Mouthy Teens Ups the Vitriol

A teenager uses her tongue to lash out at her parents, and mom has had enough. Should she bring down the hammer or uncork the love?

Q: We have quite a situation with our 16-year-old, very iron-willed daughter. Her attitude and level of disrespect—and how it is expressed with her mouth—is getting worse and worse. This issue seems to be fueled by her temper, which she has little control over. A few days ago she got mad at us during a discussion about preparation for some schoolwork the next day. (She’s very lazy academically, and even mildly holding her feet to the fire in that respect has always been a “trigger” to extreme rage.) She was in heated conversation with her dad in the kitchen and I was in an adjoining hallway when she made a comment that I wanted to respond to. When I did, her reaction was to turn around to me and say, and this is verbatim, “Was anyone talking to you? Butt out!”

This disrespectfulness towards us has been going on since at least early elementary school, with increasing severity through the years. I think we hit a new level, though, this past week. A few minutes after she made her outrageous comment to me, she felt she was “done” with the conversation and stomped up to her room. She was raging about how she needed to have a life (prompted by the requirement to leave her phone downstairs while she did necessary school work, thus depriving her of “life”) and I made the offhand comment, in light of how she had just spoken to me, that unfortunately she had just lost a little bit more of it, meaning further cellphone use. To this she shouted as she dramatically stormed up the stairs that she WILL kill herself and she doesn’t give a s**t what we think! Her dad went up to her room shortly thereafter and she promptly dropped the F Bomb on him.

So this is new to us. We decided that for each use of profanity she would lose her phone for 1 week. (Her phone may as well be her beating heart.) The two weeks started this morning. I was already at work when she found out from her dad that she wouldn’t have her phone today nor indeed for the next 2 weeks. She called to tell me that she was certainly not going to school without it and demanded to know where it was. When I reiterated that this was the consequence of her profanity and disrespect and that no, she could not have her phone, her response was, “suck it up, I am taking my phone,” before hanging up on me.

We love our daughter and it grieves me, not only that she will express such anger and disrespect toward us, but for what it says about her heart, her interactions with significant relationships in the future, and her spiritual condition, which, as Christians, is of supreme importance to us.

A: Oh, let me give you a cyberhug, because I feel your pain and sorrow over a daughter who’s so clearly out of control. If you’ve been reading this parenting blog for years, I suspect that you know the solution to your dilemma is going to upend your family and create even more chaos. You recognize that you’re way past the “nipping it in the bud” stage and full on into the “nuclear option” stage. And, I gotta be honest, even that might not correct the course your daughter’s on.

There is so much packed into your question that I can’t adequately answer all your questions, but I will give you two pieces of advice you can implement right away…and see results right away.

The first one is to make sure you have at least three positive touchpoints with your daughter every day. Think about what she likes to eat and make her favorite dinner. Wash her gym outfit without being asked. Send her a funny cat video (or something she likes) just because. Start your conversations with her not with a laundry list of things to do, but from a genuine interest in her life. A child or teen who doesn’t feel connected to her mom or dad doesn’t want to please them by obeying.

The second one is to make time for real conversations, not shouting matches, not lectures. Start by taking her out for coffee or ice cream. Then simply say you’re sad about the way things are between you and that you’ve noticed she seems more stressed lately. Use a nonjudgmental tone. Let her vent without defending yourself (you can take a little teen angst, right?). Keep your questions open-ended and don’t jump in with solutions to the problems she lists. It will probably take a few talks for her to really share what’s in her heart, but showing that you’re really there to listen and not judge or punish will help.

Yes, that won’t fix her attitude or disrespect right away, but it will give you a good starting point to build on to help her want to change. You can’t make her change, but you can develop a better understanding of who she is.

You can also simply walk away when she starts cursing or being disrespectful. There’s nothing that says you have to take her venom. And remember that you don’t have to explain yourself to her–not your decisions, not your opinions. She is never going to say, “Gee, Mom. When you put it that way, I see your point/agree with you.” Not. Ever. Gonna. Happen. So stop trying to convince her you’re right and just tell her what the deal is.

Finally, I’d cancel her cell phone service indefinitely and get her a cheap, prepaid flip phone so she can text her friends but not get online. Yep, that will hurt like the dickens, but since she’s not proven herself capable of handling such a device—and frankly, many teen girls do way too much comparison online and that can lead to self-harming behavior—she doesn’t “need” it.

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