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The Terrible Teenage Years?

father and teen sonTo: Marybeth
From: Preteen Parent

How do I survive a moody 12-year-old daughter without damaging our relationship (or killing her)? I find it very hard to allow her the power to ruin a family event, even a meal, with her gloom. Some days she is a pure delight (engaged, happy, articulate, intelligent) and the next day she is silent, sullen and distant. It is taking a lot for me not to respond negatively to it. Help!

To: Preteen Parent

From: Mb

Ah, hormones. Clearly, your daughter has entered adolescence with all of its attending angst and agita. According to specialists, this process may go on until she is somewhere north of 23. But don’t despair. These will be the most dramatic 10 years of your life. [Insert eye roll here.]

Thanks to a strange cultural shift in our expectations about our children, too many parents set themselves up for an unpleasant experience with tweens and teenagers, and sure enough, they get it.

Here’s what I mean: As my eldest daughter approached 13, I heard lots of warnings from friends like, “You’ll never know how dumb you are until you have a teenager.” Others cautioned me to put on my emotional armor because teens say cruel and insensitive things. The assumption: Rude is just “what tweens and teenagers do.”

Even parenting specialists promote this notion, asserting that the process of “individuation” (a fancy word for “growing up”) requires rebellion.

Growing up ought to reveal greater maturity, the ability to focus attention outwardly, and the capacity to control emotions and cope with challenges, not a second round of the “terrible twos.”

A truism about children’s behavior is: Kids tend to meet our expectations. If, as they enter adolescence, we expect them to get cranky, rude, disrespectful and disinterested in their relationships with us, they’re likely to live up to that (low) standard of behavior. Worse, we’re unlikely to demand anything better from them.

On the other hand, if we hold that bar up just a bit and let our children know that we have higher expectations for their behavior even during their hormonally charged adolescent years we send the message, “I understand you’re growing and trying to figure things out, but I have confidence that you can behave in a way that I find acceptable and you can be proud of.”

If we approach our children’s adolescent years with a positive attitude and some clear guidelines, I guarantee this can be one of the most enjoyable seasons of parenting.

Despite those admonitions from more experienced parents and parenting specialists, I have always optimistically believed that my children and I could chart a different course. Sure enough, we’ve busted the myth that all children are destined to become “Attila the Teen.”

Here’s how:

Decide the “rude is normal” standard is unacceptable and communicate it to your daughter. How? Simply tell her, “Rude is not normal. It’s just rude.” Declare that you two aren’t going to settle for less than the best you can be.

When she slips up, give your daughter the chance to regroup. At our house, a Steve Martin-esque “Excuuuuuse me?” sends the message that we’d like a change in attitude, reflected in a more respectful tone of voice. If she’s not capable of regrouping, let her know you’ll be available to talk further when she’s able to be more respectful. (Never engage with an overemotional tween!)

Reward maturity and respect. Thank her for being different from the “norm” and demonstrating courtesy.

Whatever you do, don’t make jokes or roll your eyes with other parents about the rough and tough teenage years. That’s the permission slip to drop the bar and deliver the typical, tyrannical teenage tirade (say that three times fast). Instead, when parents make cracks about how miserable their teens are, smile sweetly and say, “Not at our house, we’re having a blast!”

Getting through adolescence can be a struggle. But if you expect the best from your tweens and teens, you’ll usually get it.


Marybeth Hicks is a columnist for The Washington Times and founder and editor of Ontheculture.com.


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  • We have 8 kids, aged 24, 20, 19, 17, 13, 11, 8, and 4, so we’ve been down this path a few times. My husband taught high school for 8 years and has coached sports for almost 30 years. We may not be experts, but we know our way around the rodeo! 🙂

    The most important thing that we realized, thankfully early on, was that the Teen Years is the intellectual equivalent to the Two’s/Threes. Not only are great physical changes happening, but also great emotional changes. This is not a license to act any way they want, but it needs to be taken into account.

    During the Two’s, a child has the developmental realization that they actually control their bodies, and they push the physical boundaries as far as they are allowed. They go, go, go and tell you no, no, no when you try to make them conform to the rules that are supposed to keep them safe. Instead of reacting to your “no” with quitting what they are doing, they seem to delight in continuing, discovering how much control they have over their actions. This seems like defiance, and if indulged can become very defiant, but if understood and dealt with as a developmental leap it can be guided as a very productive period.

    The Teens, especially the early teens, do very much the same thing on an intellectual level. Instead of pushing physical boundaries, they start pushing emotional and intellectual boundaries. While still developing children, they very much believe what their parents say is the Truth. Even if they are incredibly smart and precocious, they accept what their parents tell them as the way things should be. As they enter the teens and reach this new intellectual development, they have realized that they have their own thoughts and don’t automatically accept what is told to them. This comes across as rejecting to a greater or lesser degree what you have taught them as the Truth. They need to come around to accepting the truth that you have taught them as their own beliefs because it makes sense to them, not just because you said so. If it doesn’t happen now, it will in the early 20’s, it must happen for them to mature.

    Like the Two’s, this can become defiant if indulged, or it can be very productive if guided with love, firmness, and consistency. Believe me, I KNOW how hard it can be to keep your cool, and I have lost mine plenty of times, but the most effective discussions come when I tell them that I understand that what I am doing might not make sense, and I agree to explain it (for the millionth time, it seems) and allow them to challenge and question without taking it personally. But, this has to be done when we are NOT upset. It has to be done after the consequences of misbehavior have been completed and things have cooled down.

    This phase is short lived if you accept that it is a wonderful sign of your child’s development and the entry into a really wonderful stage where you can talk with each other more maturely. Don’t take it personally, don’t allow her to be rude, but avoid being overly angry or sarcastic yourself. (sometimes it takes a lot of prayer for me to do this!) When my son is rude to me, I ask him, “how do you think this will lead to a solution?” I acknowledge that he is obviously upset, I don’t compromise our values or rules, but I also clearly say that we have a problem and need a resolution. We need to come back together, so we both need to be productive. How is rudeness bringing us to a solution? 95% of the time this keeps things on track, the other 5%, he sits in his room until we can talk calmly.