Working with teens (and pre-teens) with emotional challenges: and thinking about their "rude" behaviour

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Recently I was talking with a Mum, Taylor* who was despairing about the rudeness of her 15 year old daughter, Jess.  Jess was seeing us for support in managing her anxiety disorder and perfectionism, and I was talking with Taylor about how she was going with supporting her.  Taylor raised the problem of Jess’ rude behaviour at home.  She said Jess was polite and friendly to her teachers and friends, but this ended as soon as she walked in the door at home.  According to Taylor, Jess would often rudely make demands, grunt when she was asked questions or sometimes just ignore her.  Taylor knew Jess was dealing with difficult emotions – but she felt unappreciated, resentful – and worried about how this would affect her and her daughter in the future.

If you work with teens (or pre-teen), you may be nodding along – it’s not uncommon for teens to be surly, rude and disrespectful.    And this is especially true for teens or preteens who are dealing with difficult life situation, emotional or mental health challenges.  Let’s look at the main causes of rude behaviour in these teens.

1.They might be “socially or emotionally fatigued”:  

Teens (and preteens) in general often spend many hours of their day thinking about how they are perceived by their peers, trying to be liked by their peers, thinking about conversations and what to say, the intricacies of teen relationships, social networking interactions, how they look to others and who is going to invite them out next.  This is pretty tiring (remember the last time you attended a social event and were surrounded by people you wanted to make a good impression with) for all teens.  For teens who are also experiencing distressing thoughts and feelings – it’s downright exhausting. 

When teens are managing social or emotional fatigue they don’t have much energy left for polite behaviour, or for additional social interactions with adults – and rudeness results. 

2.They might not fully understand the impact of their rude behaviour:    

Even relatively well adjusted and content teens aren’t always fully aware of the impact of their rude behaviour on their parents.  They always don’t really know how adults feel when they are ignored or snapped at.  They don’t always fully understand that their rudeness seems like a rejection or a lack of caring or appreciation.  Having not experienced parenthood themselves, they are often completely ignorant about how much their parents care about having a positive relationship with them, nor how much it hurts or disappoints them when they act rudely. 

This lack of understanding is particularly common in teens who are preoccupied with distressing thoughts, or those who particularly struggle with social skills and managing social situations.

3.They might be poor at switching attention:  

Adolescent brains are not good at changing focus or switching attention as quickly as adult brains.  When teens are in the middle of another train of thought, or absorbed by something, they find it difficult to quickly change their focus of attention onto something else – including an adult instruction or conversation.   

This is particularly challenging for teens with extra struggles with attention and concentration, impulsivity, learning problems, or who are feeling consumed by distressing thoughts.  These problems with cognitive skills means they can be slow to respond- which comes across as rude or disrespectful behaviour.

4.They might not know exactly what courteous behaviour means or looks like:   

The accepted rules of courteous behaviour are actually quite complex – and adults have had many more years of experience learning these rules than teens.  For example, as adults we are practised in asking questions of others, responding to their emotional state, being aware of effort people have made for us, knowing how to apologise and make repair – and so on.  These skills are not easily learnt, and given teens have had much less practice in them than adults, they often simply don’t know what to say or do.   

5. They might not experience any (or many) benefits of being courteous:  

For some teens, from their perspective - there doesn’t seem to be much point in making an effort to be polite, courteous and friendly – no-one notices when they do it, they don’t feel any different and nothing different happens when they act politely compared to when they don’t.  If this is true, the psychology human behaviour mean that it is less likely they will make an effort to act politely.

6. They might not experience any “cost” to being rude:  

Some teens live in families where they regularly speak or act in rude ways - and never experience any problems or costs to doing this.  Parents might not like their rude behaviour, but they don’t talk about it or asks the teen to practice behaving politely.  Again, rules of human behaviour suggest that teens won’t exert the considerable effort and energy it takes to be courteous when there doesn’t seem to be any reason to do so.  Incidentally, some parents who are supporting teens who are going through difficult times are particularly hesitant to insist upon polite behaviour – as they are unsure what their teen is capable of.

So now what? 

How we work with teens with rude behaviour will depend on the relationship we have with them and context of our work.  I know we have youth workers, teachers, psychologists and other professionals reading this article, so please feel free to choose the options which bests suit you!

