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Dr. Wolf: How to criticize your sensitive teen without hurting her feelings

From The Globe and Mail

A column that tackles behavioural problems from toddlers to teens

The problem

Sometimes you need to let your teens know that they are acting badly. But what if you have a child who is extra-sensitive, who already seems unhappy most of the time? Isn’t criticism just going to add to their misery?

“Chloe, I asked you to bring in the groceries two hours ago. They’ve been sitting in the hot car, and a lot of the stuff needed to be refrigerated. I can’t trust you to do anything.”

“Why am I always the one who gets yelled at. It’s always me.”

“It wouldn’t happen if you did what we asked you to do.”

“I hate this family.”

Chloe’s mother doesn’t want to play the bad cop: “I don’t like getting mad at her. I know she’s an unhappy child. But I can’t just give her a pass when she acts this way, can I?”

What should you do about chastising your child whom you know is already hurting?

What not to do

If their behaviour is truly unacceptable, then you need to let them know. You can’t always back off for fear of hurting their feelings. Be tough when necessary, but you also need to give recognition to their underlying unhappiness.

What to do

Not at the time when they have acted badly, but at a more calm other time: Go and talk to them.

“I know you are unhappy sometimes.”

“You don’t know. You don’t know what it’s like being me.”

“No, maybe I don’t. But I love you and it makes me sad to see you sad.”

“Then don’t yell at me so much.”

Sometimes it can be difficult to tell the difference between manipulative anger about not getting their way and genuine unhappiness. Whatever you do, you don’t want to down play their misery.

Your recognition of their sadness becomes a connection – they know that you know that they really are suffering. It may not seem like much, but to them it is a very big deal.

It is a challenge parenting an unhappy teenager – giving them the love and support that they so much need, and recognizing to them that you understand that their life can be really hard. Yet you at times are the direct source of their misery. You must take on both of these conflicting roles. But sometimes being the bad guy to a suffering teenager can be pretty painful to us as well.

Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books including I’d Listen to My Parents if They’d Just Shut Up. E-mail him your thorny questions at [email protected].