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How to Stay Calm When Your Teen Acts Out

Respond to rudeness and bad behavior without losing your cool

Published on: July 27, 2018

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The following is an excerpt from the latest edition of “Getting to Calm: Cool-headed Strategies for Parenting Tweens + Teens.” This latest reprint of the invaluable parenting guide offers up-to-date information and research about how to connect with your teen. Learn more about the book here.

The first thing a parent should do about rudeness is determine where it’s coming from. Is it an overarching pattern born of an issue that needs special attention? Or is it a temporary phase — more a symptom of a teen’s awkward, awakening self, showing itself as irritability and impatience? Remember, parents are privy to just a slice of their teen’s behavior; what we see at home isn’t the whole picture.

Check in with teachers, coaches and friends. Often parents hear from others how polite their teen is. Unless you’re hearing about surliness or flippancy from everyone — including Grandma — you can’t call it a pervasive behavior.

During adolescence, rudeness surfaces for so many reasons and out of so many sources that it seems an inevitable part of the age and stage. It’s what you’ll get if your teen is having a bad day, if you’ve frustrated them, if you’ve reminded them to do something, if you’re imperfect, if they’re stressed or if you’re just you and they’re tired of it!

Since “Don’t you dare talk to me that way!” is ultimately ineffective, what’s the recourse for rudeness? Most families need a bag of tricks from which to pick and choose.

Here are a few possibilities:

  • Ignore the rudeness.
  • Address it directly, without threats or emotional flourishes, in clean language, like “Cut it out.”
  • Don’t give them what they want, but don’t go on a guilt trip. Simply say something like “I don’t feel inspired to take you to Kate’s when you treat me this way.” Stop there, let them have the last word, but don’t take them to Kate’s!
  • Make a preemptive strike. For example, teens often show off in front of friends by being obnoxious to parents, so say something ahead of time like “Yes, you can have Alex over, but I don’t like it when you show off. Now you’re on notice. Be respectful while he’s here, or Alex will be sent home.” With minor slippage, give a subtle warning, but be ready to follow through.
  • Explain that their rudeness hurts your feelings with a comment like “Play back the tape of what just happened and see what you think. That was over the line and too mean.” Express yourself in one or two sentences in objective language, again without guilt tripping. Don’t do this often.
  • Humor and wit can work wonders, if your timing is right. Although it wouldn’t work for everyone, one mom made her point by responding to her daughter’s relentless swiping at her younger sister with a convincing lion growl.

Whatever the approach, set your sights on what you need to accomplish. Perhaps, for example, you need to restrict media, set up a homework schedule, separate fighting siblings or simply end an exchange that’s spiraling downward. The important thing is to keep your mind on the goal — without being distracted by rudeness or bad manners. 

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