If you have or work with teenagers, there is no doubt that you’ve been through a version of this:
You’re speaking with a teenager. Suddenly you can see they are uncomfortable with the conversation. There is a pause. They look at you as if you had a bright green ball of snot dangling from your nose and then they say in that long, drawn out, and especially obnoxious tone “awkwaaaaaaard...”
Another particularly annoying and ubiquitous teenage reaction is this. You’ll be in the middle of explaining something important, something that, if the kid would only listen, could really improve his or her life and then you get it. “Whatever…”
Why do they do this? What’s going on in their minds when this comes out of their mouths? Before we examine that I think it is useful to recognize the effect that these reactions have on us as adults. And let’s be honest about it. Extreme irritation or anger, a desire to yell or insult, an impulse to dismiss, these are all understandable impulses in response to something that can be taken as defiant and disrespectful. Noticing and being honest with ourselves about these feelings is important when you speak to teenagers. Not acknowledging these powerful emotions can allow them to unconsciously drive our choice of words and our actions. Along with recognizing these emotions in ourselves it is helpful to think about what’s in it for the teenager to behave in this way.
I believe that these annoying teenager responses tend to serve two functions. The first one is self-denial in the teenager. Developmentally teenagers are not good at understanding, tolerating and managing their feelings. When you speak to a teenager about mistakes that they have made or point out things that can be difficult for them to admit to themselves their minds usually react to defend them against the feelings that this can elicit. Feeling of being bad, of having failed, of being rejected, fear about having made a serious mistake and what that might mean for them or feeling unstable about what would happen to how they see themselves if they would allow this critical piece of information about themselves in. Remember, teenagers are still trying to sort out who they are, any sort of attack on their fragile sense of self can be aggressively defended! By changing the focus of the conversation from them to awkwardness or disrespect they protect themselves from having to deal with difficult emotions that can feel overwhelming. Pretending it doesn’t matter or changing the topic is a defensive maneuver. Of course this is something that they are too early in their development to realize. Picking up on patterns about yourself takes maturity. Most teenagers just don’t have that capability yet.
The other function I believe has to do with the adult’s reaction. If the adult becomes angry or dismissive then they will switch tracks and focus on disrespect or something else that is more important to the adult. This will allow the teenager to continue to avoid seriously looking at hard truths. Additionally the motivation for bringing anger out in adults has to do with the teenager’s reaction to the adult anger. If they can find a way to discredit you because of your anger or other negative reactions then they can also dismiss what you have to say and then they won’t have to take it seriously. Quite convenient since the truth can hurt!
So as an adult that’s trying to help what do we do? The answer is keeping this information in mind. Realize that they are giving you problems because of reasons that are good to them. They may not be useful ways to defend themselves but they are doing what everyone else does all the time, the best they can to feel as good as they can, even though they may be failing miserably. Keep sending messages of caring about the teenager in your choice of words and in the tone of your voice. Show them that as intolerable as these feelings might be for them you can handle it and you want to help them. This is so much easier said than done and it is something that takes a lot of time to establish. But hopefully understanding the reasons why teenagers can chose to disrespect or be annoying can help you react in a way that is more helpful and just might help you sidestep those feelings of anger or exasperation!
By Miguel Brown