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How to cope with teenage 'bad' behaviour

First remember that 'bad' is a subjective word and what you think is 'bad' may, or may not be. If we're not going to play the 'blame game' we could try substituting 'bad' for 'irresponsible' or 'unacceptable'.

So, supposing their behaviour is unacceptable or irresponsible, try and remember that it's their job to question your authority at this time. They are still growing and developing and that includes their brain, which will keep growing and developing until they're 26. This might be a possible reason why one study showed the average age of children leaving home was 28 (see 'How to parent adult children still living at home').

As a consequence of us not having any 'Rites of Passage' or 'Rituals' for the transition to adulthood, we have invented the 'Teenager', a kind of 'no person's land' where young people, having no template to follow, have made up their own – for better or worse. Also let's remember the agony of our own 'between years' of raging hormones and pimples. 'It ain't easy' on either side, but being the parent means having the responsibility of guiding your children (as best you can) into adulthood while not 'crowding' them, but giving them enough rules and boundaries to push against so that they can individuate and become independent. Some or all of the following might be helpful ...

Tips for this rocky passage

Be a good role model

  • It's hypocritical to expect your teen to come home on time and not get drunk if you arrive home 'totalled' at 3am and driving the family car. Drink responsibly or take a cab.
  • Try not to be reactive and lose your temper but rather, be assertive.
  • Be there for them, be consistent, be reassuring, be loving, be inclusive – encourage them to invite friends over any time.

Talk to your Teen like an adult

  • If you expect them to behave like one, pay them the courtesy of communicating with them like one.

Set realistic boundaries and involve them in the decision

  • For example, ask them what they think is a reasonable time to get home – you might be surprised.
  • Or ask them what chores they would like to do – maybe ones that fit their talent. For example if they love shopping, ask them if they'd like to do the supermarket shopping.
  • Growing up means being able to make decisions for ourselves, and even if you think you know better, try to let your teen make the best decision they can and take it seriously – even if you put it up for negotiation.

What are the consequences for unacceptable or irresponsible behaviours?

  • Have a pizza and cola meeting and discuss acceptable consequences – these can be written down and displayed somewhere.
  • Consequences can include being grounded, no TV for a night etc.
  • If teens give you 'attitude', are rude or disrespectful, direct your communication at their behaviour – not at them as a person.
  • 'I love you as a person but that behaviour is absolutely unacceptable'.

Give positive feedback for appropriate, responsible behaviours

Pick your battles

  • Parents often make things hard for themselves by constantly picking on their teens over 'trivial' things.

What is trivial stuff?

  • Who they hang out with (unless you know for a fact they're dealing drugs)
  • What they wear (unless they're expecting you to pay – this is negotiable)
  • What they eat (point out that they are responsible for their own health – you will provide healthy food but unless it's a family pizza night, they are responsible for funding their own junk food).

What about homework? – trivial or not?

  • Far too many screaming rows result from nagging young people about homework. As parents, you are giving them the opportunity to get an education, it's up to them to follow through. It's up to you to turn up at parent-teacher nights to show support.
  • Try to make it clear that study is their responsibility and you will not be nagging them to get it done. If they fail, that is the consequence of their behaviour and they have to accept the consequences. However, you will be interested in what they are doing and will be inquiring about how they are going as one adult to another and offering assistance if required.

What about keeping their room clean – trivial or not?

  • Generally speaking, fighting with your teen over keeping their room clean and tidy is like trying to hold back the tide. Make them aware that their room is their responsibility and if they want to live in chaos that's their problem as long as they keep the door shut so nobody else has to see it and as long as nothing grows in there.
  • See 'How to get Teenagers to do chores'

Set time aside to do things with your teens

  • Walking with them or driving them are good times to talk 'One on One', but there are other things you could do together. Find an activity that fits in with their existing interests or suggest something new as an 'adventure' (camping for example).

Be patient, be honest and give unconditional love to your teens

  • If teens are going to be honest with you, they need to be able to trust you with their disclosures. Without realising, parents can be ridiculing, dismissive or patronising with teens' disclosures. Building trust means being gentle with their information and their feelings, even if they've got themselves in serious trouble. Reacting and getting mad at them isn't going to help even if you're doing it out of love and concern.