By Catherine Newman
Q I am looking for some thoughtful reading on how to respond to my son when I hear that snotty, dismissive tone that is so common in teens and is surfacing a bit in my nine year old. I know that it is coming from his desire for a bit of his own space and control, and he is telling me to back off, just in a tone I don’t like. I want to respond to it better than the standard “Don’t talk to me like that,” but I also don’t want to ignore it since I think how we talk to each other is important.
A This is one of the real bread-and-butter questions of raising children: how do we foster self-acceptance and allow for a rich, full emotional range while maintaining rigorous standards about tone and behavior? I don’t know a parent of tweens or teens who hasn’t grappled with this in some form or other.
When I raised the issue with 18 and 14, they were divided. Eighteen, whose life is all sparkle and rainbows, and in front of whom a kind of perennial red carpet seems to be unfurling, feels that people have a “moral obligation” (his words) to be nice, assuming the person they’re interacting with has done nothing to engender their anger or irritation. This is the same maddeningly good-natured person whose graduating class just voted him “Most likely to brighten your day,” so you will forgive 14 for rolling her eyes a little. Oh, sorry, Mr. White Male Privilege, if everyone doesn’t share your sunny outlook is, I believe, a fair paraphrasing of her feeling about his perspective (although she adores him, perhaps in spite of herself).
We ended up talking about this for over an hour, so let me try to get at the most helpful nuggets. Eighteen’s feeling, as usual, is that a punishing parental response never works because it just kind of beads up and rolls off of whatever protective coating a kid has applied to him or herself. “You want them to understand that when they act shitty it makes you feel shitty,” is how he put it, though he added, “not necessarily in those terms.”
“But it’s a bad habit,” he continued, “just being an asshole in a really small way, but, like, a dozen times a day. It’s a habit you definitely want to break. So describe the consequences of the behavior: When you talk to me with that tone it hurts my feelings. I really hate it.” (In our house, we refer to this practice of starting with your own experience as ye olde I-statement. I mean, we actually literally refer to it that way.)
Fourteen, who is, like me, a person challenged by the occasional Mood, tried to get at a distinction she felt was important: the difference between classic, free-floating nastiness and something subtler that she wanted to describe more as an absence of engagement. She wants people (read: me) to understand her occasional terseness as a cue: I had a bad or tiring day, and I don’t want you to ask me a million questions about it. I’ve been holding it together at school, and I don’t want to come home and have to pretend to be happy. I just want to be neutral and get myself safely to my room. She described how awful it can feel to deal with a parent’s care when you’re feeling like that, and I actually, suddenly, remembered that exact feeling.
“One thing you can do, as a parent,” she said to me pointedly, “is remind yourself to respect their not wanting to talk to you about a hard thing. That way you honor their willingness to express unhappiness.” This is excellent advice for me, since I can be inclined to press in a rigorous, noisy way when quiet acceptance would be a more helpful response. (Noted. Also: cringing.)
During our conversation, I kept thinking of that board book we had when the kids were little. Mama, Do You Love Me? It’s the one where the kid generates all of these hypothetical situations of naughtiness, seeking the mother’s reassurance that her love is unconditional. “What if I put salmon in your Mukluks?” “Well, then, my slippers would smell like fish and I’d be angry, but I would still love you.” I think that’s right. But also, I can be triggered quite robustly by tone (“Hey! Don’t talk to me like that!”). And I am genuinely torn about it.
On the one hand, I want the message to be, “Hey, I’m a person. If you treat me like crap, I will be less nice to you.” As the kids have gotten older, I have more and more revealed to them my own personhood, for better and worse. This means that if, say, you’ve been home for a week with pneumonia and I offer you a piece of cinnamon toast and you say, nasty, “I don’t want a piece of cinnamon toast,” well, you’re a jerk, and fine, and now I will never offer you another piece of cinnamon toast for your whole life (or until, like, tomorrow or later this afternoon).
It also means, on the other hand, that I would prefer to be a more balanced person. The kind who does understand that you are sick and frustrated and who offers you the full smorgasbord of feelings to have and express—the herring of your crankiness, the salmon mousse of your misery—and not just this tiny little curated corner of smiles and cinnamon toast. I want to be someone who says It’s okay to have negative feelings and actually means it. I would never tell Fourteen to smile—but what if she gets that message from me anyway?
Still, I don’t like the habit of gathering up all of your nasty rags to hang on the hook of a captive beloved. The kids and I agree that one useful approach is to fill your child’s bad-mood toolbox with acceptable responses: “I don’t really feel like talking about my day” is one we agreed to, with or without a “thank you for asking,” depending on the resource level of the person at hand. We also talked about the good habit (spouses take note) of noticing your own tone and behavior and correcting it: “I’m sorry if I sound rude. It’s not you. I’m just tired and stressed and I’m probably not in the mood to talk right now.”
But maybe I have dug in too deep? Maybe, dear writer, you’re talking about something simpler. So here’s this: if you ask, “Do you want Brussels sprouts?” and your kid says, “Yuck,” then you can just cue them, “Yes please or no thank you?” You’re welcome.
Do you have a question for Catherine Newman about the inside-out or upside-down of life with your teen? Submit it here.
Catherine Newman is a contributing writer for Motherwell and the mother of Eighteen and Fourteen. She is the author of the memoirs Waiting for Birdy and Catastrophic Happiness, and also the new children’s book One Mixed-Up Night.