With open enthusiasm, a mom picks up her middle-school-age son and friends after soccer practice, offering them bagels as they pile into the car. “Nobody likes whole wheat” is all the thank-you she gets from her son. Attributing his snippiness to low blood sugar, she wisely lets his little dig go. Besides, she’s feeling good about herself as a mom. She has gone out of her way to get a healthy snack, and she’s here for her son, despite her own crazy schedule.
The mom takes another stab at connecting, but in doing so resorts to a tired, overly general question destined to flop: “How was your day?”
“Fine,” he says with a sigh of disgust.
Feeling deflated, she tries again by asking the time of his next soccer game. “Are you deaf?” the son snaps. “I already told you. I’m not telling you again.”
Three for three. Here’s a mom who has tried her best to tee up for a positive interaction with her son and is shot down each time. Crestfallen, she wonders whether she has done something wrong to be treated this rudely.
Sometimes it sneaks up on parents little by little, and sometimes it happens in a flash: there’s a difference in your relationship with your child. Maybe he’s more impatient with you or she doesn’t seem to want you around when she’s with friends. Perhaps it’s in the rolling of the eyes or the clamming up. Whatever the telltale sign, after a decade or so of being pretty good buddies most of the time, something has changed. And as with the mom in the soccer carpool, parents do little to trigger the new state of affairs.
Rudeness covers a broad range of behaviors that parents dislike, from argumentativeness to disgusted looks to blatant disrespect, and it’s often a marker for profound changes ahead. Some parents wonder if they’ve lost their parenting touch.
Making matters worse, most parents take the rudeness personally. It’s hurtful, embarrassing and appears to reflect bad character. Until adolescence, parents assume that if they’re caring, loving and consistent, their own sweet child won’t morph into a shaggy, morose invader from MySpace. It happens anyway.
What’s a parent to do?
The first thing a parent should do about rudeness is determine where it’s coming from. Is it an overarching pattern born of an issue that needs special attention? Or is it a temporary phase more a symptom of a teen’s awkward, awakening self showing as irritability and impatience? Remember, parents are privy to just a slice of their teen’s behavior; what we see at home isn’t the whole picture. Often parents hear from others how polite their teen is. Unless you’re hearing about surliness or flippancy from everyone—including grandma—you can’t call it a pervasive behavior.
During adolescence, rudeness surfaces for so many reasons and out of so many sources that it seems an inevitable part of the age and stage. It’s what you’ll get if your teen is having a bad day, if you’ve frustrated them, if you’ve reminded them to do something, if you’re imperfect, if they’re stressed or if you’re just you and they’re tired of it!
Since “Don’t you dare talk to me that way!” is ultimately ineffective, what’s the recourse for rudeness? Most families need a bag of tricks from which to pick and choose.
It’s hard to trust that our teens may actually have manners when we don’t see them. Manners and social graces instilled during childhood are still tucked inside most teens, but these behaviors often don’t emerge, except in settings where they’re anxious to look good and conform to adult expectations. All day at school, most teens work at restraining their impulses, being nice and following rules, but around parents, they feel safer and more secure in letting their hair down. With puberty and other biological and emotional changes triggering the negative moods of adolescence, who better to “dump” these on than their secure base: their parents? The friction this causes helps a teen create distance, which in turn facilitates the process of becoming an individual, separate from parents and the previous identity of “child.” Voilà! A teen is born.
But don’t give up on manners entirely. Parents are absolutely entitled to some non-negotiable family protocol about how people are to be treated. The trick is to “pick your battles”—one of the wisest aphorisms known to parenting. Knowing when to weigh in—and with what rules—is key. For some families, it’s no cell phones at the dinner table, while others care more about addressing other adults by their surnames. Choose carefully, since your target list at any moment has to be short. If your negative remarks are creeping up and overshadowing your praise, humor and positive overtures, then you’re on your way to being blown off.
Because children’s temperaments differ wildly, levels of negativity in the family will vary, too, regardless of parenting style. When life is already tilted a lot toward the negative with harder-to-parent children (those with mood problems, attention deficit, defiant temperaments), it becomes nearly impossible to keep a mostly positive relationship. Families with easier children can insist on good manners, because they’re not already bedeviled by all the work they’re doing on big, pressing issues.
Rudeness and bad attitudes are more about forming a self than most parents realize. Building a self takes a long time. It’s an untidy process, and it’s miraculous.