At Empowering Parents, we often hear from parents who feel frustrated at their teenager’s bad attitude and irresponsible behavior. Whether it’s doing well in school or keeping a job, some kids just don’t seem to care.
And many teens have what James Lehman, creator of The Total Transformation® child behavior program, calls a “dreamer” mentality. These dreamers believe that an exciting, high paying job will simply land in their laps. Therefore, good grades or a less-than-perfect job is seen as unnecessary.
The danger is that kids use this fantasy to justify ignoring their responsibilities. And parents get frustrated when they try to talk sense into a child who just won’t listen to reason. What kind of life will their child have if they can’t even listen to reason? If they can’t take life more seriously?
But your child may not be mature enough or willing to take this adult point of view. Which is why their attitude should not be your primary concern. Here’s what you should do instead.
My friend Erica describes what happened with her teenage son last year:
“Our 17-year-old has the worst attitude about school. He refuses to do any homework and says it’s stupid. He complains that it doesn’t have anything to do with the real world and that he doesn’t even need to go to school to get a good job. Instead, all he has to do is get ‘really good at video games’ because he believes he can get a high paying job ‘testing’ them without graduating from high school. When I tell him I don’t think this is going to happen, he rolls his eyes, looks at the ceiling, and lets out a big, over-dramatic sigh. He behaves as if I don’t understand what life is like today.”
Any attempt Erica makes to talk with him about school, getting a regular job, or even about concrete steps he might take to get one of those game testing jobs is met with the “adults don’t know anything” attitude.
“He has such a false sense of entitlement and a complete misunderstanding of reality. He has this idea that life is going to be so easy – no work, no schedules, no need to do anything he doesn’t want to. It drives me crazy to see him wasting his time when he should be focusing on school so that he can get into college and get a real job. His attitude is: ‘Why should I? I’m better than other people.’ How can I change his attitude and make him see reality?”
If you are in the thick of this kind of power struggle with your teen, you are probably lecturing your child about the importance of hard work, responsibility, and a good attitude. And it probably isn’t working.
Here’s the truth: you can’t make your child have a better attitude. It can’t be forced. Your child’s attitude is up to your child. No matter how great, or how based in reality your argument is, you can’t force your child to think about the world the way that you do. You can’t make her adopt your experiences and your perspective.
Teens will naturally have an apathetic or dismissive attitude about anything other than what immediately interests them. And when you focus on trying to change your child’s attitude, you’re setting yourself up for frustration.
Indeed, it’s a mistake to try to change your child’s attitude. It will only backfire. Instead, just focus on what you can control, and that’s to hold your child accountable for his or her responsibilities.
To be an empowered parent, you need to learn to ignore the apathetic, all-knowing attitude of your child and, instead, focus on your child’s behavior. Let your child know what is expected of him in your home, your rules, and the consequences if he doesn’t comply with the rules.
For example, if your middle school child says, “I hate English! Why should I do my homework—this is stupid!” You can say:
“I know you think your English assignment is stupid. You don’t have to like it, but you do need to finish it. You know the rules. No access to any electronics until your homework is completed.”
You will find that as your child’s behavior improves that his attitude will improve along with it.
Don’t try to force your child to “want” to have good grades. Or to “want” to get a job. You simply can’t get your child to want something he doesn’t want. There are things you can do to influence him, though.
For example, if you pay for all your child’s expenses (phone, car, and entertainment) then he may not want a job. After all, he doesn’t need the money. But, when his entertainment funds are cut off, he may suddenly want that job after all, especially if he wants to have money to go out with his friends.
Whether he learns to like his job is unimportant at this point. The important thing is that he figures out that he needs to work to afford the things he wants.
As a parent, your best bet is to help your child learn the skills he needs to make his way in the world. Those skills are the same even if your child wants to do something you think is highly unlikely.
You never know, maybe your child will get a job as a video game tester. You don’t need to convince him that you are right and he is wrong.
