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Expect kindness and good manners from your teens

Now that she’s a teenager, my daughter is becoming unbearable: lots of sass, backtalk, and tantrums. Most of the time she’s fine, but when something doesn’t go her way, she gets an attitude. Her father doesn’t like it either but says not to make a big deal about it. I think we need to get control of it. He says we should let it go because she’s just doing what teenagers do. Is he right?

Yes, that’s what teenagers do, but only if you let them. If allowed, they will do much worse than that.

I have a couple of questions for the father who blithely dismisses these outbursts with such an impotent shrug:

Why would you want your child to grow up to be so unlikeable? If she’s acting this way toward people she loves, how do you think she will act toward people she barely knows? If you who conceived her, reared her, and love her don’t like the way she’s behaving, then you can bet acquaintances, co-workers, and friends are going to absolutely hate it.

Maybe you think she’ll use more finesse on people she wants to impress, but what about those close enough for her to take for granted? How, for example, do you think she’ll treat her own spouse once the knot is tied? An old Southern adage says, “If you want to know how a man will treat his wife, look at the way he treats his mama.” I suspect that applies to daughters and husbands, too.

The answers to these rhetorical questions reveal why you do have to make a big deal about it when she acts like a spoiled brat.

Hey, Dad, do you think teens just evolve into decent human beings on their own accord? They don’t. That’s what parents are for. You can’t be a full-time, pep-peddling cheerleader. You have to be a coach. Who else is going to tell your kid she’s being unbearable?

The answer: everyone. Only they will not say it with words, and they will not say it with love the way you will. They will say it by walking away, cutting her off, leaving her alone and miserable.

You are the one tasked with helping her avoid such a destitute future.

There is, of course, a kernel of truth to Dad’s reasoning: the teenage brain isn’t fully developed, and puberty and other changes make adolescents a bundle of volatile emotions. The urges that cause their outbursts aren’t removable like a tumor.

But from this reality there is a fork in the road. One way leads to your teen growing into an adult who is forever a slave to her impulses, attitudes, and negative emotions. The other way leads to a mature and self-possessed person who can manage and master all those urges.

You have a lot to say about which path your child will take. I don’t have to tell you where it will lead if you throw your hands in the air and leave her maturity to chance.

A couple of words of wisdom I’ve learned from others that may help:

When you deal with her outbursts, address her behavior rather than her attitude. Because teens have a hard time controlling their emotions, focusing on her attitude is a lost cause. She can’t help becoming frustrated under certain circumstances, but she can help what she does about it. “Stop being a spoiled brat” is a less helpful directive than “You do not speak to others like that.”

Second, don’t waste your time trying to make her want to do something. That’s another lost cause. “You should want to treat us respectfully,” or “Why don’t you care about how you are acting?” won’t have an impact. Focus on the external behaviors, the ones everyone sees. Eventually her feelings will catch up to her actions. Right now just teach her how to fake it until she makes it.

Remember, you’re not her BFF. You’re her parent. Don’t be afraid to punish her when she reacts disrespectfully, and don’t be afraid to speak loudly and clearly. Throwing tantrums may be what teenagers do, but only in other homes. In your home, you make the rules. Assuming the rules are reasonable, teaching your child to obey them will serve her well for the rest of her life.

But only you can teach her those things. Nobody else will.

That’s what parents do.

Jody Stallings has been an award-winning teacher in Charleston since 1992 and is director of the Charleston Teacher Alliance. To submit a question or recieve notifications of new columns, email him at Follow Teacher to Parent on Facebook at and on Twitter @stallings_jody.

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