Do you kind of hate your teenager? Do you sometimes wonder how it’s possible that the sweet little toddler you loved so much has turned into a monster? Are you out of ideas for how to make things better – or at least not so bad – at home?
The good news is that you don’t have to hate your teenager. The bad news is that it’s going to require significant effort on your part. You may think that they are the one who has a problem. But if you want things to improve, it’s up to you to take action.
Please understand, parents are not to blame for kids’ behavior. Our kids are their own people, with their own temperament, their own experiences, and their own free will. But when parents complain about their children, they have two choices:
- Keep complaining and feel hopeless about ever getting along with a difficult teen.
- Look inward and see what changes we can make ourselves to improve our experience of the relationship.
When we choose the second path, there is a chance for change, both in ourselves and in our kids.
But remember, this is not coming from blame. It is not meant to suggest that you haven’t tried your very best and given your child everything you could so far. It’s just that if you kind of hate your kid, then what you’ve been doing isn’t working so well for you. Read on if you want to consider one possible way things could get better.
You are not a bad parent, and this isn’t about love
If you kind of hate your teenager, you may feel like a bad parent. You may think that your feelings of dislike for your teenager mean you are unsuited to parenting them. And you may cry out in pain because you love your child so much, and you just can’t figure out what went wrong.
When our kids act out and infuriate us, it’s not because we didn’t love them enough, and it doesn’t mean they don’t love us. But it does mean that your relationship needs help. And if you’re reading this article, then it means that you are motivated to improve it. You’re motivated to translate your love into the sort of behavior that will build a deep and loving relationship with your child. That’s a good place to start!
Remember that we can’t change other people, but often when we change ourselves and our behavior, we change the way people respond to us. This is the key to rebuilding a relationship with a child who drives you crazy. Recognize that you can’t control or fix your child into treating you better. But you can change the way you behave, and you may see some positive results.
4 tips for improving a relationship with your teenager when you sort of hate them
1. Get professional support
This is going to be challenging. You need someone on your side, but not just a cheerleader or someone on whose shoulder you can cry. You need those people, too. But for serious work, you need a professional who can guide you towards a healthier relationship with yourself and your family. A therapist, counselor, coach, or another person will hold you accountable for your part of the problem while gently guiding you towards more productive behavior.
2. Work on your boundaries
A teenager who behaves angrily and hatefully toward their parent is struggling with roles and security. Maybe your boundaries were overly-harsh, and they feel penned in and trapped. Maybe your boundaries were too porous, and they don’t know where you end and where they begin. All of us thrive in relationships that have good boundaries, but a lot of us never learned how to set and hold boundaries with the people we love. Learning to establish appropriate boundaries will improve your relationship.
3. Learn about attachment
All of us have an attachment style. This is based on how we were parented. And while about 56% of adults have a healthy (“secure”) attachment style, the rest have less-secure attachment. Attachment is nobody’s fault. It’s something that happens to us before we have any free will. And even the most loving parents may have less-secure attachment. And even secure parents can raise kids who have a less-secure attachment style. Less-secure attachment can result in a teenager whom you hate. And one of the most important things you can do to rebuild your relationship is to learn about attachment and move towards greater security.
4. Rebuild your relationship
Remember that if you hate your teenager, it means your relationship – that means both of you, and possibly your whole family – needs some relationship repair. Even if it seems like your child is the problem, relationships are, by definition, interconnected. This means that everyone involved plays a role. And the good news is that if you work on yourself and your role, there’s a good chance that your relationships will improve. Perhaps not magically, easily, or quickly. But over time, and with effort, parents can usually rebuild relationships with angry teens.
Bad behavior is a reflection of the relationship
One of the hard lessons we need to learn as parents is that “bad behavior” in our kids is not a result of our child being “bad.” It’s more often a reflection of the state of our relationship.
From a parents’ perspective, it often seems like the child has a problem. Perhaps they are “too stubborn,” or “a jerk.” But a child’s behavior towards their parent is almost always an attempt to communicate.
