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.
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.