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Navigating the Tween Years
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Navigating the Tween Years

Child development experts offer suggestions for a difficult period of development.

Addressing Rude Teen and Tween Behavior

  • Model appropriate behavior. If your child yells at you and you respond by raising your own voice, they will seethe at your hypocrisy. Don’t allow them to tempt you to stoop to their level.

  • Choose your battles. If they actually do their chores, it won’t hurt “not to notice” that they rolled their eyes and grumbled under their breath while they did them.

  • Enforce appropriate boundaries. If your child is being rude and disrespectful, refuse to engage no matter how hard they push. Say something like, “I’ll be happy to discuss this with you when you can speak to me respectfully,” and then calmly walk away.

  • Say yes when you can. Grant more independence as your child demonstrates that they can be trusted with it. Help them to understand that handling conflict respectfully is a sign of maturity and that you’ll respond to it as such.

  • Show them that you still care. Continue to be affectionate toward them and connect with them however you can despite the fact that they’re not always behaving in the most lovable ways at this time. Often, teens feel lonely and vulnerable under their prickly exterior. Be generous with hugs, and remember that this is only a season. It will pass.

One of the most unsettling times in a parent-child relationship can be the period of adolescence when children are growing into adulthood. During this period, say mental health professionals, teens may exhibit defiance and disrespect while parent might experience hurt and question the quality of their parenting abilities.

This period of time in the lives of both parents and adolescents can be fraught with confusion, pain and disappointment. Understanding the reasons behind the sudden shift is one of the keys to navigating this life change. “One of the most important developmental tasks during adolescence is for the child to discover who they are apart from their parents in preparation for eventually living as an adult,” said Melissa K. McCeney, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Montgomery College. “They are working to define their own values and goals, and part of that process involves questioning authority.”

“It's a natural part of separation from parents,” added Linda Gulyn, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Marymount University. “In fact most behaviors described as rude or disrespectful are the teen's way of expressing her desire to be her own person; not an extension of the parent.”

Understanding what a child of this age might be feeling and experiencing can make parents more empathetic and prepare them to help guide their children through this developmental period. “Adolescents also tend to be very idealistic and absolute in their thinking, which may lead them to become critical of parents who can’t possibly live up to unrealistic standards,” said McCeney. “Brain development during adolescence can make teens less sensitive to how other people are feeling and more sensitive to their own feelings. Consequently, they may behave in self-centered and inconsiderate ways without even realizing it.”

During this period, some parents may question their parenting skills or style. “These things will happen regardless of parenting style because they’re a normal part of the developmental process,” said McCeney “Parenting style could affect how difficult this transitional period is, though. Children whose parents are overly permissive or demand immediate compliance with no discussion under threat of punishment are more likely to become teens who are very rude and disrespectful. Parents who have consistently had high expectations for their children within the context of a warm and nurturing relationship have already laid the groundwork for more constructive conflict resolution.”

Gulyn suggests that parents exhibit authority, but avoid extremes. “Always set limits and boundaries, but do it in a way that you maintain a warm relationship with your child,” she said. “Research shows that authoritarian, that is strict and punitive, and permissive, having no rules or boundaries, result in the most disrespectful and difficult rebellious behaviors.”

When adolescents rebel, the way a parent responds can set the tone for the eventual outcome. “In my opinion, the parent needs to diffuse that moment with empathy or at least an expression of understanding how it must be for the teen,” said Gulyn. “[For example,] ‘I know it's frustrating trying to keep all those homework assignments straight ...’”

“I also believe the teen needs feedback that his rudeness hurts,” continued Gulyn. “[For example,] ‘Wow, that really made me feel bad when you talked to me that way.’ You are the parent. You need to help your teen develop empathy and understand the consequences of their behaviors.”

Encourage children to think about the effect their behavior might have on others, suggests Jerome Short, Ph.D, associate professor of psychology at Marymount University. “Parents should ask their children, ‘How would you feel if someone did that to you?’ or ‘How do you think that person feels after you did that?’, suggests Short. “These questions increase a focus on empathy and compassion. Parents should make it clear that they value kindness and respect and want their children to value those principles too.”

Reinforcement is more effective than punishment, advises McCeney, but she underscores the reality that actions have consequences, and sometimes they’re unpleasant. “When punishment seems appropriate, try to stick with natural consequences as much as you can,” she said. “For example, a teen who is being hateful at the dinner table might need to eat alone. If your child is insulting to you while you drive him to a party, perhaps you should turn around and go back home instead.”

McCeney advises against consequences without warning. “If you go the punishment route, though, it’s important to make sure your teen knows in advance exactly what the consequence will be and how they need to change their behavior in order to avoid it,” she said. “For example, instead of making an unexpected screeching U-turn, say, ‘What you just said to me was really rude, and I don’t see why I should do you a favor if you’re not going to be nice. If you speak disrespectfully to me again, we’ll turn around and go home.’ Then follow through as necessary.”

“If you know your kid is likely to act up in a particular situation, lay out the rules ahead of time,” continued McCeney. “If they tend to be rude to you to show off to their friends, let them know that if it happens at tomorrow's movie night at your house, they won't be able to have company over next weekend. Then they can make their own informed choices.”