Unfortunately, a lot of the time our kids’ “communication” seems rude, condescending, and tests our boundaries. But these behaviors are always our kids’ attempt to get our attention and ask for our help.
It makes sense to blame our teens for bad behavior. It also makes sense to feel angry and ashamed when our teens act out. But if we actually want to stop hating our teens, the only possible path forward is to look inward and seek to change our own behavior, which is often the only way to change our family dynamics.
Why teenagers are so difficult
While hormones and maturation tell some of the story of why teens are difficult, they miss a major element: parental attachment. Without a healthy and secure parent-child attachment, teens become increasingly difficult to parent as they age.
How do you know if you and your teenager lack healthy attachment? Well, the most obvious sign is that you don’t like them very much, and they don’t seem to like you, either.
What is attachment?
Attachment theory is a well-established and deeply-researched psychological concept. The idea is that all children develop an attachment style with their parents or primary caregivers. There are four main styles of attachment associated with childhood development:
- Secure attachment (~56%): a child who is securely attached feels they can rely on their caregiver to meet their needs. When the child is emotionally dysregulated, they seek their caregiver’s attention and are soothed by their caregiver.
- Anxious-ambivalent attachment (~20%): a child who is ambivalent feels insecure about their caregiver. Although they will behave in ways that attract their caregiver’s attention (e.g. whining, yelling, crying, being rude) when emotionally dysregulated, the caregiver is typically unable to soothe the child.
- Anxious-avoidant attachment (~23%): a child who has avoidant attachment does not seek their caregiver out when they are upset. When the child is emotionally dysregulated, they tend to go inward and avoid the caregiver and brush off any attempts to draw them out of their shell.
- Disorganized attachment (~1%): a child who has disorganized attachment does not rely on their caregiver for any reliable care. When the child is emotionally dysregulated, they may exhibit ambivalent or avoidant attachment patterns, but it is inconsistent, and they are rarely (if ever) soothed by their caregiver.
Many parents who complain that they hate their teenager are facing a child who is not securely attached.
Luckily, parents can usually improve their parent-child attachment. It takes effort and help. But working on yourself may be the best way to stop hating your teenager.
Teenage attachment problems
Insecurely attached teens don’t believe their parents understand who they really are. This means that we lose authority. Because if we don’t know who they are, how can we tell them what to do?
This is why insecurely attached children are harder to parent in every way.
Our requests quickly escalate to demands, punishments, threats, begging and nagging, but it doesn’t seem to make a difference: our teens won’t do what we ask them to do. This is annoying and infuriating. But doubling down on our attempts to control our teens rarely improves the situation. Instead, we need to build our authority by building our attachment.
Less secure people often lag when it comes to emotional maturity. When a parent is less secure, this can cause them to parent their children with less security. And remember, it doesn’t mean a lack of love. Almost all parents love their children and want what’s best for them. But if you have a less secure attachment style, then your child may struggle. Luckily, parents can become more emotionally mature by working with a professional.
Likewise, if your teen is less secure, they will be emotionally immature. You may see this in their behavior. One minute they are a balanced almost-adult. The next minute they are throwing a toddler-level tantrum because you asked them to take out the trash.
This may seem like a problem with the teen. And if your teen is willing to see a professional, they may gain emotional maturity that way. But parents can also help their kids become emotionally mature by building a more secure parent-child relationship.
In fact, parents can make a huge impact on their kids’ security and emotional maturity if they (the parent) attend therapy even if the child never does!
We must build attachment with our teens
Our insecurely attached teenagers are at higher risk of dangerous behaviors like drinking, antisocial behavior, eating disorders, and more. They are also awful to parent. Insecure attachment creates a self-perpetuating doom-loop in which we become further and further apart from each other. We must actively build a more secure attachment with difficult teens. Of course, this is easier said than done.
Difficult teens will tell us they don’t want us “interfering” in their lives. But that doesn’t mean that we should go back to moping in a separate room, feeling sorry for ourselves. Nor should we start thinking our kids don’t love us and need us. They do.
It’s tempting, but it won’t help to blame our teens for being ungrateful brats who don’t appreciate everything we have given them.
