Coping with teens with attitude

With a new school holiday starting, many parents find themselves gearing up for another round of bad attitudes and power struggles with their children. Teens and pre-teens especially seem to have an “I don’t care,” or “Why bother?” attitude about homework and their other responsibilities, like chores around the house. Do you find yourself asking your teen, “How will you ever make it in life if you don’t take these things seriously now?”

Any attempt you make to talk with them about school, or even about concrete steps a child might take to actually get successful in future is met with the “adults don’t know anything” attitude. Some teens have such a complete misunderstanding of reality, they think that life is going to be so easy – no work, no schedules, no need to do anything they don’t want to. It is really annoying to see your teen wasting his time, when he should be focusing on school so he can get into university and get a real job or earn skills enough for running his own business. Their attitude is: ‘Why should I? I’m better than other people.’ How can parents change this attitude and make teens see reality?”

Does any of this sound familiar?

Future Upgrades Foundation coaches often hear from parents who feel frustrated at their teen’s lack of acceptance of responsibilities and their abundance of “bad child attitude.” Some teens just don’t seem to care about doing good work whether at school or at home. Many teens have what we call a “dreamer” mentality– they believe that an exciting, high paying job will simply land in their hands, and therefore getting good grades is seen as unnecessary.

The danger is that teens use that fantasy to justify their poor attitude around their responsibilities. When faced with their lack of interest in work or school, parents get caught up in trying to make their children understand and accept the adult point of view. They try to get their kids to be “realistic” about their futures, and work hard so that they have the skills they need in life. I think parents also get frustrated at the lack of effort their kids show, and then worry about what kind of life their child is going to have if they don’t start taking life more seriously.

If you are in the thick of this kind of power struggle with your teen, you probably want him or her to listen to your speeches about the importance of hard work, and adopt a much better, more appreciative attitude. I have something to tell you: that is not going to happen. No matter how great, or how based in reality your argument is, you can’t force your child to think about the world the way that you do, and to adopt your experiences and your perspective. You can’t make them have a “better” attitude. Teens often have an apathetic or dismissive attitude about anything other than what they want to do. When you focus on trying to change your child’s attitude, you’re setting yourself up for frustration. As James Lehman says, “You can’t feel your way to better behavior, but you can behave your way to better feelings.” In order to feel effective and empowered in your role as a parent, you need to learn to ignore the apathetic, all-knowing attitude and focus on your child’s behavior. Let them know what is expected of them in your home, what your rules are, and what the consequence will be if they can’t figure out a way to comply with those rules and expectations.

For example, if your teen says, “I hate Mathematics! Why should I do my homework or practice it – this is stupid!” You can say, “I know you think your Math assignment is stupid. You don’t have to like it, but you do need to practice working out those numbers. You know the rules – no access to any electronics until your homework is completed. So how can you help yourself get it done?”

Don’t make the mistake of trying to get your child to “want” to have good grades, or “want” to get a good job in future. That’s not likely to happen, either. You aren’t going to transform your child’s attitude about the world, or their place in it. Rather, it’s your responsibility as a parent to help your child learn the skills they need to make their way in the world. Those skills are the same even if your child wants to do something you think is highly unlikely. You never know, maybe they will get a job as a football player, if that’s what they really want! Just don’t try to convince them that you are right and they are wrong. Don’t try to get them to stop resisting and start being “realistic.” Instead, focus on the behavior you would like to see change, and ignore the attitude. Focus on getting your teen to meet his responsibilities. Once they leave your house, they are free to use the skills you’ve helped them learn – or not.

Change will come if you tell them, “You don’t have to like school, you don’t even need to agree with our version of reality, but you do need to comply with our rules while you’re living here. That means doing your homework, making decent grades, and learning house chores.” You should also tell them that if they refuse to comply with the house rules, they would experience consequences. To get things started, take the TV, internet, their personal phones out of their reach until they accomplish what you want them to. In a short while, you will be surprised with the results.

Remember, there’s a pay-out for focusing on your child’s behavior and not his attitude: you’ll be teaching them one of the greatest lessons of all—how to be accountable in the real world.