Dealing with teenage negativity. Tips please!

Easton will turn 13 next month, and in perfect timing, he is beginning to act like a teenager. Suddenly, it seems that I can’t do anything right, and he feels compelled to complain about everything: The specific t-shirt he wants to wear isn’t clean. We’re not leaving on time; we’ll definitely be late. The music in the car is too loud. He no longer likes the Tom Odell album (when he loved it last week, I swear!). The snack I’ve brought is not good enough. The waves in the ocean aren’t big enough. I didn’t bring the right surf board for him. Or the right swimsuit!  He doesn’t want to go out for dinner — he’d rather go home and read. (Coincidentally, I read this book to Marlow the other day, and I had to laugh because it sometimes feels like I’m dealing with the teenage version of this boy!)

Of course he’s a super charming, charismatic, and polite boy…. and it’s mostly just his parents who are on the receiving end of this negativity… but honestly, it can be so exhausting!  I know we’re only at the beginning of this new teenage phase and we probably have another few years of this, so I am eager to learn how best to respond to him so that I don’t add fuel to the fire and so we can navigate this new phase with humour and understanding.

Does anyone else have a similar situation with your teenagers? Any tips for how to respond when you feel you can’t do anything right?

I was speaking to a friend recently and she gave me a tip that I found super helpful. She explained that the teenage brain is developing at such a quick rate, leaving the ‘wiring’ and functionality temporarily defunct. It’s not just hormones at play in the teenage brain, but rather the fact that the neurological wiring of the brain is unsettled as it adjusts to the growth.  She asked me to try to see my teenager in the same light I see my toddler. When your toddler is cranky, you don’t get mad at your toddler, you try to figure out why he’s cranky. Maybe he’s tired, maybe he’s hungry, maybe he’s been in the car too long and he is restless.  When your teenager gets cranky, instead of getting frustrated because you think he’s old enough to know better, we should remind ourselves to be understanding. Maybe he’s tired or hungry or feeling stressed at school or he has sat in a classroom all day and is feeling restless.  We have patience for our toddler because we know they are little and they don’t understand how to communicate everything and their brains aren’t developed enough.  When our teenagers act out, we should remind ourselves that their brains are equally undeveloped. We should try to find the same understanding for them as we would for our toddler.  Isn’t that interesting? Doesn’t it make a lot of sense?

Coincidentally, I have both a toddler and a teenager, so I’m dealing with two different developing brains at the same time (send help!). But I guess, it allows me to see them both in a similar light, and I’m trying to have just as much patience for Easton as I do for Wilkie.

If you have any other tips for navigating this teenage phase, I’d love to hear them. And feel free to share your experiences below.

Courtney x

p.s. Tips for when your teenager challenges you.  And a tip for saying no.


Comments (45)

Laura from Germany
May 8, 2018

Our boy is 12 and sometimes we have the same problems like you described. I always try to be calm, but sometimes it is enough, and we all are getting crazy :D. Usually when he complains about his clothes about the food about the sport shirt I packed for him, next time he has to do it on his own. So he can get what he thinks is right, so if he thinks shorts may be appropriate for soccer in cold spring it is his problem. The same with food, or cleaning his room. Sometimes when there is no time for him to do this tasks I do it for him. But normally it is the rule when you are complaining about something which isn´t done right, you have to do it and mostly he realises, not everything is so easy like he thinks.
And I think the most important rule is stay calm and relax. 😀 There definitely coming bether times.

May 8, 2018

Definitely be understanding and go with the flow, accepting each situation as it is, not fighting against it. I meditate more since having an almost teenager in the house, for me it makes all the difference so I can just stay calm and understanding when seemingly annoying situations arise! Meditation is the answer. At our school they also teach the kids mindfulness practices, but not sure if that resonates with every teenage boy, haha.

