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Anthony E. Wolf

No, I didn't do what I just did Add to ...

awolf@globeandmail.com

'Sorry, Kayla. I'm just not comfortable with Steven coming over when I'm out."

"Omigod, we're not going to do anything. We're going to study. You think that I'm sex-crazed, which I'm not."

"No, I am just not comfortable with the two of you here alone."

The discussion continued downhill from there until Kayla threw a full-fledged tantrum, screaming at her mother, "I hate you. I hate you. I hate this house."

At which point, Kayla stormed off to her room.

Later that evening: "Kayla, you were way out of line earlier when I said you couldn't have Steven over. You can't behave that way."

"What way?"

Teens can be oblivious of their own behaviour. Promises to take out the trash? Five hours later, it's not taken out, and no memories remain of any promises.

They accidentally let the cat out. "So how did the cat get out?" "I don't know. It wasn't me."

It's as if it never happened. And even if they were somehow to see a replay, they wouldn't believe it.

"Kayla, I want you to watch this. It's a video of your tantrum earlier this evening."

"That's not me. That's some kind of trick video, like it was computer-generated."

Are they lying, or do they distort reality that easily?

The answer is probably somewhere in between. The fact is that some teens, when dealing with their family (and often other adults as well), appear to live in an altered state of consciousness whereby anything that's unpleasant somehow gets screened out. They just don't seem to get it.

So what do you do? Here's one major mistake that parents often make: They choose to exert their energy in trying to get their child to own up to what actually transpired - to admit that they did throw a hissy fit or forget to take the trash out.

The problem is that they very rarely meet with any kind of success - and I mean very, very rarely.

Instead, they invariably get into a back and forth argument about what actually happened, which works against any positive outcome.

"Kayla, you had a major tantrum and were swearing at me because you couldn't have Steven over."

"I didn't have a major tantrum. You always totally exaggerate everything I do."

"No, you were way out of line."

"You were out of line. You were yelling at me."

Unfortunately, the more that Kayla's mother focuses on getting Kayla to see or admit to what actually happened, the more Kayla becomes combative, defending her position and getting increasingly mad at her mother. The more defensive Kayla gets, the more she sees her mother as evil and the more she feels persecuted, rather than reflecting on what may or may not been her behaviour.

We ask Kayla, "What did you just learn about your behaviour from your discussion with your mother?"

"That my mother is a bitch."

This is how she will see it.

Far better is not to get caught up in trying to convince them of the reality or their culpability. Far better is to simply state the reality as you saw it, and go on from there.

"Kayla, I did not like the way you acted earlier this evening."

"What way?"

"You had a major tantrum when I said you couldn't have Steven over."

"I did not have a tantrum. You're exaggerating."

"I do not want you acting that way in the future."

"What way? I wasn't acting any way."

That is, Kayla's mother is stating her piece more or less oblivious to Kayla's denials, and needs to say no more.

Kayla will probably continue to argue, but she does hear her mother. She may or may not change her view of her own behaviour. But there was no derailing argument, only a statement by her mother that Kayla has heard and has to address in her own mind.

Will she change her behaviour in the future? Maybe, maybe not. But there is a far better chance of her reflecting on her own behaviour, rather than seeing it as just another instance of her mother being overbearing.

"I mean I don't take it back that she can be a bitch. But I do have some vague memory of me screaming at her, and maybe, just possibly me using some swear words. It's all very dim."

Anthony E. Wolf is a clinical psychologist in Longmeadow, Mass.

 

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