Do you think it’s normal for tweens and teens to be sarcastic toward their parents? You know: the non-verbal hostility and sarcasm of eye-rolling, snorting, laughing. You know: the openly sarcastic remarks, put-downs and talking back directly to us or in front of us while they’re talking to their friends.
I think it’s normal for people to try to discover what works easiest for themselves: to think their opinions matter, to think that they’re entitled to express themselves in any way they feel like at the moment, to try to assert themselves and to push boundaries in order to gain control and power.
What’s not normal is for parents to allow their children to treat them that way.
Some typical reasons why parents don’t insist on better treatment:
- Parents complain that it’s hard to resist the bad influences of tween and teen television, movies and internet shows, and the bad influences of their friends. Yes, that stuff is out there. Yes, we have to put out more effort to counterbalance bad influences. Don’t wallow in analysis of those factors. So, it’s hard? We can’t wait for society to make things easy for us. Who said parenting would be easy? We must act as soon as we can to teach our children to see what’s wrong with the media and the behavior of some of their peers.
- Many parents are afraid their children won’t like them if they’re “strict.” As if being liked is more important than setting boundaries and high standards. We do know that our children will understand a lot better when they have teenagers of their own. Of course, there’s a balance. I’m not talking about beating or abusing our kids.
- Many parents think that it’s very important to be best friends their kids. As if their kids will reveal more secrets to them or that kids will be helped to adjust better when they’re friends with their parents. I even saw an official name for that style of parenting, “Peerenting.” What nonsense. If your children know as much as you, you don’t know enough. They may be technically more savvy, but they’re still kids and we’re still parents. They don’t know more about what constitutes good character, attitudes and values. They don’t know more about the effects sarcasm and nastiness will have on their careers or families when they grow up. We must teach them.
- Many parents do not believe in punishing their children. They think their children will grow out of all bad behaviors by themselves. As if denying children what they want or thwarting their self-expression will create psychological problems for them later. As if, when they become 21 or get married or have children, those kids will suddenly become polite, civil and responsible citizens who love their permissive parents.
- Many parents believe they shouldn’t set standards. They believe that kids should determine their own standards as they grow up. I think we are teachers. We teach them a set of standards that we think is right. When they grow up they can decide what parts of ours they want to keep and what other ideas they want to try out.
One of the most important lessons we can teach and model for our tweens and teens is that we determine what behavior we’ll allow in our personal space. We must not allow harassment, bullying and abuse in our personal space. Since tweens and teens are still dependent on living with us, we can’t simply remove them from our space, as we would any adult who attacks us, no matter what the relationship is. Therefore we must require that they treat us well. That’s the first price they pay for anything they want from us beyond food and shelter.
Do not show them that we give into bullies. They’ll believe what we show them, not what we ask, beg, bribe, threaten and yell at them to do.
In addition to developing the will, determination, courage and strength to set standards of behavior, we need to learn skills.
Some effective parental responses to smart-mouthed kids, all delivered with good cheer and smiles and a matter-of-fact firmness, are:
- Take charge of the TV and internet. Allow them to watch only certain shows or internet sites. Sometimes, watch with them. Teach them to resist bad influences they see.
- The kids will say, “All the other kids act that way. I’m just trying to fit in” We can say, “If the other kids told you to murder someone or commit suicide, would you? We don’t do what jerks or losers do. We’re better. We (last name) set higher standards.
- They’ll say, “You’re just forcing me; you’re just blackmailing me.” Answer, “Yes. Of course I am. I’m showing you how much I care about teaching you good behavior and what behavior I allow in my personal space. I’m showing you that good behavior is so important I’m willing to make you unhappy. Usually I try to make you happy. There’s a price you pay for getting what you want from me.”
- They’ll say, “I can say what I want. It’s free speech.” Answer, “Actually, there’s a lot that we as a society have decided you cannot say, like joking about carrying a bomb on an airplane or insisting you can play ‘Words With Friends.’” Answer, “What you’re really arguing is that there should be no consequences for your being nasty; that no one should get upset when you’re a jerk. I’m saying that there are consequences for expressing yourself any way you want. People might not like you; people might not want to do nice things for you.”
- Some other ideas to share with them
- Treat the people you’re closest to, the nicest. You know you have to be polite with strangers, teachers and cops. Be even nicer to your parents.
- If kids are left to create their own society, without wise adult input, you get “Lord of the Flies.” Read it. Would you like to be the target of those tweens expressing the worst of themselves?
- No matter what we do, our kids will grow up disliking something about the way we raised them. So what? Say, “Do differently when you’re a parent. Be prepared to be shocked when your kids protest about you even though you think you’re a wonderful parent.”
Even if they’re better debaters, require the behavior you want. You don’t have to convince them you’re right or to get their permission or acceptance for your standards before you demand compliance.
Signs that you have a real problem child.
It's a bad sign when children fight to the death to resist reasonable rules of polite, civil behavior. Civility requires some effort compared to selfish, spoiled behavior and childish temper tantrums to get their way. Therefore, I expect kids to push back at first. Tell them that this battle is a waste of their precious time. Encourage them to put their energy into struggling to succeed in school, to develop good friends, to prepare themselves with skills for being effective adults living a wonderful life. If they still focus on fighting us, they have a real problem
What if you get no support from a bullying spouse?
Again, this simply adds to the degree of difficulty. Two very bad situations are if your spouse actively encourages and participates in abusing you, or if, for example, your extended family culture supports male children in abusing females. Stand strong and openly set high standards. If they won’t change, you may have to get rid of them.
What if you’re just beginning to set standards now that they’re teens?
Of course, it’s always easier to start when they’re young. If you let them get away with mistreating you when they’re five, you’re setting yourself up for a very big problem when they’re fifteen. If you’ve let an older child grow up to be a rotten teen, don’t hesitate to learn from your mistakes with the younger children. You can be open and honest, “I was wrong when I allowed your older brother or sister to act rotten. I’m sorry I let them grow up spoiled, selfish and arrogant. But I’ve learned and I’m doing better for you. I know it may seem harder on you, but you’ll be much better for it.”
Prepare your children for being adults in a world where bosses and spouses won’t be permissive and all-forgiving. They will require high standards of behavior. They won’t plead with you and negotiate forever and neither should will I.
If your children have already become teenagers who think they’re entitled to do what they want, set boundaries immediately, as long as they’re under your roof. And then demand good behavior toward you when they move out on their own.
Since all tactics depend on the situation, expert coaching by phone or Skype helps. We can design a plan that fits you and your situation. And build your will and skill to carry it out effectively.