, Ph.D.
Horizon Family Solutions, LLC