Instead, focus on the behavior you would like to see change and ignore the attitude. Focus on getting your teen to meet his responsibilities in the here and now—homework, chores, curfew. Once he leaves your house, he is free to use the skills you’ve helped him learn.
For my friend Erica, change came when she and her husband told their son:
“You don’t have to like school. You don’t even need to agree with our version of reality. But you do need to comply with our rules while you’re living here. That means doing your homework, making decent grades, and getting a part-time job.”
They also assured their son that if he refused to comply with the house rules, he would experience consequences. To get things started, they told him he could not drive the family car until he’d filled out and dropped off three job applications.
Within a month, he’d taken a job at a local fast-food restaurant. Although he still insists that the adults don’t know anything, his parents feel much less helpless.
Remember, there’s a pay-out for focusing on your kid’s behavior and not his attitude: you’ll be teaching them one of the greatest lessons of all—how to be accountable in the real world.
Motivating Underachievers: 9 Steps to Take When Your Child Says “I Don’t Care”
Megan Devine is a licensed clinical therapist, former Empowering Parents Parent Coach, speaker and writer. She is also the bonus-parent to a successfully launched young man. You can find more of her work at refugeingrief.com, where she advocates for new ways to live with grief.
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I believe kids today need mentors and other adults that really believe in them. A lot of parents are working, and kids don’t always get to have life conversations with them.
I was lucky because my dad was a firefighter, so he had every other day off and would be at home. I remember my brother and I being able to talk to him about stuff like peer pressure, sticking up for other kids, bullying, and other life things… even the birds and the bees (that was an awkward conversation!).
If kids have a couple extra adults in their life that can mentor them and believe in them, I think they will avoid bad decisions and they will have a much better chance to succeed.
And if you’re a busy parent or a single parent, even just a 5 minute conversation about life skills could make a huge difference.
Reading this even though I'm 14... Wow, some parents have it hard huh... I mean, even I know you can't just get a high-paying job without the needed knowledge to do certain things.
To be a game tester, I'm thinking technology skills are what's mostly needed. Teenagers have those skills since it's from their time, but I think a company would appreciate proof that they know their stuff. Like a diploma, perhaps?
I, like many teens, don't like school. But I know it's still necessary. Personally, I'm thinking of taking psychology when I go to college. It's interesting to know how people work and think.
My boyfriend's son is 16 (actually turning 17 today) and got into trouble back in August for texting and driving and wrecking his truck, lying about how that happened and then lying about where he was. He got off moderately easy, I think, as he had the truck taken away for two weeks and his phone was blocked for use at certain times. The son was not happy about his punishment. His mom did not help as she allowed his girlfriend to come over during his punishment. His girlfriend, who is a year older than he is, sent him a text message where she told him that her mom could come get him from his dad's (mom and dad have 50/50 custody) and he could file a restraining order. Well, after being allowed to go to homecoming (which was during his punishment) and even taking some pics with his dad and the girlfriend, he goes and has his mom file a retraining order against his dad. Luckily the judge saw right through what he was trying to do and told the son that what he was doing was serious business. This is the son that traveled this past summer (prior to the girlfriend) all over the country with his dad. He had his first airline flight to Chicago to visit his dad over Father's Day (his dad was delivering boats there) and traveled there thru the Dakotas, Montana and Colorado and back to Georgia.
Now, however, even though the judge dismissed the restraining order, the son will not have anything to do with his dad, did not contact his dad on his birthday, has stated he does not want birthday presents or christmas gifts from his dad or any of the family and basically has free reign to do as he pleases since he is living with his mother. We are at a loss as to what to do and my boyfriend his pretty devastated. None of this makes any sense and sadly it all seemed to start when school started back in August and he started seeing the girl again. He had dated the girl previously and she had told him that she didn't want to see him anymore because she thought she might be bisexual. Totally devastated the son at the time. Now she has her hooks back in him. This same girlfriend who the mom despised previously, now just loves her to death.
