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Parenting Teens Who Talk Back

Dr. Seth Meyers


If you’re like me, you’re a parent who has little tolerance for a child who talks back. When my children say something disrespectful, I usually deal with it immediately. At the same time, my children haven’t yet hit the notorious teen years. When children reach the teen stage, it’s important for parents to understand that they must loosen the grip on certain rules so that they allow a certain level of independence in their children. Should teenagers be able to talk back to their parents? In short, it depends. Keep reading and I’ll explain what I mean.

Nastiness or abusive language is never okay

If your teenager curses at you or makes nasty comments to your face, you have to send a clear message that this behavior is not okay. Simply put, if you give a teenager an inch, they will take miles and miles. If your teen curses at you, do not overreact emotionally. That is the number one mistake parents make with kids of any age: getting emotional in their reaction. When a child sees you lose your cool, your child comes to believe that you are not strong enough to manage them. It helps if parents view the teen’s acting out behavior through a lens of empathy. Teens have a lot of adult-like social situations they must manage: school and sports demands, conflicts with friends, and budding or ending romantic relationships. Teens have little life experience, so they don’t know how to manage these situations smoothly. Because your teen is probably dealing with a lot of different issues, give them some slack.

State the specific rules and the consequences for breaking the rules

Discuss the rules about which behaviors are okay and not okay so that you and your child have no confusion. Tell your child, “It’s okay if you get angry, but there are rules about expressing anger. You can’t just say whatever crosses your mind, just like I can’t say whatever crosses mine.” Be clear about how to express anger in a healthy way. Say, “When you do get angry at me, the first rule is that it’s never okay to call me names, and I will give you that same respect, no matter how angry I am. Calling me curse words will result in the following punishment, and there is no negotiating that rule. [You decide the consequence that fits: turning off their phone for the week or grounding them for one day of the weekend, for example).

Give your teen a sense of control by asking for their opinion

I am by no means an amazing parent; I think I’m a decent parent and I take pride in the fact that I am always trying harder to become a better parent and to think more about my child’s – and not my own – feelings. One positive behavior that I practice with my kids that I am proud of is that I try to have at least one family meeting per month, and I ask for their opinion when we are dealing with an issue. You may do this already, but if not, this practice works well with teens who are at a stage in life where they need to feel heard and they need to feel as if they have some control over their own life. If your teen does something problematic, sit down with them and ask, “If you were the parent, what would you do?” Your teen may come up with a terrific answer, suggesting that they would understand and blow it off. Take this opportunity to focus on the future. Say, “I could blow it off now, but what kind of parent would I be if I signed off on that behavior? The purpose of parenting is to teach kids how to be when their adults, when they have to make all their own decisions. If you did something like this at your job when you’re an adult, you would be disciplined or could even lose your job. That is what I need you to understand better: I am teaching you rules that you need to be successful in life.”

Overall, parenting teens can be frustrating but it doesn’t have to be constantly upsetting or frustrating. Keep the rules clear and focus your feedback on guidance rather than lectures or punishment. Finally, always remember to try to keep an alliance – and not a foe vs. foe dynamic – that will keep you bonded in a good way for years to come.

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Dr. Seth Meyers

Dr. Seth Meyers is a licensed clinical psychologist and author in Los Angeles, California. He specializes in parenting and relationships, and he is trained in multiple evidence-based parenting interventions. Dr. Seth earned his B.A. in psychology from Vassar College and earned his Psy.D. in clinical psychology from Yeshiva University in New York City. He appears regularly on television programs, including Good Morning America, 20/20, ABC News, The Doctors, Nancy Grace, Dr. Drew and others. Dr. Seth is the author of Overcome Relationship Repetition Syndrome and Find the Love You Deserve.