Do our teens really hate us? And maybe more importantly, how do parents handle the pain caused by their teens’ words and actions?
We asked psychologist Suzanne Schneps for advice on how to manage these two situations that are so emotionally charged.
Dr. Suzanne Schneps first words? A reminder that parents are not alone. “Personally, I think it’s important for you all to know that I was president of the meanest moms club of the whole world, not even just the United States. And now that they are older, we all like each other a lot. And they laugh about it.”
In truth, this kind of behavior is developmentally appropriate for teens. When teenagers are being mean to parents, “they’re trying to separate. But if something happened to you? They would be beside themselves.”
Knowing that this too shall pass helps but there’s still the problem at hand. According to Schneps, “when they tell you that they absolutely hate you and that you are the world’s worst parent, what they’re really doing is saying how they feel about lots of your decisions. It’s really not about you as much it is about the rules, and their own incredible discomfort.”
However, she acknowledges that “it feels absolutely, positively horrible.” It’s hard (perhaps impossible) not to take it personally when the people whom you love unconditionally are so mean, but “we have to try and remember that if they can tell you that, it really means they love you.” In fact, Schneps explains that being able to express these feelings is healthy. “I am more worried about the kid who cannot say ‘I can’t stand you’ to their parent. That’s the kid who doesn’t feel secure in that relationship.”
Usually, there is something else that is bothering a teen who lashes out at their parents. “They got off the phone. And they found out that they weren’t invited to something that they were hoping to be invited to. And now they’re in a bad mood, and it’s much easier to get in a fight with you,” says Schneps.
And as much as our teens hurt us to our core, Schneps suggests that we can’t eliminate this behavior. “The bottom line is, you cannot prevent this. You cannot stop it. So the question becomes, how are you as loving, kind, wonderful parents going to live through it and manage it?”
My Teenager Is Mean to Me. What Do I Do?
1. Parents, stay silent
As much as we may want to say something when our teenager is so mean to us, Schneps recommends keeping quiet in that moment. “They’re waiting to engage, and they’re waiting to get into a fight with you.” Not responding is the best tool, she says, even though it is really hard for a parent.
Even if you want to get to the bottom of things and find the source of their pain, the best way is to stop talking. Schneps recalls a story of one teenage client who did not want to talk, so they played cards instead. “We’re down on the floor. We’re not talking. And all of a sudden, she says to me, ‘You know, I saw emails. My father’s having an affair.’ When you don’t talk, they’re much more likely to come to you.”
However, some parents feel the need to address disrespectful behavior when it happens. Schneps is sympathetic to this, but she still recommends that the best way to do so is by saying to your teen, “I’m ending this. Let me know when you’re ready to have a conversation.” And then you can revisit it later.
2. Send a text to your teen
We can play their game too. Send a text that says, “I’m just curious. What would have worked better for you for dinner?” This way, you are defusing the situation and problem-solving at the same time.
3. Take the Ritz Carlton approach with your teenager
Michelle Obama would love this move; it’s high road all the way. Schneps suggests getting a piece of candy like a chocolate kiss and putting on your teen’s bed with a sweet note. (Yes—even after your teenager has been so mean to you!). Once again, the key is not to say anything about what happened. This gesture is a tangible way for you to tell your teen that you care and that no matter what, you love them.
4. Distract yourself
Schneps explains that our teens are growing up and trying to tell us that they no longer need us, which of course is not true. But Schneps explains that “the more they’re not talking, the more you need to have something to do.” When she has teens that don’t talk, Schneps gets busy tending to her plants. She suggests that parents have a plan, even if it means leaving the house to run an errand rather than allowing yourself to stay put and feel even worse.
5. Recognize your role as parent
Parents think their role is to help their teens feel better. We want to solve their problems and stop the hurt they’re feeling, but it’s not our job. Schneps emphasizes, “It’s not your job because you’re not going to be able to do it. You can’t make it better for them. They’re looking for empathy from their peers, not you. And you’re just setting yourself up to be the dumping ground for their feelings.”
6. Find support with a friend
You need that friend who you can call and who will be there for you when you tell them that your teenager is so mean to you. You can blow off steam so that you can then offer your teen the support that they need. Schneps says, “This is where you need the other people in your life who you can be honest with about how really awful it was. Because it is really awful.”
Schneps is the first to recognize that following through on these steps is hard work. It comes down to recognizing that no matter what we do, these painful situations are going to happen. “I think all these ideas that I’m now talking about are great. And I truly believe that if you can get to doing them 80 percent of the time, you deserve an award. No parent can ignore their kid’s mean behavior all the time. You have got to give yourself some slack.”