Instead, we may improve our experience of our kids if we can build a more secure attachment with them. We cannot force attachment, but we can establish basic systems that will be likely to build parent-child attachment. It will take time, it will be hard, but it will be very worth the effort.
How parents can rebuild a relationship with a teen
1. Be together
Find ways to increase physical proximity. Insist upon time spent physically together in the same room every day. A great way to do this is family meals. If you’re new to this and all you can do is ask everyone to be in the same room on separate devices for an hour each night, let that be your starting point.
Over time, you can find ways to be physically together for longer periods of time to build secure attachment. Plan activities on weekends and vacations to encourage physical proximity.
A parent’s physical touch can be very soothing for most children. But if it’s been a long time since you touched your child, tread very carefully here. See what happens if you gently brush the top of their hand while talking, or lightly bump shoulders while walking.
Pay attention to your child’s feeedback. If they draw away from you when you attempt to touch them, don’t push it or confront them. Never coerce them into physical affection or make them feel bad if they’re not ready for it. Just take it very slowly, and follow their cues while looking for opportunities to connect.
Don’t rush physical touch if it’s currently missing from your relationship, but do make an effort to slowly and consistently see if there are ways you can physically show your affection
2. Do things together
Parents should find ways to connect with their children over shared interests. It’s OK if it seems like you have absolutely nothing in common right now. You can develop new interests or reframe your kids’ interests so that they become more compelling for you.
Start by picking something your child cares about. For example, if your child is passionate about a sport, you could ask them to tell you about it. Let them be the authority and show you their passion and excitement. You don’t have to love the sport yourself, but can you find a way to love your child’s passion for the sport? Start there.
If things go well, plan outings to watch the sport live. Or just plan dates to watch it at home together on TV. The main point is that you are going to “show up” to participate in your child’s interests.
If your child enjoys video games, play together. If you have an animal-lover, volunteer at a shelter together. Listen to your child’s favorite music group. Let them teach you the latest TikTok dance. No, your teen may not want to do this. Yes, you should do it anyway.
The act of doing something together is very powerful attachment bonding. If you can’t participate in their passion, do mundane things together. Walk the dog together, cook together, color together, volunteer together, or go to yoga together. Just find ways to share projects and activities.
3. Talk about feelings
Most of us want to quickly soothe our kids with statements like “you’re OK,” “don’t cry,” and “but I thought you would like this!” Or, if we’re angry “stop that right now!” and “I can’t believe you would do that to me!” This leads kids to shut down their emotional expressions.
To build attachment, parents need to learn how to provide complete emotional acceptance of their children’s emotions. Almost nothing is as important to your teen as feeling heard, understood, and accepted by you.
When your child complains, yells, whines, stonewalls, or otherwise throws an emotional tantrum, acknowledge the feelings and emotions taking place. Let them exist without trying to change them. Work on understanding the breadth and depth of the feelings. Talk about the experience. Don’t give advice right now. Listen more than you speak. Just stay in the moment, with the feelings in real-time. Trust that your teen will get through these feelings safely.
It may be scary, especially in the beginning. Until you build a more secure attachment, your child’s emotions are going to feel overwhelming. Your teenager is going to test your love by acting out. As in: you say you love me, but can you handle all of me? Practice showing your child that you absolutely can and will handle all of their feelings.
Remember that expressed feelings, even horrible ones, are feelings, not facts. Often, once we accept and even welcome our teens’ raw feelings, they begin to trust that we can handle them. This, paradoxically, means that the feelings become less intense over time. In this way, we are providing a critical ballast to our teens as they navigate the rough seas of adolescence.
You don’t have to hate your teenager
It may seem impossible, but you don’t have to hate your teenager. You don’t have to white-knuckle your way through adolescence. More importantly, if you build a more secure attachment, you will find that life is much easier. Read more here: Why is my child emotionally withdrawn from me?
Ginny Jones is the editor of More-Love.org. She writes about parenting, body image, disordered eating, and eating disorders. Ginny is also a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.
Helpful book: Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers, by Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Mate.