How to talk to an upset teen

Dear Sharon,

I read your article about the 13-year-old boy who wants a tattoo. I also have a 13-year-old who likes to curse. It is very upsetting to me, and I don’t know what to do to make him stop. I think he does it to make me upset; he knows that I don’t like it. What can I do? — Piera

Dear Piera,

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for teens and pre-teens to seem almost “eager” to fight with their parents. Cursing is one of many ways such arguments can begin.

I think it is important for all parents to be aware of the underlying issues in their adolescents’ daily lives before tackling problematic behaviors that can “push Mom’s or Dad’s buttons.”

It can be helpful to remember that hormonal, peer and academic pressures usually increase for 13 year olds. These, and other stressors, can accumulate over time. Since many teens are reluctant to share the details of their days with their parents, they can end up keeping their personal tensions to themselves.

Unfortunately, the internal stress of adolescents usually finds its way to the surface. Since home, even for a moody teen, is often the safest place to express how things are going, upsets can get communicated in a variety of ways, including seeming “eager” to start fights on a regular basis.

Here are some ideas that I have offered to other parents of 13 year olds to help reduce underlying tensions and improve communication:

A teen who is eager to upset his parents can be looking for attention and can be willing to settle for a fight to have his parents “all to himself.” If a parent can find a way to spend ample relaxed time with her teen, this can substitute positive attention for fights — and can help. This could mean watching a show together, going for a walk, or hanging out in a teen’s room while listening to music.

I suggest that parents try hard to talk less than their teen during this time. Staying quiet and supportive can help an adolescent feel comfortable enough to begin opening up about what is really going on. Common topics on the minds of most 13 year olds are the details of their classes, how their friends are treating them, how they are feeling about being “popular” or “unpopular,” and even crushes they might have. There are countless more.

If a teen starts talking, it is often more important for a parent to listen and empathize rather than make suggestions and offer advice. As many adolescents want to be fully adult as soon as possible, they can be quite sensitive to frequent adult opinions. Even if a young person doesn’t talk readily, quiet support can go a long way toward letting him know that he is loved and not alone; very helpful things to remember at this important age.

If and when a teen manages to push his parents’ buttons — a common occurrence — it is important for parents to stay calm, clear and concise while explaining rules. Parents I know have often needed to take a deep breath, step into another room, address the behavior at another time, or get help from another adult to maintain their calm responses. Whenever this is done, it can make a big difference. Unfortunately, an upset parent usually creates an upset teen, something that rarely benefits anyone or reduces problematic behaviors.

Helping teens is often a time- and patience-consuming task, but I know many parents who have persisted and helped their child sort through a variety of problematic behaviors.