What Can I Do About a Teen With an Extra Bad Attitude?

Teenagers' "bad attitudes," are often an outward sign of intense emotions they don't know how to handle. Here's how to help your teen.

Teen with attitude
Photo: Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong


My 14-year-old daughter's attitude is out of control. I can't even ask her a simple question without her lashing out on me. She also flips if I ask her to help me with anything. Her older sister wasn't like this at her age so I really don't know why or what to do.


Dear Mom of Teen With Attitude,

I would guess even the most brilliant, experienced, educated-about-teens parent has felt the same sentiments as you about their teenager's behavior: "I don't know why or what to do." Although research suggests that a majority of adolescents are not the reckless, rude nightmares of stereotypes, most still have their mystifying moments.

The reasons for your daughter's attitude might be complex and personal to her, and impossible to understand without meeting and talking to her. However, some simple explanations that could apply to many teens at this age might be helpful to consider.

Read on to learn about common reasons for teen attitudes, how you can support your teen, and when to get help.

Reasons for Teen Attitude

There's a lot going on for a teenager—their emotions can feel like a rollercoaster and they're clambering toward independence. Since you are their safe person, they may feel safest lashing out at you.

Brain on fire

Your emotions live in your brains' limbic system, where they light up when you feel them—pleasant or unpleasant. Studies have shown that for adolescents, this limbic system affected by puberty hormonal changes results in increased emotional outbursts and impulsivity. Imagine your annoyance when someone asks you to do something you don't want to do, and triple it in your teen's brain.

Adults have the impulse control to manage or lower intensity annoyance by holding back so they can respond respectfully. This can take double the effort for brain-under-construction teenagers. Picture your teen's brain lighting up with fireworks of frustration as they react in a way that appears to be completely out of proportion to the source. This image might at least help you keep your cool when your teen can't.

Testing limits

Another formative part of adolescent development is testing limits. It's not a conscious, "What happens if I let my emotions fly when my mom asks me to clean up?" but a learned association can develop. When I flip out because I don't want to help around the house, mom backs off and I don't have to do it.

The limits can be emotional as well: your teen may not know where or how else to unleash all this intense emotion, so they fling it at you. If nothing too terrible happens, this can become a pattern that feels easier to them than the hard work of regulating these intense emotions on their own.

You're their safe place

It is well known that children behave differently with their parents. Sometimes that means they save their worst toddler tantrums for when you are alone with them, or fall apart at home after a day of holding it together at school. That's because they know (hopefully) you love them no matter how they act.

In the bestselling book about raising teenage girls, Untangled, Lisa Damour, Ph.D. presents the upside of an argumentative teen: they feel safe speaking up and fighting for their perspective. Dr. Damour suggests that highly obedient teens can be more likely to rebel in a secretive way that can pose more risk.

If your teen openly debates and argues with you, it means they trust they can do so without losing your love and support. So, ironically, if you have a teen "with attitude," it might be a sign they are developing their independence within a trusting relationship with you.

What to Do About Your Teen's Attitude

All of these understandable reasons for teenagers acting out does not give them full reign to behave and treat you however they want just because you unconditionally love them. You can have empathy for their emotions while placing boundaries around their behaviors.

Teens have often been compared to toddlers in terms of the primal nature of their emotions. Although adolescents obviously have a lot more skills than toddlers, their emotions can feel just as out of control. As their brains change, along with the demands of their environments (social, academic), they need to develop more sophisticated self-regulation strategies than what worked at younger ages.

Help them identify the cascade of events

Connect with your teen during a calm, peaceful moment to identify the problem ("lashing out"), its natural consequences (high stress and conflict between you), and possible replacements for lashing out (emotion regulation strategies). It helps to name what would motivate them to change, such as less arguing.

Offer coping strategies

It might help to make a visual list of emotional regulation strategies to help get into the habit of using them. Common strategies include:

  • Going for a walk or run
  • Listening to music
  • Writing in a journal
  • Drawing
  • Connecting with a friend

If they can learn ways to calm themselves in the moment, they can better do the next critical step: discuss their stress and emotions directly with you rather than taking them out on you.

Maintain expectations

Within all of this support for their emotions, maintain your behavioral expectations. Helping around the house, and responding to you respectfully even if in disagreement should still be expected.

When to Get Help

There can be a wide range of teenage behavior that fits on the continuum of "normal," no matter how aggravating. However, you may want to get your teen a psychological evaluation if you notice the following:

  • Irritability dominates your teen's mood
  • They seem to have difficulty enjoying activities
  • You notice other significant changes in sleep, appetite, or behaviors

A mental health professional with expertise in adolescents can do an assessment to ensure a mental health condition like depression or anxiety is not underlying what you are observing. If your teen is experiencing symptoms at the level of a mental health diagnosis, the sooner they get help, the better.

The Bottom Line

Starting with empathy for your daughter's intense emotions can help you respond more patiently and effectively to her behavior, while also placing limits around these behaviors. As stressful as it can be to be on the receiving end of your daughter's unpleasantness, it's another parenting rite of passage. As her emotional safety net, you are the best person to help her learn how to act and react in the world away from your unconditional love.

Submit your parenting questions to 'Ask Your Mom.'

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

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