What Can I Do About a Teen With an Extra Bad Attitude?
Teenagers are infamous for "bad attitudes," when often it's an outward sign of intense emotions they don't know how to handle. You can help your teenager and here's how.
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 we may expect, 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.
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Reasons for Teen Attitude
Brain on Fire
Our emotions live in our brains' limbic system, where they light up when we 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.
As adults, we have the impulse control to manage our lower intensity annoyance by holding back so we can respond respectfully. This can take double the effort for our brain-under-construction teenagers. Even with my pre-teen already affected by early puberty, I picture her brain lighting up with fireworks of frustration as she reacts in a way that appears to be completely out of proportion to the source (usually a sibling). This image at least helps me manage my own limbic system from shooting off fireworks that will only make the situation worse!
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. (I don't have a teen yet, but my 6-year-old is already working on this one.)
The limits can be emotional as well: your daughter may not know where or how else to unleash all this intense emotion, so she flings it at you as her emotional safe place. If nothing too terrible happens, this can become a pattern that feels easier to her than the hard work of regulating these intense emotions on her own.
You're Their Safe Place
It is motherhood lore that our children behave differently with us, whether they save their worst toddler tantrums for when we are alone with them, or fall apart at home after a day of holding it together at school. They know (hopefully) we love them no matter how they act.
In Lisa Damour's bestselling book about raising teenage girls, Untangled, she 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 you with you, they trust they can do so without losing your love and support. So, ironically, your teen "with attitude" might be a sign she is developing her 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 us however they want just because we unconditionally love them. We can have empathy for the emotions while placing boundaries around the 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.
Start with a discussion 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 her to change, such as less arguing. It is often useful for her to make a visual list of 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 she can learn ways to calm herself in the moment, she can better do the next critical step: discuss her stress and emotions directly with you rather than taking them out on you.
Within all of this support for her emotions, maintain your behavioral expectations like helping around the house, and responding to you respectfully even if in disagreement.
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, if irritability dominates your daughter's mood, and she seems to have difficulty enjoying activities, or you notice other significant changes in sleep, appetite, or behaviors, you may want a psychological evaluation. 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 daughter is experiencing symptoms at the level of a mental health diagnosis, the sooner she gets 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.
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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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