My Teenager Is Judging Me: How Do I Play It Cool?

Critical thinking is an important skill that serves us long after we leave our parents house. If you want to raise a critical thinker, you teach your child how to have her own opinions. However, while your teen still lives with you, she may practice this skill on you. This will happen even if you didn’t set out to raise a critical thinker. At some point in adolescence, your child will start to see your flaws, and she will then start to comment upon them. Read on to understand why and for some strategies for fielding your teenager’s angst.

Why do teens seem to hate their parents?

My friend Kate and I discussed this recently. Suddenly, after years of teaching her son to think, to guess, and to wonder for himself, he was using those very same skills to judge her. She joked, “Why didn’t I raise him to be obedient, or to fear me, or to silently bear witness to her astonishing authority. It might have hurt less.” She was only half kidding, but for her and many of us, the hurt is real. 

Like many parents, Kate is experiecning the sometimes painful shift from childhood into adolescence that, when it goes well, entails differentiation. Differentiation is a stage of development when we separate from our parents to find what you think is right/true. 

Less academically, I call it the time when kids temporarily become Know-It-All-Ass*#$@-Jerks. (If that sounds familiar, maybe it’s time to rewatch the Breakfast Club. It’s still amazing.) Being a KIAAJ reminds me of my own adolescence. I didn’t know it at the time, but my attempts to carve out an identity were messy and embarrassing. I was intent on being my own person. The path towards my future self meant regularly shining a light on what I perceived as my parents’ flaws.  My mother reflects that ages 12-18 are the years that she wishes she could have slept through.

Why am I taking it so hard?

If your teen is really honing his observational skills on you and tearing you to shreds, it’s going to hurt. It is the turn towards adulthood, and in order for identity to form in a healthy way, adolescence, which can start as early as 9 and last until the age of 19, requires this rejection of everything familiar. It often comes with an attitude that only makes it more difficult to endure. Often, it’s not until much later, like after they leave your house and see more of reality, that they decide that some of what you gave them wasn’t so terrible.

I hear this from many of the parents I speak with. One mom relayed that her son recently made fun of her clothes. He explained that she looked uncool in comparison to his friends’ moms. I know this mom–she is adorable and her own person–and she couldn’t believe that her son, who used to tell her that he wanted to marry her, was now comparing her to other women. She was devastated to learn that she was no longer purely mom to her teenage son. He was now ranking her alongside her peers!

What do I say to my teen when she is judging me?

How do you gracefully weather this healthy process of differentiation and exercises in critical thinking? Here are some ideas that are helpful in keeping the peace.

  • Respond diplomatically. Kate has come up with some replies when her son hits her with a zinger. These include: “Hmmmmm…that’s an interesting point”; “I will definitely give that some thought”; “I never thought about it that way”; “I can see your point”; or even “Wow. That’s an idea”. Notice–you don’t necessarily give an inch, but you don’t shut your child down either and let’s face it, as much as you sometimes want to take a long vacation somewhere far from your teen, the goal is to keep that relationship intact.
  • Help your child imagine his future. His criticisms are a quest to answer Who am I beyond this family? Who am I to myself? How will I live? Working from the negative to the positive, ask your teen to describe what he didn’t like about what he saw or experienced with his family, and without defensiveness, ask him to describe what he envisioned for himself. No family wagon for me! I am going to drive an Aston Martin. The trick is to catch yourself before you say, “Well you better get a summer job and start saving.” Instead try, “I’d love to see you pull that off. What do you need to do to make that happen?”
  • Be real and vulnerable. Let them now that you also departed from your parents’ ways. Kate was saying that her tastes are the reaction to her parent’s home when she was growing up. Partly in response to the normal-ness of her family home, she has developed an eclectic sensibility. Sharing this perspective makes clear that you too had a lot of opinions, and those opinions helped you become your own person.
  • Do not take it personally.  Whatever you decide to do, do not take your child’s behavior personally. This may be the hardest thing to do, especially since she has a lot of opinions and energy to tell you about them. But the truth is we all go through this. Adopt a mantra like, “I do not suck as a parent and __________ is in a phase. This too shall pass.” Say it often and believe it. It will help you to hang in there because really, critical thinkers are worth their weight in gold.
  • Say thank you. For the millionth time since you became a parent, call whoever raised you and thank him or him for tolerating your shenanigans while you became your own person. Surely they have a memory or two of you in some awkward phase that they forgave you for, but have not forgotten. For perspective and if you have that kind of relationship, it might help both of you to ask for a recollection of a scare story from the trove of your adolescence.

The shift from childhood to adolescence is painful. It marks the end of an era of innocence. As your baby grows into her own person, she grows away from you for a time. During this stage of development, her criticisms of you can sting in a way that you feel unprepared for. As much as you can, remember this is normal and even healthy; critical thinkers solve problems, challenge the status quo, and stand up for what’s right. Breathe deep, develop a thick skin, and remain available to your teen. She needs you to be strong as she finds their way, and if she’s like most of us, she will thank you later.

6 Comments

  • Love this! Especially the part about just comment on their idea being a good one whether or not you will go along with it:)

    November 16, 2016 at 4:23 am
  • Oh from the mouths of babes….my first son seemed to sale through adolescence…yes he differentiated, but he stayed close to me, so I guess I did not suffer much. Enter son number 2 who is determined to give me plenty of suffering in the place of his brother and all brothers in a 50 mile radius. I loved your examples of phrases to utter in that “so taking it personally” moments of mother and son. Sometimes it feels like it must be my karma. For me it’s the pain of viscerally remembering when this, my youngest, was so close to me and trusted me. It’s that stark difference that makes this mama wonder if she dreamed that past relationship of kindred spirits. I hear they come back…I hope so. In the meantime, your post is very helpful 🙂

    December 1, 2016 at 6:54 am
  • Angela

    Reply

    Awesome post Helaina. It’s so easy to shut down teens, but having them imagine their future is so powerful and beautiful

    December 1, 2016 at 11:47 pm
  • I wish I had this blog when my boys were younger. They are 28, 25 and 23 now. I was a single mom and there were many times they challenged me. I can still use the advise now if an occasion arises, but all in all they turned out pretty well. Thanks for posting!

    December 4, 2016 at 4:26 pm
  • This is an awesome article. You have a great knack for seeing the world from both sides. I’m working on an a book chapter about critical thinking for tweens when they are online. I loved this so much, I’m sharing this with my community of parents. I know they will love it as much as I did.

    December 6, 2016 at 1:36 am
  • Pam

    Reply

    While I do not have a teen yet, I know it will come soon enough… I can already see the small steps in the direction of individuality.. which I love.. but I know it will be tricky. I may already have to start practicing these now!

    December 7, 2016 at 5:03 am

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