What does a person do?
RebeccaW_ParentalSupport MissyB5 Thank you so much for your response. Unfortunately, his son gave the phone we were letting him use back to us and now has another phone number which no one will give to us. His mother said it is up to their son to make contact and she will not provide the number. We have requested counseling, but his son will not hear of it and, as I said, the mother is not helping in this regard at all. When the son pulled this same stunt on his mother not even a year ago (he didn't file a restraining order, just did not want contact with his mom nor did he want to stay with her but instead stayed with his father for a 3 month period) we made sure he kept in touch with her and encouraged him to see her. She is not doing so in this instance. The only contact we have with him is through the mother and she only allows us to text. She will not meet the father in person nor will she talk to him on the phone. The only thing we have been able to figure is that we just have to wait it out. This is the 2nd time (within a 3 year period) the son and the mother has filed a restraining order against the father, both of which were thrown out by the judge for lack of evidence. There has been no physical abuse, corporal punishment (he had not had a spanking since he was 5 years old), no endangerment and no verbal abuse; the only thing has been restriction, grounding and lectures. The father is the disciplinarian and has been asked on numerous occasions to "straighten our son out" because he was being disrespectful and talking back to his mother. At no time has the father disrespected or talked bad about the mother in front of the son. In fact, it is the opposite. He has made sure she has a gift from the son for birthdays, mother's day, and Christmas.
It is a repeated pattern in the family of using the court system to get what they want. Back when my boyfriend was married to the mother, her daughter (who my boyfriend had raised from infancy but he is not the biological father) continuously played the grandparents against her parents -- filing restraining orders and custody documents on four separate occasions. It is unfortunate, but anytime anything happens to anyone in that family it ends up in a lawsuit that eventually is thrown out.
It is very disheartening as we all had been discussing his preparation for college and all things he needed to complete his transcript. He is a straight A student who is in the theatre. Fortunately for us, his theatrics helped us in court. We were in the process of scheduling college visits and getting him ready for the SAT -- all of which he was involved in and seemed excited about up and until he filed the restraining order.
I guess we will just wait and see when and if he will be willing to talk to us. I figure it will happen close to the time school will be out for the summer as his girlfriend is a senior and will be graduating and, as she did before, she will not want to have anything tying her down and will dump him. I am not blaming it on her but after all the trips -- one of those was two weeks prior and was a trip to Delaware and Virginia Beach for all three of us and we had a great time -- it just seems a little too convenient that all of this started happening after they got back in school and he started seeing her again. I have read the text messages between the two of them and both made derogatory statements against my boyfriend, even when the father was buying the son some clothes. They called him fat, made reference to his fat jowls trying to spit out words, and stated that my boyfriend was trying to buy him, etc. All very horrible! I did not tell my boyfriend as this would crush him. I did, however, tell the son before the restraining order that he was spoiled and disrespectful of his father and that he should never say stuff about him like that; that there are hundreds of kids out there that wished there father bought them things and spent time with them. I do enough volunteering to know this for a fact.
Thanks for listening.
I have a 13 yo daughter who is extremely disrespectful to my husband, her younger sister and myself. We can barely get along with her and her and her sister barely speak. She is always trying to control the household and everyone in it. She brings us to the brink of wanting to literally beat the crap out of her. We take things away & ground her but it does not have any effect on her at all. She is very narcissistic and blames all of her problems and behavioral issues on us. On a daily basis she calls me a DumbF***, my husband an A$$hole, tells us that she behaves that way because we are bad parents and if we were different, she would be different. Her room is a total mess and despite repeated efforts to clean it she continues to blame me. I have stopped washing her clothes and instead bought each of my girls their own laundry basket. They keep it in their rooms and when the basket is filled, they are suppose to wash their clothes. That way if anything is missing, they can't blame anybody but themselves. Well, my younger daughter is really good about keeping up with her clothes but, my older one has not washed clothes in almost 2 weeks and constantly blames me for missing items and tells me that I'm a fat old dumbf*** bitch that is too lazy to do clothes.
