My son’s suddenly changed

Dear Jenny Jackson

Our 14-year-old son seems to have had a sudden change of character! He’s angry, disrespectful and argumentative, especially when we ask him to get off the computer to do his chores. He’s always been a bit strong-willed, however he is doing really well in school – getting top marks, involved in sport and has a good group of mates. How come he’s so moody all of a sudden? It’s like he’s flicked a switch. It’s so hard for us to keep our cool in the face of his blatant disrespect. Can you help us turn this around?

Jenny’s tips

It sounds as though the changes in your son have come as a shock. It’s interesting you say he’s still achieving well at school and keeping up with sport. This indicates that he has learned from you how to behave and is doing just fine. Regarding the behaviour at home, be assured, you’re not alone. Some teens navigate this developmental stage reasonably uneventfully, but others have more of a roller-coaster experience. In order for us to parent wisely through this period, we need to keep reminding ourselves it’s not our fault! Their brains are under development which means they are often ruled by their emotions. We need to act as their calm frontal cortex for a while yet. Here are some suggestions for keeping yourselves and your teen steady.

Actively work to maintain a warm and friendly family atmosphere – look for qualities you like in your son, look at him as though you like him! Spend time together working on shared projects or asking his opinion on things. Look for opportunities to acknowledge his good decisions, improvements, and honest attempts. Listen more and advise less. Use phrases such as, “Hmm, that’s interesting,” and either thoughtfully leave the conversation there or ask him to tell you more. Resist the urge to constantly give advice. Teens feel respected and trusted when they are listened to and heard well, just as we do. It’s fine to come back to a situation or issue later and ask how it went. This conveys our expectation and our confidence in our teen’s ability to manage by themselves.

Make respect the number one rule in the family. Think about words, tone of voice and body language. If your son is disrespectful – call him on it. “Hey, have another go at saying that with your manners please.” As parents we have to model this. If you need to step this up because your son is continuing to be disrespectful and uncooperative, try briefly removing ‘goods and services’. For example, the ride to school in the morning if they can reasonably walk it, or no technology for one full day. We need to be able to do this calmly in order for our teens to get the lesson, not our anger.

Follow through with discipline calmly, firmly and leaving your son’s (and your own) dignity intact. If we can’t keep it together, we need to own up and take some time to calm down first. Try saying, “Let me calm down and then we can sort this out.” Ensure that the reasons for the rules are clear and that the consequences are understood ahead of time. Ask him why he thinks you have a particular rule.

Strong-willed teens need some room to move. Give a couple of choices where you can – does he want to do the dishes or help with making dinner this week? Ask your son to do some thinking and problem solving, “What’s your plan for getting off the computer without us having to argue about it? Have a think and let me know at dinner tomorrow.” Watch out for deflections! If he’s adept at changing the subject or getting you arguing about something else, have a phrase ready like, “Yes, that’s interesting but we were talking about you wanting to go out with your mates.” If he’s really determined to keep you off the subject you could say, “I can see you’re not ready to talk about going out so let’s try again after dinner.” Deflection is a great tactic for parents too! If we don’t want to be drawn into an argument about whether our 14 year old should be allowed out till 2am every night, we can change the subject. It provides a respectful boundary without words. “You think you should be able to set your own curfews, eh? Is it your turn to set the table tonight or your sister’s?”

The outcome

We found the suggestions helpful and have both managed to be calmer most of the time. Our son is noticeably easier to manage when we are calm. It feels so personal when he’s disrespectful, we find we have to keep reminding ourselves it’s not our fault and that it’s his teenage brain! You made a good point about keeping in perspective that he is still doing well at school and in sport.

I guess because he’s doing so well we’re inclined to forget he is only a teenager and still learning. It’s hard when he repeatedly steps over the line. We’ll keep reminding ourselves of these points and be in touch again if we need more help.