How to Stop Thinking Your Teen Is ‘Pushing Your Buttons'

Cheryl Maguire | NY Times.com

Do clothes on the floor make you crazy? Experts say that the tension is often about the way the parent responds.

00well-clothes-jumbo.jpg

My 14-year-old daughter constantly abandons her coat on the floor and leaves half-eaten food in the living room and crumpled papers in the hall. I end up cleaning up after her, which I’ve repeatedly told her makes me upset.

She’s a smart, talented kid. So why does she keep pushing my buttons?

At some point most parents feel as if their teenager is acting in ways to intentionally make them angry. But experts say that the interaction is often more about the way the parent responds than about the teenager’s behavior.

Change the Language

“When a parent tells me their kid is ‘pushing their buttons,’ I let them know we need to change the language,” said Dr. Alexandra Solomon, a Northwestern University professor, clinical psychologist and author of “Loving Bravely.”

She said that thinking your child is controlling you is disempowering, which can lead to a battle of wills.

Such conflicts often fall into one of three categories, Dr. Solomon said.

The first is when the parents are thinking about their own teen behavior. Parents may project their fears, memories and challenges onto the relationship and can’t see their child as separate from themselves. Dr. Solomon gave an example: “The boy I dated when I was 16 cheated on me and broke my heart. My daughter should not date because all high school boys are immature and irresponsible.”

Another involves thinking of past mistakes they made as parents. Dr. Solomon said that if a teenager has trouble making friends a parent may think, “If I had taken my child on play dates when they were younger then they would have friends now.”

The last type is when a parent “fast forwards” to possible future behaviors. This is when a parent thinks, “If my kid is doing this at age 13 then what are they going to be doing at age 16?”

All of these patterns involve being ruled by fear instead of guided by love, Dr. Solomon said. Fear-driven parents often become controlling, creating strict rules, grounding their children or infringing on their privacy. “When these rules are created from a fear-based mind-set instead of what is necessary based on your teen’s developmental needs, an unhealthy relationship will develop,” Dr. Solomon said.

Control Your Reaction

“The reason to stay calm is because we co-regulate with our children — when we freak out, they freak out,” said Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg, a physician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and co-founder of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication.

Dr. Solomon recommends avoiding this kind of overreaction by practicing mindful parenting, which involves pausing, regulating your emotions and staying present in the moment, without attaching a story or meaning to the behavior. Research studies have found that using this technique can improve the quality of parent-child relationships.

“It’s hard to control what your teen does, but you can control your reaction to it,” said KJ Dell’Antonia, former editor of The New York Times’s parenting blog Motherlode and author of “How to be a Happier Parent: Raising a Family, Having a Life, and Loving (Almost) Every Minute.” “If I walk away, it changes my experience.”

Be on the Same Team

Say to your teenager: “This isn’t working for either of us. What can we do to fix it?” Maybe the coat closet is near the front door and your kids don’t use it because they come in through the back door. Could you install a coat hook near the back door?

Once you have a plan, even if there is only a small improvement, praise your child for doing a good job and acknowledge that you have a better relationship because you are working together.

“Parents may want to think of themselves as coaches, helping their child practice instead of being disciplinarians,” said Dr. Carla Naumburg, a clinical social worker and author of parenting books including “Ready, Set, Breathe: Practicing Mindfulness With Your Children for Fewer Meltdowns and a More Peaceful Family.”

“Getting mad at your child isn’t going to change the behavior,” she said. “When you get angry, your attention is on the conflict instead of figuring out a solution to the problem.”

Trouble Shoot

If you have setbacks, ask your child, “Where do you think we went wrong?”

“Approach situations with curiosity. If your son doesn’t get out of bed, don’t say, ‘You are tired because you stayed up too late.’” Dr. Solomon said. Instead ask, ‘Why do you think you are tired?’ Hold back the urge to be right and instead stay curious by asking questions.

If you do yell at your teen, Dr. Naumburg recommended apologizing. “Some parents worry that apologizing will undermine their authority, but that isn’t true,” she said. “It’s a respectful way to be in a relationship and it’s modeling a behavior that we want our kids to do — take responsibility for their actions.”

Dr. Naumburg suggested ways I could help my daughter learn strategies to be more organized, such as breaking down a task into small steps.

I can accept that she will never be the next Marie Kondo, but I’ve seen progress for both of us. Now when I see a coat on the floor, I try to remind myself to see only a coat, not an affront to my authority.

My daughter has a sense of humor about it, too. When I told her I was writing about this she announced with a smile: “I left my jacket at tennis practice so it’s not on the floor today.”