I'm ready to walk away from everything!!!
Please, someone help me!!
I’m so sorry to hear about the challenges you are facing with your
daughter, and I hear how frustrated and overwhelmed you are feeling right now.This is a common response to being verbally
abused on a regular basis.As we often
say here, there is no excuse for abuse, and I encourage you to create a plan
for how you can effectively respond to your daughter moving forward.You might find some helpful information in
James Lehman’s series on verbal abuse, which starts with https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/kids-who-are-verbally-abusive-part-1-the-creation-of-a-defiant-child/.In addition, I encourage you to include in
your plan how you can stay calm in the midst of your daughter’s attacks.Dr. Joan outlines some tips in https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/losing-your-temper-with-your-child-8-steps-to-help-you-stay-in-control/.I recognize how difficult this must be for
you and your family, and I wish you all the best moving forward.Take care.
We hear from many
parents who are concerned about the behavior and attitude changes they witness
in their teenagers, so you are not alone. The truth is, this stage of
development brings many new problems which teens do not know how to solve
effectively, so they turn to faulty methods such as lying and avoiding
responsibilities instead. The good news is, it’s never too late to
learn! You might find some ideas on how to get started with your son in
our article, https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/good-behavior-is-not-magic-its-a-skill-the-3-skills-every-child-needs-for-good-behavior/. Please be sure to let us know if you have additional
questions. Take care.
This is a common
pattern for many kids and their families, so you are not alone. After
all, when things become harder, the temptation can be very strong to quit
rather than persevere through the challenges your son might be facing. In
addition, kids often engage in “wishful thinking” and believe that they will be
able to learn complex skills quickly and easily, and then become disappointed
when that doesn’t happen. Something that can be helpful is to talk with
your son during a calm time about the challenges he faces when playing sports,
and what he might be able to do differently instead of quitting or giving
up. Sara Bean outlines more helpful strategies in her article, https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/does-your-child-rely-on-wishful-thinking-how-to-motivate-him-toward-attainable-goals/. Please be sure to write back and let us know how things are
going for you and your son. Take care.
It can be very
challenging when it feels like one child is controlling the rest of the house,
and I’m glad that you’re reaching out for support. As Kim Abraham and
Marney Studaker-Cordner point out in their article, https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/your-defiant-childs-behavior-5-things-you-can-and-cant-control-as-a-parent/,
while you cannot control your son’s actions or refusal to comply with
directions, you can control how you respond to him. At this point, it
might be helpful to plan what you can do if your son is refusing to leave the
house. For example, it might be asking a friend or a neighbor to come
over to your house so you can go, or plan ahead to https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/which-consequence-should-i-give-my-child-how-to-create-a-list-of-consequences-for-children/ if he is ready to leave on time. Thank you for
writing in; take care.
for writing in with your question. It sounds like there are a couple different
issues going on with your daughter- excessive use of the phone, and cursing or
verbally abusing others. I would suggest establishing clear rules around each
behavior, and holding her accountable with a consequence when the rule is
broken. Using parental controls to put time limits on the phone can be a good
way to limit her use, and it is quite normal that she will be unhappy with
those limits. Withholding electronics when the verbal abuse happens is a great
idea, however, to keep her motivated to change, she will need a way to earn
them back. James Lehman talks about time- and task-oriented consequences in his
article, https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/how-to-give-kids-consequences-that-work/. Let us know if you have any more
I have a 18 year old son. He always think that we are not fair when it comes to him. He got jealous with his 2 siblings. What is the best way to treat this kind of attitude? Pls . help.