May 8, 2018

Thank you for your great post . Really valid comments and so easy not to know how to handle this phase. No where near as much written about it as toddler phase I think!! Look forward to more tips! How about a shop up that includes older kids things too ! Xx

May 8, 2018

oh i cannot wait to read the comments in this post. i like the advice of your friend but it’s challenging just as marcelo is clearly calling me to treat him as the ‘big boy’ he is becoming. Not 13 yet, but full on 12 and seems to be unhappy most of the time which really makes me sad… wish i could send him to some waves with easton once in a while .. xx

May 8, 2018

Great post and great idea to think
Of it like a toddler. I was the worst teenager and my mother just ignored me which definitely made it harder!!!! Xxx

May 8, 2018

Hi Courtney, I have a ten year old and a fourteen year old, and with both I notice a rising capacity for dissatisfaction and unhappiness. I can find it very challenging! Firstly, I agree that they are changing so rapidly at this point that it is very hard for them to feel centred or grounded. I tend to focus hugely on diet, exercise and plenty of sleep, and make sure they are getting their needs met. Other than that, we constantly have open discussions about how I feel about it, how they feel, what their bodies and brains are going through, and also to regularly show them TED Talks or other inspirational short films which highlights just how blessed we are with all our privilege and opportunity. I find this incredibly powerful in shifting their mindset, and re-energising their outlook. Of course I make sure not to share with them in a way that is judging of them, but rather just sharing a different perspective that facilitates a retraining and recalibration of these increasingly negative patterns that are developing. Sometimes that’s all any of us need.

Rebekka Cuhls
May 8, 2018

Great post! My friend with a teenager recently commented, that one should see the teenager’s brain as a giant construction site as old synapses are cut off and new ones are built constantly. Good luck and much patience for you!! xxx

Courtney in Australia
May 9, 2018

Such a good analogy! x

May 8, 2018

We have the same issues, with 5 kiddos (boys 14 y and 11 y, girl 7 y and boys 2 y and 3 months). What we try to do is to give him (the 14 year old) more responsibility for his own things. Like, if he would be unhappy with the surf board or snack you brought – well, then he needs to bring the right one himself next time. And then we (the parents) need to remember to remind him before the next trip. This will give him an understanding of the work you are actually doing for him, but more importantly this will make him more independent. Also, the clean clothes issue is typical. Such a simple example, but I think this describes the independence really well. So if he had planned to use that t shirt and it’s still not washed, well then he needs to plan more ahead so you could have the time to fix it. As teenagers their brains are in rapid development and our job as parents is to make them to (eventually) do everything for them self (including make their own school lunch, fix their clean clothes into their closets etc). I also find it helpful to be extra friendly with him, that way I won’t get into an argument (I often need to count to ten and breathe sloooowly to avoid that).. haha. I recently read some research about how teenagers don’t get enough hugs (like really warm, loving touch from their parents) and that going from feeling super loved as a child to having a lot of arguments in the family as a teenager makes them feel sad and not as important member of the family as they used to be/feel. Also, the study said that “the next time they will feel so loved as they felt as a child is when they as adults get in a deep relationship”. This really got
me like 😭😭😭😭 and made me aware of the importance of giving him warm hugs and telling him how important he is to us each day.

May 8, 2018

As a cognitive psychologist I can confirm that your friend is right but being understanding and considerate probably need to come in different forms than with a toddler, because the teenager will want to feel heard and is partly seeking conflict in the safe environment of the home to prepare him for conflict situations ‘in real life’!

May 8, 2018

First of all great post. I am not yet dealing with a teenager boy but with a toddler which as you said is almost the same. I am currently though teaching English to a twelve year old girl and I found very useful all the inspirational videos (Ted talks and short animations) and communication is the key. I also think is very important because they start appreciating what they have.

May 8, 2018

I have a 14 year old boy and he quite literally turned into a teenager overnight when he had his 13th birthday. He went from playing with lego and not really caring about his clothes, to wanting to be with the ‘cool’ kids and wanting to wear big name brands which I won’t pay for. I found this rapid change really difficult to cope with at first, and it wasn’t helped by the fact that he got his first phone, although not the all singing all dancing ones many of his friends have as I am constantly reminded! It broke to heart to suddenly ‘lose’ the child that I had, and gain this ‘man child’ who I really didn’t recognise quite a lot of the time. I’ve come to terms with these massive change now (it took a while!), and am excited for the future he has ahead of him (if we get there in one piece!). This is the start of gradually letting him become his own person with a life separate from his family. I’d said to friends in similar circumstances that teenagers are like toddlers but with more words, so it was very interesting to read your blog post and has given me a boost thinking that maybe I am trying to handle it in the right way each day at a time.

