Treat Your Teenager Like A Toddler For Best Results

I recently spent a weekend traveling with a 15-year-old girl. What an eye-opener that was. I had forgotten how much toddlers and teenagers have in common. Short attention spans. Easily bored. Demanding. Egocentric. Prone to fits. 

The difference, of course, is that teenagers are – hypothetically – mature enough to learn why their behavior is not socially acceptable. The popular parenting technique of this generation seems to be catering to the toddler so as to build their self confidence. Maybe that works for you, maybe it doesn’t. Either way, it is vital that parents find a new method once their kids hit that second toddlerhood at puberty. Teens who don’t learn that the world doesn’t revolve around them are in for a world of hurt in life. 

What I saw in this girl this weekend (let’s call her Jane), was a blatant disregard for others. Jane’s general surliness turns into snapping at her dad when she wasn’t being adequately entertained. Their situation is a sticky one – her parents divorced recently and she blames her dad for that. In an attempt to stay on her good side, Dad caters to her every whim. This bothers me for a number of reasons. First, this sends the message that he has something to make up for. She needs to realize that divorce is an unfortunate fact of life that many people have to deal with. It’s not something that happened “to” her. Dad did nothing wrong, but he is acting like he did. Like he owes her something. =

Secondly, Jane’s mom is an active alcoholic. As a recovering alcoholic myself, I see huge red flags when it comes to extreme self-centeredness. Thinking the world revolves around you is a key personality trait of addicts. I don’t know that a parent could actually prevent addiction by addressing the self-centeredness, but certainly I think Jane’s dad may be contributing to her future addictive personality by not dealing with the egocentrism. That’s a personal opinion based on experience. I have no scientific study to back that up. 

But I do know that I was similarly self-centered at Jane’s age. How my mother dealt with it was by telling me that no one wanted to be around me because of it. I found myself wanting to say the same thing with Jane this weekend, to tell her that I would not travel with her again if she couldn’t stop acting like a petulant 2-year-old. But my mother telling me that never did make me change my behavior. It only succeeded in further tearing down my self-confidence. 

Instead, I think we have to find the teaching moment. And I think we have to address it the same way we would a toddler. Studies show a teen’s brain is actually closer to a toddler’s than to an adult’s. We wouldn’t tell a toddler to “straighten up and act right.”  We would explain to them why other people factor into any situation. 

Tips on Handling the Teen Attitude

So when Jane demands, “I’m ready to go home!”, her father could explain that we will go home just as soon as we fulfill our responsibility to the kind family who allowed us to stay with them. When she complains that she’s hungry and wants to eat NOW, rather than getting her something to eat, he could say, “We’ll get a table as soon as the rest of our party gets here. It wouldn’t be fair to them if we ordered and started eating with out them.” And when she demands, “I’m bored!”, he should probably explain to her that sometimes we all do what she wants to do, and sometimes she has to do what others enjoy. 

The teen years are a time to begin learning one’s place in the world. If a child mistakenly grows up thinking her place is the center of the universe, she will have a very difficult time fitting into adult society. Allowing her to believe that – because of a divorce, a loss, an illness, for whatever reason – is a disservice to her and failing your duties as a parent. What we all really want for our children is that they develop into happy, well-adjusted adults. Now is the time to help them begin that journey.