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When Your Teen Talks Back

September 18, 2023

In the blink of an eye, my child had become a teen and instead of calling me 'mummy' she was, on this occasion, calling me a ‘hypocrite’. My hackles were up. My inner defence system had instantaneously sounded the alarm and I was getting ready to launch back.

Then from somewhere in my subconscious, a flicker. This word triggered a memory of me as a teen, using the same word against my own mother. I could recall saying the 'h'-word under my breath many times. More strongly though, I can remember the feelings of pent-up frustration at not being able to release that word safely. It would have been denied or side-stepped causing me even further anger and frustration. 

So I let it strike, held the missile for a moment and chuckled to myself, strangely joyful that my daughter could voice what she felt. Somewhere in this uncomfortable encounter with my teen, there were lessons to be unearthed that could benefit us both if we were to navigate this transition together.

Lesson #1. Back-Talk is Brave

Having someone challenge us is never a great feeling, especially not when you're a parent who was once a child growing up in a culture or a home where any sign of 'disrespect' was deemed intolerable. But developmentally, a tween or teen is in a state of transition, figuring out who they are and what they stand for. When they dispute parental authority, it's a sign they feel safe enough to be honest about how they're feeling. And what's more it's appropriate. Cultures of compliance wreak havoc on the lone voices of reason, making it hard for children to speak up or speak out against unjust behaviours or bullying, be it on the internet or the school playing field.

Openly opposing what feels like injustice should be appreciated as honest and courageous, even when we're the ones seemingly in the 'wrong'. Better the bungling outburst than the quiet 'fobbing off' while having insults hurled at you under your teen's breath. When we can tolerate the unfiltered words rather than shutting them down, we are affirming our teen in their feelings. We are also making room to talk about how we manage and express our objections more respectfully, the next time!

Lesson #2. Mind the Gap

The anger that had propelled my daughter's verbal attack came from me asking again (and again) that she clear up the tangled mess of clothes piling up on her desk and chair. The 'hypocrite' remark, while jarring, was a stark reminder that I had crossed a line. Her stuff was exactly that…hers. She was at the age where she would have to learn to manage for herself the growing responsibilities that come with having 'stuff'. If we were to navigate the teenage years with some semblance of ‘togetherness’, I would have to learn to kindly respect her space and her choices.

In allowing a teenager to 'own' their things and not jump in when they fall foul of our expectations, we've put a healthy boundary in place. This boundary communicates 'I see you' for you and as separate from myself. It means I don't have to get enmeshed, and caught up in your choices or decisions. Rather it creates a healthy gap between us and them. This psychological gap allows our teen to cross over to us when they are struggling and need to come in for help. It removes the expectation that we'll either blame them for not listening, or save them denying them the chance to learn accountability.

Lesson #3. Do More, Say Less!

Hypocrite-gate’ brought into focus thoughts I had been having about parents having to do their own 'work' first, work which is often reflected back at us through our children. How could I as a 'grown-up', expect my teen to do things I was grappling to do for myself. Surveying my own side of the fence - the small mounds of jeans, tops and jerseys amassed in the corners of my own room - I could see her point. I was too busy concerning myself with her to notice and take care of my own mess.

This is a common vexation for parents and children alike. We desperately want our children to avoid the pitfalls we fall into. Our hope, perhaps, is that they will bring order to our chaos. Or that their lives will look a little more organised than our own. Then we might feel 'ok' about ourselves, like we've achieved something or are getting something right. Sadly though, it just creates unrealistic expectations and is confusing for our kids. Like the parent who shouts, ‘STOP SCREAMING’, I couldn't expect better self-management from my child than I had achieved myself. My job was to focus on me and extend more grace and patience to her (and myself) when we got it wrong.

So before you discipline a teen who talks back, stop and listen. What are they saying? Is there truth in their challenge and perhaps an opportunity to make the relationship stronger? When I was growing up there was a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ way to do things and little opportunity for questioning. Teens need to be heard and feel like they matter. They do have something to offer even if it's not what we're used to or it feels hard to receive. My daughter later apologised for how she'd communicated and we were able to have a conversation about what needed to change. Had I shot back in self-defence I may have missed an important lesson.


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