Courtney in Australia
May 9, 2018

Paula, thanks so much for sharing. I so agree with you about how quickly the change from child to teenager took place. It also feels like we lost our little boy overnight! But like you said, it’s exciting to think about the future and the man he will become. x

May 8, 2018

I’m not into the teenage years yet with my own children but one of my parents’ approaches was to give me more responsibilities. When I complained about putting away laundry, I was taught how to do laundry independently and was responsible for all my own laundry. Oddly enough, this never felt like a punishment. Just as a toddler seeks control and mastery, I think your analogy to a teenage holds up and that is what they are seeking too. Another example from my parents, that I just wrote about was giving me more financial responsibility with a yearly allowance: https://medium.com/@allisongryski/a-yearly-allowance-teaching-financial-literacy-to-your-teenager-2887ec819ee5

May 8, 2018


I really enjoyed this article. Don’t be afraid to stay close and hold on, but just do it in a silent “fig tree” type of way 😉

Courtney in Australia
May 9, 2018

Thank you, Chelsey, for sharing that article. Super interesting! x

May 8, 2018

I don’t have teenagers, I have littles, but in the same way toddlers ache for increased independence, I think teenagers do also. Perhaps you could alleviate some of the parent-directed negativity by increasing responsibility in appropriate ways. For example, when you go surfing, it is now entirely on him to prepare himself. He is responsible for his board, his clothing, his sunscreen, his snack, etc. If he asks for help, give it but ask that he be specific in his request for help. Perhaps increasing his responsibility in like this will help him stretch his legs, metaphorically, and might alleviate some parent-directed negativity. Also, I don’t think it’s out of bounds for you to gently ask him to speak to you with compassion and understanding. Just as you give leeway for him to make mistakes, he is old enough to begin returning the favor. You are the parent, but you are still a human, prone to mistakes, exhaustion, feelings of your own, etc.

Courtney in Australia
May 9, 2018

Thank you so much for your comment, Angela. I agree it’s good to remind him (gently) to speak to me with compassion. And yes, I agree — I need to start getting him to pack his own swimsuit and surfboard. That’s a really good tip! x

Jenny D
May 8, 2018

I find when they’re cranky or rude there’s usually a reason. And they’re after either communication or attention. I’ll say something like ‘Ooh, you’re a bit cranky today, what’s going on?’ If you’re lucky and your boy can communicate you’ll probably learn that he’s feeling insecure, or that there’s a social problem or that he’s feeling envious of friends, or feels frustrated about a situation . Or scared or all of the above. Not overreacting is the best approach… And getting them to self-analyse is really useful, so they’re not so scared of all the emotions driving them crazy!

Courtney in Australia
May 9, 2018

This is such good advice, thank you!
The other morning before dropping him off for a week-long camp, he was so cranky with me for making a ‘healthy’ snack when he was sure every other parent would bring brownies and cakes. And he was so stressed about getting there on time, and so cranky about everything… and it wasn’t until after we dropped him off that I realised he was probably just feeling a bit scared about going away for so long and anxious about the new experience, and I’m sure this was why he was being so negative that morning. Good to get them to self-analyse like you said. x

May 8, 2018

Dear Courtney, dear all,
Sometimes I think that we mamas always think it’s all about us, about the relationship between us and our children (or better, our no more children). But I believe they now have wider perspectives. There are so many new relationships they have, and new kind of them. And I think it’s just like in the picture you shared: our teens look at this new world like they look at the ocean: it’s so attractive, so emotional, so challenging, so seductive, so “mine”. It’s their world. So why not try to take a step back, and watch
them with love, admiration and emotion? (and of course, never stop saying them all the no they need)

thank you for everything, Courtney
with so much love

(and sorry for my very poor english)

May 9, 2018

We have a tween behaving in a similar way at the moment and I am just starting to really notice the way it can affect our entire family.
To a certain extent it seems they are destined to turn into grumbly scowling monsters at this age, and it is the way we choose to respond that makes it either bearable, or not!
We have made a couple of adjustments though, and it definitely seems to have helped.
The first change was to keep a positive tone with him no matter what he was saying to us, which really goes against that instinct to just fire back. It also reduces the impact of his negativity on his siblings, as they can hear us continuing on in an upbeat way.
Another thing we are trying is more independence and more privileges. If we acknowledge him in this way he seems to meet it with respect as he knows he will lose these if he tests the boundaries. Letting him stay up later than his siblings for example, somehow makes him feel like he can relate to us on a more adult level.
We are also receiving a lot of very dramatic criticism for things like not having his favourite t-shirt clean, we figure this is a really great time to introduce him to a few new responsibilities!

