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Parenting a Strong-willed Teenager

Dear Crucial Skills,

I have the privilege and frustration of being the mother of a strong-willed teenage girl. It seems my child popped out believing she was an adult and in charge. She is very verbal and says it like she sees it—for good or ill. I realize that teenagers are emotionally driven, however I’m struggling to know how to respond to her routinely rude comments. I love my child deeply but she needs a filter; her words can be very hurtful. Unfortunately, I am not the only target of her meanness. I’m concerned that she will burn bridges if she does not take greater care with her words. Any advice?


Dear Struggling,

A business associate of mine told me about his son going off to a distant university. The father became very emotional. He told me how difficult his son was to raise; his son was rude to others and had angry, emotional outbursts. His father responded with anger and punishments.

When the son left for college, he told his Dad, “I hate you and hope I never see you again.”

Later that semester, a school counselor assigned to new students called to tell the father that his son had been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. As the father learned more, he discovered that the behaviors that his son exhibited and irritated him the most were common symptoms of Asperger’s. My friend started crying as he told me that if he had known his son had a physical/emotional problem, he would have treated him differently. He would have tried to help him, not punish him. My brokenhearted friend wondered if he would ever be able to heal the badly damaged relationship he had with his son.

In sharing this sad story with you, I’m not presuming that your daughter has this or a similar issue; I am urging you to consider whether or not there is an ability component to her behavior. This is a preliminary diagnosis before beginning the problem-solving process.

Being a teenager with a still-developing brain that is overdosing on hormones and adrenaline, is almost the definition of an ability problem. But, compare her to her peers. You mentioned that your daughter is “routinely rude” and needs a filter. Is she unable to think about what she is saying, or just unwilling to? If her behavior is more belligerent or extreme than other teens, or if she seems unable to empathize with those she insults, seeking counseling or professional expertise might be the solution. You may avoid a lot of unnecessary pain for both you and your daughter by taking this path.

On the other hand, if her actions seem within the bounds of normal teenager behavior, then I would recommend some Crucial Accountability strategies.

First, get your heart right; Start with Heart. Ask yourself, “What do I really want?” Don’t think in terms of character traits; think of specific behaviors, actions, and words. Maybe something like, “I want my daughter to refrain from saying rude, hurtful remarks. I want her to express herself in respectful ways, even when she disagrees with something being said or done.”

Now, get your head right; Master your Stories. Ask yourself, “Why would a reasonable, rational decent person say those things?” If that seems like a bit of a stretch for a teenager, you might ask, “Why would a decent kid say those things?” Maybe she’s frustrated and angry. Maybe she’s rebellious and lashing-out because she wants to be her own person and test the limits. Maybe she wants to hurt others to keep them from getting too close. Maybe she got up on the wrong side of the bed and her stars are out of alignment. Having considered many possibilities, ask the hard question. Which of these is true? Realize the hard answer is, you don’t know. So don’t assume you do. Maybe you ought to talk to her and find out, so you can address the real problem and not the symptoms.

Begin the conversation by Describing the Gap. Factually describe her behavior and compare it to what you expect. Make sure you address the pattern of behavior you have witnessed.

You might say “At dinner tonight, when we were discussing the new bussing schedule, you told me that I didn’t know what I was talking about and that I am ‘so lame’ I shouldn’t be saying anything at all. Earlier this week in the car you called your sister an idiot. And on Saturday, you said you didn’t want to go to her boring soccer game and that she was the worst one on her team. I’m seeing a pattern of hurtful remarks. I expect you to be respectful to others, even if you disagree with something.”

Next, ask a diagnostic question to understand why she is behaving this way. “What’s going on? Help me understand. Why are you saying these things?” Be intentional as you Make it Safe and create dialogue with your daughter.

Taking these steps will help you avoid the costly mistake of assuming your daughter’s pattern of hurtful behavior is a motivation problem.

If you decide the problem you face is a matter of motivating your daughter to change her behavior, then use the Crucial Accountability process to get compliance. Share with her the consequences of her rude remarks. By focusing on the negative natural consequences of her behavior, you not only educate her but you motivate her to change as well.

If these efforts don’t create a willingness to improve, calmly and respectfully explain the consequences you will impose on her when she speaks rudely to others. Be specific. “The next time you are disrespectful to me, like saying I’m lame or I don’t know what I’m talking about, you will lose your phone privileges for twenty-four hours. This also applies to others, like when you call your sister ‘stupid’ or say that she’s the worst player on the team.” Set a follow-up time within the next twenty-four hours to review her behavior. In your interaction with her, always model the respectful behavior you expect from her.

Praise her good behavior and hold her accountable for unacceptable behavior. Don’t ever ignore her hurtful behavior. Be consistent—every time, all the time. I wish you all the best as you succeed in doing the hardest job on the whole planet—being a loving parent.


You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Accountability

5 thoughts on “Parenting a Strong-willed Teenager”

  1. Bonnie

    I too was blessed with strong-willed teenagers. I stress the plural because I have 2 boys a little over a year apart, the older of which struggled with social issues and was diagnosed with Aspergers in his pre-teen years. Both are very outspoken and can be very rude and hurtful, usually directed at myself, my spouse or each other. My husband and I have very different parenting styles. He will gloss over issues and not address them, whereas I will speak up (sometimes too defensively), so I’m more often the target. They feed off of each other and these situations have occasionally escalated to physical altercation or damaged property. They are now 18 & 19 and both are in post-secondary school. There were always ups and downs in the extremity of the issues, but there have been huge improvements as the hormones of the teenage years have stabalized. There are still some verbal issues, but things are peaceful for the most part now. Both sons have said at various times when upset that they can’t wait to finish school and move out. My younger son also feels that his brother was not held accountable for his behaviour and his diagnoses was used as an excuse. Like the father of your story, I worry whether my husband and I will be able to heal our relationships with our sons as they progress into adulthood. Any advice you can provide to start the dialoge for healing old wounds would be appreciated.

  2. Tanya

    I am a bit concerned about the rephrased question of “What would a decent kid do?” My teen would hear “You aren’t a decent kid because you did X just now.”

    1. an

      Yes, he should hear that and know that he is not being decent by what he did X just now. Insight is the first part of self-improvement.

      1. Tanya

        There is a difference between behavior and person. Their behavior is not decent, that doesn’t make them not decent. My teen struggles with negative self-worth because of her perception of performance as equal to intrinsic value. Unconditional love addresses behavior separate from the person. I would not use that tactic.

    2. Julinda

      He’s not suggesting you say that to your child. You are asking yourself that to help you see his/her point of view!

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