Here’s a New Year’s resolution that will make a big difference in your enjoyment of life with your teen. It’s this simple: I won’t take what they say so personally.
There’s a big problem when you have a teenager. They are nice some of the time, but some of the time they are irredeemably not nice. When you go against what they want, they have this unpleasant tendency to become really nasty. Their words hurt.
“I hate you.”
“I wish I had any other parent but you.”
“You’re a psychotic neat freak.”
“That’s so stupid.”
The problem with words like the above is that they are not so easy to brush off. We take them personally. In response to the above, it is normal to feel that you must be doing something wrong, that they are accusing you of real flaws.
But the truth is that it’s not personal. It is not about you at all, other than that you are the parent. Though unpleasant, the above nasty accusations do not mean what they seem.
Let me offer translations of some of these hurtful words. Their more accurate meaning is far less critical of you. Understanding this can not only help you avoid pain, it also can help you avoid making unhelpful responses that often trigger very unpleasant escalating battles with your teen.
“I hate you.”
“How can you say that?”
“Because I mean it.”
“But that’s a terrible hurtful thing to say.”
“Well, I wouldn’t say it if you weren’t so mean to me.” Etc.
Here are the translations:
“I hate you.” Translation: “I’m really angry at you because I’m not getting my way – either you said ‘no’ or you asked me to do something that I didn’t feel like doing. But I don’t hate you the rest of the time – especially when I am getting my way.”
“I wish I had any other parent but you.” Translation: “Actually this is a lie, because if the other parent was my parent but not you, they wouldn’t think that I’m so special like you do. But I do wish I had a parent who said ‘yes’ rather than the ‘no’ that you just said.”
“You’re a psychotic neat freak.” Translation: “Actually, I like the house being neat, but I have no intention of participating in the process of keeping it that way.”
“That’s so stupid.” Translation: “I think I know something better than you do, which makes me feel good, because I’m not very confident about a lot of stuff in most of the rest of my life. Also, I feel safe being rude to you, because even if you don’t like it, you’re not going to kick me out.”
If their words still deeply bother you, and you feel that you do want to respond in some manner, I would strongly advise not responding in the moment. That pours fuel on the fire. Wait until a later neutral time and then deliver your message.
Of course, if you want to have them never say these mean things to you, there’s an easy solution – though I don’t recommend it. Go along with everything they want.
“Yes, you can go to the all-weekend drug-fest sleepover party at the house of that 26-year-old guy who you don’t know the name of.”
“Of course, here’s $177. Will that be enough?”
“No, you don’t have to do your homework. I’ll just write a fake doctor’s note that you can give to your algebra teacher.”
But if you make and stick to the New Year’s resolution, it could improve your entire relationship. You might even want to try practising the following mantra to repeat to yourself when confronted with their nasty words.
“None of this is personal. It’s not about me other than that I am their parent and I don’t always go along with what they want. It is that they are a sometimes impossible teen – that’s the way teenagers are. And if I have gone against what they want, that is guaranteed to trigger them being impossible. Actually, the fact that they are saying these hurtful things is an indicator that I have been a good parent. I have been firm and have been willing to make some unpopular decisions.
“No, it’s not about me, it’s about having a teenager.”
Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books including I'd Listen to My Parents if They'd Just Shut Up . E-mail him questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.