Courtney in Australia
May 9, 2018

Haha, yes! Maybe it’s time for him to start doing his own laundry. 🙂 Thanks for your comment. It’s reassuring to know it’s not just my teen behaving like this. And I like your suggestion for trying to always have a positive tone. I agree it is better for the entire family. xx

Anna ( in Colorado :) )
May 9, 2018

Thank you for this vulnerable post! I think one thing to remember (although I totally agree with other comments that you should ask for civility) is the teenage years are all about defining yourself among your peers not your parents. Part of this attitude may be him pulling himself away. Ultimately, it’s what we all want…for our children to find their way in the world and find their own place in it but it’s hard during these years when that role feels like it happens in opposition to their parents. Yet a lot of this is normal. Sending you the best wishes!

May 9, 2018

Wendy Mogel is the best. I recommend Blessing of a B- and her new book Voices on how to talk to your boys (and girls).

May 9, 2018

Love all these comments. I think one thing is missing is the consideration of how Easton feels about the change. It’s very developmentally normal for teenagers to go through a drive for independence, so much so that’s its likely written into our genes. But this doesn’t mean that it isn’t confusing for the teen! He may be suprised by his own feelings, and confused as to why his previously idolised parents are now sort of annoying. He might not realise the change is normal and be instead questioning wether he still fits in with the family. I think it would be so helpful to sit down and talk about how he feels about his new found “annoyance”, and work together to come up with ways that you can support eachother through the change! Wishing you all the best xx

Courtney in Australia
May 10, 2018

That is a wonderful suggestion, Megan. Thank you! x

May 9, 2018

Easton is blessed to have parents so mindful of his development! I have yet to enter adolescence with my children but being an early childhood educator I have kept two tips in my mind for that phase. One is as you have said: adolescence is a reflection of the early childhood stage. I have also heard of the healthy detachment from the mother by sons that happens, and along its way, the child may seem not to like you though it’s simply a reflection of their necessary detachment. I would want to investigate this when my son approaches that phase. Lastly, as Haim Ginott so graciously states in his book: “Don’t be a parent, be a human being who is a parent.” This advice takes the personal pressure off for me. xx

May 9, 2018

Hi Courtney, Your friend is right. Their brain is developing. All my daughters go to Montessori school (8.5, 6 and 4) and Maria Montessori wrote so much on different planes childrens brains develop and why and what will work to help them through this phase. If you have time get one of her books or another author who wrote about Montessori. If you are short on time you can also google it. This has helped a lot understand why our children act the way they do and have more patience with them. At least when I’m not exhausted

Sandra Ellegiers
May 11, 2018

Thank you, Courtney, I learned that my son is normal. My 12 year old boy suffers from his moods. Sometimes I take him in my arms, but he rejects. Sometimes I understand that everything like the wrong t-shirt is a big deal and I try to help him. But I think it is part of their growing up to tell them that it is sometimes to much for you as a mother, too. Because we have to help them to find the limits, too. At the end of the day he comes snd says mummy, sorry for making trouble and it is important to make clear it is not that big deal…patience and a lot of humour (of cours, lough nit in front of him).

May 12, 2018

I think my advice, as with toddlers, is to remove teenagers from an everyday situation and give them so dedicated time. Be it one parent, or even both – being taken out of their normal, everyday environment and so create a situation where they don’t have their usual reference points and habits means that they are naturally more open to talk and exchange and generally be more acceptable ;)!

Courtney in Australia
May 14, 2018

Such good advice!
I have also found that when you’re outside of the normal environment — even if you’re just in the car or anywhere outside of the house — they are more receptive to talking to you and listening, even if it’s not something they’re happy to be chatting about. xx

May 15, 2018

I have a 19 and a 15 year old son (and an 8 year old daughter). One of their teachers told me years ago (and I’ve never forgotten), don’t ever stop hugging your boys. Hug them ever day. If you stop – it will become awkward in later years. One of the best pieces of parenting advice I have ever been given xx

Courtney in Australia
May 15, 2018

This is such great advice! I remember being a teenager and watching other children slam the car door on their parents face when they arrived to school, or shrug their parents off when they went to hug them. It seemed unfathomable to me that kids could be so mean to their parents. I guess my parents were always affectionate, so that became the norm over the opposite. We too are affectionate with our kids and I hope they always accept that as normal, like you’ve said. Thanks for your comment! x

May 25, 2018

I just attended a RIE parenting class and the teacher told us that if you have a toddler and a teenager at the same time you have a straight ticket to heaven!

