My teenager’s bad attitude is causing rows

Q. Our 12-year-old daughter has a real problem with her attitude and is always giving us backchat and cheek. She argues with us over every rule and never backs down. She never accepts our explanations and always has to have the last word. Both myself and my wife try to ignore her when she is like this, but she is very persistent and we seem to be always ending up in row. She was always a bit like this as a child, but it has got much worse over the summer and now she has taken to really talking down to us, being insulting and implying that we don’t have a clue and so on. I know hormones are to blame, but I don’t know how to respond. She is very different than her older sister, who was always much more mellow. Should I ignore her and put up with it or should I punish her and, if so, how?

A. Lots of parents find their children’s backchat and cheek very difficult to deal with, and even the most resilient parents can get worn out by it over time and find themselves getting into rows. A lot of it is due to the child’s personality – some children have a tendency to be more argumentative or oppositional than others. Equally, it can also be a clash of personalities, with some parents getting more easily involved in rows as they have a similar personality to their child.

Certainly, such rows can worsen with the onset of puberty, when many adolescents go through a period of being challenging or denigrating towards their parents – unfortunately, a normal path to their separating and becoming more independent.

In responding to this, it is easy for parents to get caught into defending and justifying your rules and/or giving long explanations of their reasonableness. However, this can easily escalate the row as such children tend to be expert at arguing and know how to rile you or push your buttons. Other parents try to ignore their children’s disrespect and cheek, and not engage at all in the discussion.

The problem with this approach is that though it works to a point, it is very hard to consistently ignore a child’s disrespect, and over time you can feel resentful and thus be more likely to eventually “explode” and react negatively towards them. In addition, ignoring does not ensure they take responsibility for their actions nor show them how they should behave instead.

As a result, it is important that you address backchat and disrespect from your children and that you insist they speak respectfully to you as their parents. This is not only for your benefit but for theirs, as it shows them how to get on with people and how they must behave in the real world as responsible adults. Assuming the authority of being a parent means that you do not have to reach consensus or agreement with your children about every rule you make. Indeed, frequently, the more you justify your rules and the longer you argue with your children, the more impossible it becomes to get agreement, and the argument itself becomes the problem.

Practically, this means that when your daughter speaks to you disrespectfully, you immediately stop the discussion until she speaks politely, for example, “You are being rude, we’ll continue this conversation when you speak respectfully.” If she continues to be insulting or to disrespect you, then you disengage from the discussion and warn her of consequences – “If you continue to speak to me like that, you will start losing some of your pocket money.”

It is important to see your daughter’s over-arguing or badgering you about a rule as part of this disrespectful behaviour. Rather than getting caught into an insulting argument, keep your explanations concise – “I’ve explained the rule to you once, I am not discussing it anymore. If you continue to argue, there will be more consequences.”

While, of course, you want to encourage healthy debate about rules, the central issue is your daughter’s level of respect towards you. It is okay for her to negotiate and to discuss rules, and indeed it is important that you listen to her, take her views seriously and help her express herself, but the discussion stops when she oversteps the line and she becomes insulting or disrespectful.

Aside from responding assertively when your daughter disrespects you, it is also important to make sure to build your relationship with her at other times. You need to make sure you can enjoy each other’s company when there is no conflict. When do you have good chats with her? When do you feel closest to her? Try to identify and build upon these times. The warmer and closer the relationship, the less negative the conflict, making it much easier to manage.

Finally, rather than comparing your daughter negatively to her older sister – which is likely to increase jealousy or make your daughter feel you love her sister more – it is important to try to enjoy her unique personality and to view her argumentative side as a positive trait on occasion. Perhaps you can admire her independent mind, her free spirit, and so on.

In addition, there are also a lot of advantages to your daughter’s personality in that she is likely to stand up for herself as she gets older. Your role as her father is to make sure she learns to hone her arguing and communication skills so they are respectful as well as forceful, and thus positive qualities for her as an adult.
John Sharry, Irish Times, September 2011.  Read original article here.

Dr John Sharry will host a one-day Parenting Teenagers course on October 1st. See