It can be quite
frustrating when your child insists that you are not being fair, or that his
siblings are treated more favorably than him. This is also quite common,
as sibling rivalry and jealousy occurs in almost every family which has more
than one child. One strategy which we often recommend in this type of
situation is to stay focused on your son’s behavior and choices, rather than
trying to justify or defend your actions with his siblings. You might
find more helpful techniques in one of our articles on sibling rivalry, such as
https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/sibling-rivalry-good-kid-vs-bad-kid/. Please let us know if you have any
I hear how
challenging this decision is for you and your family, and I appreciate your
reaching out for support. It’s quite common for your son to want to
follow his friends, and attend school with them. I also hear how much you
value your son’s education, and want to set him up for future success.
Something you might try is having a conversation with your son during a calm
time to get more information from him, as Janet Lehman outlines in https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/parenting-rules-and-expectations-but-everyone-else-is-doing-it/ You might
also consider talking with teachers and/or administrators at the public high
school to get more factual information about their coursework and structure,
rather than going by reputation. Ultimately, the decision about where
your son should attend school is yours. Please be sure to write back and
let us know how things are going. Take care.
sounds like you are dealing with a lot right now, between your children’s
behavior and caring for your husband and your mom. I encourage you to make sure
that you are taking care of yourself and getting the support you need.
Self-care is an important part of being an effective parent and addressing the
behavior you are seeing with your kids. You might find the
information included in the article, https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/sandwich-generation-stress-6-ways-to-cope-while-raising-kids-and-caring-for-elderly-parents/, useful as you move forward. For information on available
support in your local area, try contacting http://www.familylives.org.uk/at 0808 800 2222.
I wish you and your family all the best as you continue to move forward; take
I am the stepmother of 15 years old girl, life is been hill so far as I am thinking of divorce from a man that I truly love and respect. she totally disrespect me all the time.
her mother passed away due to cancer and I feel so sorry for that, I felt I am a superwoman and I can help him raising 2 girls. she lies all the time angry
at everything, disrespect everyone around her even her own dad. Should I walk away from all of this? I really love him but my health now is going down because of her. Every day we have drama with her.
Can anyone help? I tried to be her friend but nothing is working. when she need something she will be all goody goody with me, once its done I face the other side with no warning.
I hear you. Parenting a teen can feel like an uphill battle.
I’m not in a position to tell you whether or not you should leave your husband.
That’s really a choice only you can make. It might be helpful to find a
counselor or therapist you can talk with about the issues you are dealing with
and the choices you are facing. Sometimes, having a neutral third party you can
talk to can help you decide what is going to be the best option for you moving
forward. The 211 Helpline would be able to give you information on counseling
services in your area. You can reach the Helpline 24 hours a day by calling
1-800-273-6222 or by going online to http://www.211.org/.
I wish you the best of luck moving forward. Take care.
You’re absolutely correct. It would be more effective if you
and your husband were on the same page when giving consequences. As James
Lehman explains in the article https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/differences-in-parenting-how-your-child-may-be-using-it-against-you/, when kids
recognize that parents aren’t on the same page, they will often try to use this
to their advantage. It may be beneficial to sit down at a time when it’s
just the two of you to talk about the expectations you each have. Perhaps you
could pick one behavior you both can agree needs to be addressed, such as
meeting curfew or completing homework. You could also discuss possible
consequences you think could be effective. If coming to agreement on this
proves to be too difficult, you might have to settle for not disagreeing in
front of your daughter. Even that small of a change can be an effective start.
Best of luck to you and your family moving forward. Take care.
I’m sorry to hear about everything that has been going on
with you and your son, and the resulting stress and health problems you have
experienced. Ultimately, the decision about whether to allow him to come
back to your home is going to be yours, and I encourage you to work with local
resources about all your options so you can make an informed decision. If
he does come back to your home, it might be helpful to outline rules,
expectations and consequences before he returns. You can download our https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/ground-rules-for-living-with-an-adult-child-plus-free-living-agreement/ as a template for this discussion. I understand how
difficult this is for you, and I wish you all the best moving forward.