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Anthony E. Wolf on parenting

When 'this sucks' means 'hi, Mom' Add to ...

awolf@globeandmail.com

'Mom, this orange juice tastes sour. It's gross. It's disgusting."

Evan's mother takes a sip. "It tastes fine to me."

"Well, it's not. It's gross. You should throw it out."

He is always complaining. Mr. Negativity. Like last night I reminded him that we're going over to his Aunt Reba's and immediately it was, "Oh, that's so stupid and boring." But then he always has a good time - which he never would admit. If there's anything that comes out of his mouth, it's always a complaint or put-down.

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"This car smells weird."

Anything I say gets a negative response.

"Doesn't the yard look nice?"

"What do you want me to say? It's a yard."

What is his problem?

Evan's problem is adolescence. Until their teenage years, kids seem to be openly enthusiastic about everything.

"Dad, Dad, you gotta look at this."

"Evan, it's a dead bug."

"No, no, Dad, you don't get it. It's so cool. Look at it. It's the coolest bug ever."

But now, to be enthusiastic - especially with you - is very uncool for them. They regard showing enthusiasm as fully opening themselves up to you, inviting an open mutual sharing of their inner experience. Not exactly what they wish to do. Acting closed off pushes you away - much safer.

"Yeah, like I really want to share my inner feelings with my parents."

Yet, as strange as it may seem, a lot of these kinds of comments may not be as negative as they appear. Much of it is their way of making contact - sort of like, "hello, good to see you," only they can't possibly say that, so it comes out as "This orange juice is gross."

Teens, like us but even more so, use home and family as a place where all the stress of the day finally has a safe place to come out.

Evan may be thinking, "All the guys did at lunch was rag on me about how big a loser I was with Christine Bilodeau. And they wouldn't stop. They just thought they were being so funny."

What does that have to do with complaints about sour orange juice? Possibly everything.

So how do you respond?

First, what not to do. The most normal response to teenage negativity typically runs something like, "If you have nothing positive to say then don't say anything at all."

There's also: "You know, there are lots of starving children in the world who would be thankful to drink that orange juice."

Which are both fine, if that's what you want to say. But, as you may know from experience, typically you'll get back something like this: "I'd have something positive to say if everything around here didn't suck, which it does." Or this: "But those starving kids aren't here, so we should throw out the juice."

That is, all you will get is more of the same.

I'd also advise against this: "Here's a list of all the negative comments you've made over the last week and you can see the degree to which you are Mr. Unpleasant-to-Live-With."

You're really just piling crabbiness on top of crabbiness, which is always futile.

Far better to play it straight. Matter of fact. Not defensive. But also not critical.

"I'm sorry if you don't like the orange juice. You don't have to drink it if you don't want to."

"I don't. It's sour. It's gross. You shouldn't have gross orange juice in the house."

But as you really don't plan to pour out the orange juice, you have nothing more to say. And so you move on. Even if Evan continues, still wanting more loving contact.

"The orange juice is gross. It is. There's something wrong with your taste buds. It's really gross."

Of course, all of this negativity is usually just a stage. Hence, 22-year-old Evan: "Remember the orange juice we used to get when I was a teenager? It was really pretty good."

"Then why did you always complain about it?"

"I don't know."

 

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