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Scratch your teen's surly surface and find the loving kid inside

Tyler was sitting on the couch watching TV when his mother walked over with a stack of baby pictures and a roll of Scotch tape.

"Mom, what are you doing?"

"What does it look like I'm doing? I'm pasting photos on you from when you were loving and cute - I want to remember the kid who would light up with pleasure whenever I paid attention to him."

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The holiday season is a time of sharing and caring, yet as Tyler's mom can attest, this can be hard with truculent teens.

"How am I supposed to feel all warm and toasty toward someone who ignores me, or has a fit whenever I dare remind him of something he was supposed to do? And the way he talks to me. So rude."

If only your teen could be more like the sweet baby of yesteryear. Your huggy pumpkin. If only you could break through the unpleasant teenage exterior and find the loving little kid hidden within.

Is that love even still there? Or has unyielding scorn taken its place?

If, up until this time, you've been a more or less good loving parent, yes, the love, the strong attachment and even joy at your presence is still there. While it may not be as fervent as when they were little, it's definitely there. The problem, of course, is adolescence.

Perhaps more than anything else, what defines adolescence - at least vis à vis parents - is the teen's desire to see themselves as independent adult-like beings. As a healthy part of normal psychological development, adolescents move away from anything that makes them feel childlike. And loving you makes them feel like a dependent little kid - not cool. So they resist that love and push you away, and invest more heavily in friends and less in you.

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"Love my parents? Omigod, I'm not a three year old."

So what do you do when all you seem to get is Mr. Unpleasant? Don't respond to the surly surface, but instead to the loving little kid inside. I often suggest parents think of it as competing melodies: Sing some holiday cheer to their Grinch-like grumbles.

Suppress your understandable resentment, and imagine that loving child they used to be, and play to him. This doesn't mean that you should treat them like a little kid. But be upbeat. The nice surprise of this strategy is that you do get to feel that the loving child is there. You may even get occasional glimpses of it - a quickly suppressed smile, even a chuckle. It's much more pleasant for both parent and child.

So how do you go about doing it?

Imagine that everybody was already sitting down and eating the festive holiday meal when Tyler showed up at the table. He got himself food, ate, said very little, and eight minutes later, he got up to leave.

My suggestion: Say something like, "Thank you Tyler. We liked having you here."

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Not sarcastic, but genuine. Not: "So soon? How nice of you to deign us with your brief presence."

Genuine. Upbeat.

Try sprinkling in a few, "I love yous," "Happy holidays, my darling," and "You look nice today" into your everyday routine. And hugs. Lots of brief hugs, which they hate, but which they also secretly like.

And let's say you had agonized over what to get him, but when he opens his present, he grimaces and says, "I'm supposed to like this?"

Don't say: "That is so ungrateful. Millions of children get nothing. Nothing, that's what you're going to get next time, Mister." Instead, try: "I'm sorry you don't like it. If I can exchange it, I'll be happy to get you something else. Just let me know."

The key is to be helpful, friendly, not outraged, not bitter.

But what about the consequences? Aren't you teaching them that they can act like a jerk and still get good stuff? Why should you give to someone who has done nothing to deserve it? That is what the holiday spirit is supposed to be about. This isn't payback time, but a time for unqualified loving and giving. What could be a better lesson? And don't think they don't respond to it. For all their rough exterior, teens very much like and need to know that they are loved.

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