May 26, 2018

I definitely recommend the Whole Brain Child by Daniel Siegel. It will help with ALL your kids! I’ve found it simply amazing. Also, could be time for more independence. Doesn’t like the snack you packed? He’s definitely old enough to pack his own! 🙂 I was SO negative at that age, I remember my parents saying, “Can you try to go one hour without complaining?” I’m so embarrassed about it now!

May 31, 2018

I do not have a tip. I do remember never expressing this part of my teens years to my mother. (In retrospect, I see she was suffering from postpartum issues: depression and severe anxiety, but that’s another story.) She wasn’t a safe person. I shut down and put up walls with her. My even tempered father, I did feel free to share with how very little he knew coupled with various other go to put downs. I suppose I’m just saying I had comfort, admiration and respect for him and well although that season passed with my mother in some ways, the relationship is still suffering.

June 6, 2018

It was at this age that I turned it over to my husband. Our teen sons started to not want to be told to do anything by me and were basically annoyed by me even though we had a wonderful relationship prior to this age. I would keep lists (and talked to my husband privately) about what I wanted him to talk to our sons about. We swapped out the child rearing to him and it was wildly successful. I went from being coach to cheerleader and he got the satisfaction of raising our boys into men. Respecting the emerging “men” is everything. We still had a few hiccups but everything basically smoothed out.

June 6, 2018

And one more…don’t ask them questions unless absolutely necessary. That can feel like prying into their life and pulling on them. We switched to telling them about our day and then sitting quietly giving them space to talk or not. This modeled to them to share their day with us without asking a bunch of questions that they found annoying. No more eye rolling 🙂

June 9, 2018

Such a great topic, especially the topic of brain development and changes through-out teenage years, I wish there was as much information and recognition of that as there is with toddlers and babies. May all of Easton’s teenage problems only be the wrong surf board/swimsuit or a dirty t-shirt. First world problems!? As someone who works with young adolescents there are some wonderful kids out there with some enormous challenges and problems in life that they should not have.

July 11, 2018

I have 2 girls, 16 & 12 (almost 13). My eldest daughter was a dream, apart from a few tears when she would cry/laugh & day she didn’t know why she was upset we flew through those teen years fine. Now, my youngest had always been my firey one but it is a constant daily battle & with her emotions… she is way more up and down, emotional, reactive and then needing love like a little girl. I’ve just started her on some homeopathic remedies to try help balance out her hormones as her body is changing. I read your post and it was like a light switch going on about relating them to toddlers, last Friday she was so over tired from all her sport, school.. end of the school year she was just like an over tired toddler and I needed that emotional support of simply just hugging and spending time with her. Thankfully she’s more into sport and being outside than on a phone/computer but she does get upset/act out I notice if we are all on ours. Good luck with Easton, thank you for your post.. really helpful x

July 18, 2018

I’m not in your position just yet as my oldest is 3 years old but I have heard rave reviews about a book by Kim John Payne, The Soul of Discipline. He describes the transitioning parent roles of Governor, Gardener, and Guide over the course of parenthood…. I have this saved in my amazon cart, can’t decide whether to read it or listen to it on audible. 🙂 But wanted to share as this seems very fitting for you as you are in all three stages with your children.

August 25, 2018

Hey! I remember being exactly like this as a teenager, I would throw tantrums as bad as a toddler (probably worse!). My parents often used to tell me I was being a teenager, and that I was different. I remember this being the worst thing. Inside I knew I was changing and I hated myself for it, so the worst thing someone could do was tell me I was. Just be understanding and maybe try to speak to him after a period of particular negativity, not during it. Just make him aware you know its a difficult time. Love the blog!

Courtney in Australia
August 27, 2018

This is such a wonderful comment, Espeth. Thank you. It’s so true — I don’t even like it when my husband points out that I’m in a bad mood. It makes me even more grumpy! So I guess teenagers don’t want to be told over and over that they’re being a teenager. And I agree that it’s always better to speak to them at a time when things are not tumultuous. x

Clare Toolis
August 12, 2019

My children are in their early 20s now but I remember how powerless I felt when they hit their teens. They reject anything you say and want to sleep all the time, it can be exhausting. Take time out to do something just with them, and listen, it’s tough for them too.

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