Rude behaviour in teens (and pre teens) with emotional and behavioural challenges

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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 have a teen (or pre-teen), you may be nodding along – it’s not uncommon for teens to be surly, rude and disrespectful with parents at home, while holding it together and being polite elsewhere.    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 their parents – 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 parents 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 a parent 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 easy, 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 to family members:  

For some teens, from their perspective - there doesn’t seem to be much point in making an effort to be polite, courteous and friendly to family – 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 to family members:  

Some teens live in families where they regularly speak or act in rude ways - and never experience any problems or costs to doing this.  We might not like their rude behaviour, but we don't talk about it or ask the teen to practice behaving politely.  This is more likely to happen when we know our teen is already struggling with emotional health challenges - we just don't want to add the extra stress.

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.

How to manage rude behaviour in these teens?

It can be useful for parents to think about which of these factors are impacting on a teenagers’ rudeness.  Heads up – it’s very likely to be at least two or three of these.   

Once we know what is contributing to the rudeness, it helps us feel less guilty, less angry, less frustrated – and we usually have a few more ideas about what to do in response. 

There is no single “right” thing for parents to do.  However, there are options. These include:

Option 1.      Ignoring the behaviour (if it’s relatively minor) and carrying on as normal.  

We are all snappy with family at times, let alone when we are dealing with difficult emotions and life events - and sometimes it’s not worth making an issue of some minor rudeness.  This doesn’t mean we are condoning how the teen has spoken, but it means we are making some allowances for teens at times, as they learn to become more courteous over time.  

Say (to yourself):  “I’m choosing to let this one go”/ “I will discuss it later”/”They are having a tough time right now, and I will work on this with them another day”

Option 2.      Make a short statement about negative effects of the rude behaviour on yourself or others.  

This is about teaching teens about why rude behaviour is not in their best interests.  It’s important to try to do this calmly (I know, easier said than done) but if a teenager is angry or shamed, they are less likely to take it in.  Be specific about what particular rude behaviour you have noticed and ask for an alternative.

Say “I’m sure you didn’t intend it that way, but it felt rude to me when you don’t answer in a full sentence.  Next time can you please use at least a few words – or politely say “I don’t feel like talking”, or “When you walk in the house and immediately say “What’s for dinner” it feels like you are only concerned about yourself.  I’d appreciate if you say “Hi or how are you” first”.

Option 3.      Walking away from the teen – calmly and without showing anger – can also provide feedback to a teen. 

“I’m just taking a break for a minute to calm down as I feel disappointed that you didn’t apologise for forgetting to put the washing on like you promised”.  

Option 4.      Make sure we notice when teens do act politely.  Specifically thank them for it and explain why it was helpful.

Thankyou for asking about my day, I always enjoy it when we talk. / I appreciate you putting your things on the sink before you left last night, it helps out with the evening jobs/  Thankyou for waiting to talk with me until I’d finished that phone call, it made it easier. 

Option 5.      Asking the teenager questions about rude behaviour – but later - when they are in a better mood in an effort to coach them about more polite behaviour.  

It’s important to try and do this calmly, and curiously.  

 It seemed you were grumpy with me tonight.  I know you don’t mean to talk in a rude way to me.  Is everything okay?/ I notice you were irritable when I asked you to pack your lunch this morning – was there anything in particular you were annoyed about?  Yesterday when we had to go out as a family, you didn’t talk with people at the BBQ.  What were you thinking about?  What was the worst thing about it?

Option 6.      Give really, really specific and clear information about what polite behaviour you would the teenager to work on.  

Tell them the actual words to say, and why you want them to act this way.

“I’d really like it if you could give me a brief apology later when you have been irritable sometimes – like “sorry I was in a grumpy mood”.  Even a text would help me feel better./When I drop you at your friends’ houses, please say “see you later, have a good night” – this helps us to be closer and feel better about our relationship/  When you leave the table, please say “thanks for dinner”. 

Please note, most teens will not naturally be interested in either answering your questions about their rude behaviour or hearing your 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.

What we need to try to remember... 

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.  Patiently working on helping young people be more polite is essential.

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.

Helping your teen act in courteous and kind ways takes a lot of patience, persistence and time.  Don’t give up on it, but don’t feel like it has to be accomplished tomorrow either.  Good luck!

Younger children?

If you have a younger child (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 to learn more.