Option 1.      If a teen is rude with us in a professional situation, we might choose to just ignore it

My rule of thumb about whether to discuss "in session" rude behaviour with a teen is whether it is interfering with the therapy or teaching work I’m doing with them.   If it doesn’t significantly interfere, I’ll often choose to let it go and focus on more pressing matters.

Option 2.      We might choose to notice when teens act politely when with us. 

I will often make a point of noticing when teens act in well mannered, respectful or courteous ways with me.  I sometimes find there are additional benefits of doing this if parent/caregivers are present – especially if there is a difficult relationship between the two, or the parent/caregiver has received lots of negative feedback about their young person from other sources.  

That’s kind of you to check with me about this, I appreciate it.  
I enjoy talking with you. I've noticed how respectfully you speak to me and your Dad when you are here.
Thanks for waiting so patiently while I was talking with your Mum.   
Thanks to those of you who picked up your rubbish then, that was so helpful.

Option 3.      When we have the right relationship with the teen, it might be useful to ask them about rude behaviour we’ve noticed (or that was been reported to you by a parent/carer).

It’s important to take parent reports of conflict and their frustration/distress seriously.  My experience is that teens working with me are often not nearly as bothered by their “rude behaviour” as their parents/caregivers are,  however what we know is that it is likely to be causing problems for the teen.  When teens are rude with parents/caregivers – they get resentful and tired – and this then negatively impacts the teen.  Therefore, I will frequently ask about.

Your mum tells me there has been some conflict at home this week.  How do you feel things are going?  I noticed you seemed irritable with Dad then.  What was the hardest part of that conversation for you?  When is it easiest for you to act in polite ways towards them?  What makes it harder?  What do you think most bugs them about this?  Why?  Would it be worth it to you to act in a different way? 

Teens need coaching in acting politely.  This is not just for parents’ sake – but for theirs.  My experience is that teens who consistently act in rude and impolite ways to parents, have parents who feel resentful and angry towards them – which then leads to more problems for the teen.  This is true even for teens who are experiencing tough times.   As humans, we feel better about life and ourselves when we act kindly and have good relationships with people around us – this will be true for teens and pre-teens with big feelings, those who are struggling with hard life events and challenges too.  That's my rationale for jumping in and addressing this issue sometimes.

Option 4.      (If appropriate) support and empower parents/caregivers to manage rude behaviour in teens at home

When I’m working with parents/caregivers directly, I often talk with them about how they can coach and train teens to learn to act respectfully, even when they are feeling tired, sad, worried or angry.  I think it’s important to empower and support parents to do this – often they don’t realise that intense (and patient) coaching is required.

Thanks for letting me know your frustration about Jodie’s behaviour at home.  It sounds like it’s pretty tough to manage.  I’ve talked with many families about this – would you be prepared to spend some time with me thinking about what you might be able to do to encourage more respectful behaviour at home?

Option 5.      If we work in a group situation with teens (group therapy context, classrooms), it can be useful to outline really specific and clear expectations about the polite behaviour we ourselves require of the teenager/s – both at the beginning of our interaction, and then when the teen/s were not able to follow the expectations.  This requires ongoing training and conversations such as:

“The rules of this group are…..what this actually looks like in terms of what you will say/do and not say/do is…………(say the actual words expected).

“I see that you were not able to do X or Y today – can you let me know why this was difficult? Is there anything I could do to help you say/do this next time?  Do you think we should change the rules?  I’m able to do that because/I’m not able to do that because…..How can I help you remember to do X/Y when you are frustrated?  Is there an alternative way you could have communicated X/Y?  Because you were not able to do X/Y – I now need to…(whatever consequence is appropriate)  ”

Of course, most teens will not naturally be interested in either answering our questions about their rude behaviour or hearing our requests for more courtesy.  Nevertheless, it’s important to have these conversations.  We need to be careful about the time, place, tone and focus of them – but we should still have them – in an ongoing and consistent way. 

The good news is that most teens do act more courteously and respectfully as time passes – but for many it does require lots of patient, specific and consistent coaching.   If we can support families to do this we are doing important work.


If work with younger children (aged 5 to 11) – we have an activity sheet and poster on Calm Kid Central which teaches them about 10 key aspects of polite and respectful behaviour – what it looks like exactly, how to remember to do it and why it matters.  Go to for information about the program.