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How to Stop Over-Reacting to "Bad" Teen Behavior

Parenting out-of-control teenagers is a tough job for sure!! And it’s totally understandable when parents fly off the handle because their teens continually exhibit blatant disrespect and hatefulness. But sometimes, we as parents get stuck in a cycle of over-reacting to our teen’s “bad” behavior, which weakens our immune system and tends to make a bad problem worse.

One of the best parenting strategies we can employ is to “avoid throwing gas on the fire” by over-reacting in the heat of the moment. This one strategy alone will reduce your parental stress by at least 50%.

Do you often:
  • Assume the worst about your teenager’s behavior due to his bad “track record”?
  • Feel alarmed by your uncontrollable reactions to her rude comments and putdowns?
  • Have to apologize for your abrupt actions or words?
  • Lash out when your teen is ill-mannered?
  • Regret things you say in the heat of emotion?
  • Withdraw when parent-child arguments get emotionally overwhelming?

If you answered “yes” to the questions above, you may be struggling with severe parental stress. Here are a few tips to help you (a) stay calm, and (b) “respond” to bad teen behavior rather than “react”:

1. A quiet heart can lead parents to the best solutions to any parent-child conflict. When you are facing the problem of how to deal with your teen’s rudeness or criticism, you’ll handle the situation better by moving into your heart. Don’t impulsively shoot from the mouth. Pick your favorite method for “centering” (e.g., leaving the room for a short time-out) before you respond to what your teen has said or done.

2. Identify patterns in your over-reactions. If you find yourself continually revisiting a powerful emotional or behavior reaction, there is probably a historical component that needs to be addressed. 

3. If your teen has legitimate concerns, but has voiced them in a rather hateful manner or at the wrong time, respond briefly and sincerely, offering to resolve the issue with him later (e.g., “I see you are upset. I’d like to talk with you about that after dinner.”).

4. Instead of allowing your precious time and energy to be sapped by your teen’s disrespectful behavior, free yourself by forgiving, letting go, and moving on. Don’t hold on to bitterness or blame. Treat her with respect, model the appropriate behavior yourself, and you might just spur a change of heart in her.

5. Pay attention to how your body feels. A pounding heart, a headache, or tense muscles can all be signs that you’re in danger of being hijacked by intense feelings. Becoming more aware of physical cues helps you to stay ahead of your responses. Noticing how your body feels under stress activates both sides of your brain, allowing you to reflect on the parent-child issue instead of just reacting to it.

6. Pull away from heated arguments and look at it without ego (as if you were observing someone else’s life). Is it possible you are being overly-sensitive, or has your teenager treated you like a doormat without good reason?  A clear sense of which it is will help you find the best solution to the current parent-child conflict.

7. Some teens criticize as a way of “projecting” their own issues on to parents or taking the focus off their own shortcomings. Unfortunately, there is nothing you can do about this. Continually dwelling on your teen’s childish behavior or holding a grudge will only keep you stuck in resentment.

8. Sometimes what your offensive teen directs at you is not about you at all. Teenagers who are complaining all the time may simply be struggling with an internal battle that is spilling over into their parent’s life. When teens nag or grumble, they may actually be trying to tell their parents that they are hurting inside. So, the next time your teen offends you, consider the possibility that the insult is not about you.

9. Take care of yourself. Lack of sleep, going too long without food, and lack of recreational activities can leave your mind and body vulnerable to exaggerated responses.  For many parents, it’s easy to let their own basic self-care take a back seat to the noble cause of taking care of their children. Ironically, it is your children who are most likely to end up on the receiving end of your exaggerated responses. Prioritizing your own self-care will help minimize this.

10. The children in our lives are often our mirrors. They reflect back the impact of our words and actions. A smart-alecky teen’s words – though spiteful – can awaken us to an aspect of our own behavior we may have refused to own-up to. Although blame can be hard to take, you may benefit from it by looking for the nugget of truth embedded in the painful circumstance.

11. Watch for all-or-nothing words like “always” and “never” as clues that you’re heading toward a meltdown (“You NEVER do what I ask you to do” …or “I’m so tired of ALWAYS having to tell you to ____”).

12. When you feel like flying off the handle, take a deep breath. Deep breathing slows down your fight-or-flight response and allows you to choose a more thoughtful and productive response.

13. When your mouthy teen comes flying at you, rather than playing the role of victim and seeing yourself as the target, stay on target. Don’t let his insults distract you from your goals as a parent. Consider it background noise, and don’t let it distract you.

14. When your teen is demanding, you may stuff your emotions below the surface to avoid a confrontation. But your emotions warn you when something is wrong. By ignoring your feelings, you create a larger problem to deal with later. By accepting the messages they bring, you’ll be able to deal more effectively with parent-child conflict from the start.

15. You get to choose what you will tolerate as a parent. If your teen is chipping away at your self-esteem by constantly belittling you, you owe it to yourself to create boundaries and to tell her how you feel when that happens. Decide on a specific action you will take if your teenager continues to bombard you with insults and putdowns.

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