Quick multiple choice question:
When you ask your teen about (seemingly) everyday things (doing their homework, talking to their teacher about their Chemistry questions, what they did at their friend's house after school), which reaction do you get?
- Rolling of the eyes, accompanied by loud exhalation (aka: a pained sigh).
- A single-to-few word, monotone answer (i.e. no, yes, ok, I don't know, whatever...), accompanied by body language which suggests utter disbelief you actually had the gaul to ask such a question.
- Yelling and blaming (accompanied by flailing hand gestures) at a volume that would suggest you just gave his dog away to a laboratory for purposes of scientific experimentation.
- All of the above.
No matter, really, what answer you chose. If you can even relate to the question in the first place, you'll find this post helpful.
So, let's get right to it: why does your teenager get so annoyed with you?
Afterall, you love him more than the most gifted poet could put to words and you'd happily throw yourself in front of moving truck to keep him safe. How could he possibly keep reacting this way?
First, it is possible that your teen is really struggling emotionally, and something deeper is going on that causes her get so upset. It could be a social issue (conflict with a friend, issue with a boy, or getting teased) or she could be struggling academically and feels stuck. Regardless, she may need to talk to somebody safe to help her work through what's going on -- whether it's a therapist or counselor at school. If you think that's what is going on, take action and find her somebody to talk to.
But from my experience, nine times out of ten, it's going to fall into one of the following two categories.
They Feel Nagged
Around the time they hit 13-14, they just don't want to be parented all the time -- at least around the little day-to-day stuff (school work, what's going on with them and their friends, etc.). They feel that you're nagging. They're at an age where they're trying to demonstrate their autonomy, and they don't want to play 20 questions about the simple details of their life every time they get in the car with you. So instead, they blow you off, get annoyed and retreat to the interior depths of the boundless world their iPhone offers them.
I'll you offer you some suggestions on how to avoid driving them further away rather than closer after we talk about how...
They Are Tired of Receiving "Little Lessons"
Very often I see parents trying to teach their teens what I call "little lessons." These are the unsolicited bits of advice that kids generally already know but that parents still feel the urge to say in order to relieve their own anxiety about a given situation. You can usually recognize a 'little lesson' is being delivered because their eyes are rolling and/or glazed over, they are trying to physically move away from you and they're muttering under their breath.
Sometimes these "little lessons" come in the form of rhetorical questions, sometimes they come across as sarcasm, and sometimes they come across as dismissive remarks. Here are some examples of "little lessons":
- "If you don't improve your grades how do you think you're going to get into the college you want?"
- "You know you've got a test coming up tomorrow. If you don't study you're going to fail like you did last time."
- "Yeah... you know how to keep a job... you did it real well with the last one you had!"
- "You're not going out with Jason this weekend, are you? You know what we think of him. You're going to get in trouble if you keep hanging out with him."
- "You can't even get up by yourself in the morning... what are you going to do when you get to college and you're on your own?"
- "It's just a pimple. Don't get so worked up about it."
- "So your friends didn't include you in their plans this weekend. It's no big deal, you'll get over it."
What You Can Do About This
Here are things I recommend you do to reduce any compelling urge you may feel to nag or dish out little lessons:
Find the Balance Between Roots and Wings
"Good parents give their children Roots and Wings. Roots to know where home is, Wings to fly away and exercise what's been taught them."-- Dr. Jonas Salk
As long as they're living under your roof, you have rules and expectations they must abide by. To at least some extent, they still need your guidance. These are the roots you provide them with. It's important that you take the time to think through and be confident in these rules. Minimally, they need to be respectful to the other people in the house, and keep you informed of where they are and who they're with.
But you must also start to let them find their wings by giving them space. Don't try solve all their problems. Take a deep breath and work through your own anxiety without putting it on them. As much as you may want to avoid and delay it, they are in the phase of life where you increasingly have to let them go to find their way. You understandably want to protect them from the missteps they'll surely encounter, but you're limited in how much you can do this. And if you keep trying to intervene, they'll get more and more annoyed and keep pushing you away. Let them make mistakes they can learn from. It's called growing up.
Cultivate Common Interests
Start doing things with him that don't involve talking about anything significant -- certainly not any of the tension you've been having or your frustration with his choices. Go see a movie together. Throw the football around. Go fishing. Play Go Fish. Play laser tag. Play tic-tac-toe. Sort nuts and bolts. It really doesn't matter. Just choose an activity you can both enjoy, even if it seems silly to you. Find this common ground and start to build on it. Give him the feeling you can spend time together without prying into his life with a crowbar. If you can, you might even try to involve some of his friends in some of these activities. It will give you a good window into their world.
Try this exercise: in the conversations you have with her over the next few days, just practice listening to what she is really saying. Focus on putting your own agenda aside long enough to get a feel for what is really going on in her life. Just listen and don't react.
Then ask yourself: what does she really want? What is she trying to get to in her life? What questions is she really asking herself about her life? Instead of trying to problem solve or point out the six ways you think she's being irrational, try these three magic words instead: "I hear you."
At the end of the day, your sights should be set on building and maintaining a strong relationship with your teen. Don't weaken it by nagging or giving 'little lessons'. Life is full of unknowns and twists and turns. But if your teen feels like he has a strong relationship with you, then when it really matters, you'll be the one he's talking to.