“I hate you so much!” She screeched. “You won’t be invited to my wedding, and you will never, ever see your grandchildren!”
My teenage daughter was in a full blown rage, spewing poison into the air. Her words sounded like an explosion and smelled like toxic burning chemicals. My skin sizzled as her venomous words hit me square in the face.
Eyes wide and stunned silent, I left the kitchen for a good long cry behind the closed door sanctuary of my bedroom. Those heated sentences may as well have been punches to my stomach and blows to my head, and it took me a good, long while to recover.
What was I doing so wrong that would warrant a temper tantrum like that? Words like those? When I saw other mothers and daughters seemingly getting along like best friends I couldn’t understand how we had careened so far off course.
These volatile arguments were a growing problem between us. What I came to realize, when things were calm, was that, first of all, not all kids are the same. My son was being raised in the same house and he would never in a million years scream the things my daughter screamed when she was feeling parented. Second, I came to understand that teens (kids and adults too!) say awful things when their emotions are out of control. Things they don’t exactly mean.
For example, has your child ever yelled, “Whatever! I don’t care!” at you in the middle of an argument? What he means is something different. What he means is “I care way more than you or anyone else will ever know, but I’m losing the argument so now I’m backing out.”
Knowing this changed my response from, “Why? Why don’t you care!?” to “Well, maybe you just need some time to process how you feel about it.” This response threw a spoke in the raging wheel of words to nowhere and helped everyone stop for a minute.
Another example? When my son would sometimes sit in the dining room with his head on the table moaning “I hate school,” what he was really saying in the moment was “learning is really difficult right now and it’s requiring me to focus way more than I want to and it sucks that this isn’t easy.” Instead of me responding, “No, you don’t, don’t say that,” I just let him have those feelings and work through them.
Here’s a favorite, often employed by the aforementioned daughter: “You’re the meanest, control-freak mother in the world!” which, of course, she swears she meant in the moment, but what she was expressing were her feelings about not getting what she wanted — maybe to go to a party, or to be allowed to stay home from school for a day — and, therefore, the person inflicting the boundary (me) was the meanest and too controlling, and deserved some sort of verbal, below-the-belt retaliation.
Hit where it hurts and make it personal must be a chapter in the guide to being a teenager. She knew I second-guessed my “controlling” ways and, therefore, went in for the knock-out. Teenagers can be formidable competitors.
Also, it’s important to note that a lot of teenagers use extreme words like always, never, worst, and best. Your daughter’s friend isn’t just pretty, she’s the prettiest! The line you’re in isn’t just long, it’s the longest line ever!
Until I learned to speak teenager, I’d wallow in over-analysis and try like hell to “make things right” between me and my kids. I’d also try to “fix” whatever bad feelings they were experiencing.
Now, I simply understand the language and move on accordingly.
Here’s a handy guide for a few more you may hear:
“Just leave me alone!” means “I can’t face the truth right now, and I’m not ready to deal with it yet.”
“Nobody likes me!” means “One of my friends is acting weird and there’s drama and I can’t figure it out.”
“Please shut up!” means “You’re embarrassing me.”
“You never trust me!” means “Sometimes I don’t trust myself.”
“You don’t believe me!” means “I’m so lying to you big time right now.”
“I’m so bored!” means “This isn’t fun and it doesn’t serve me, so I’m agitated and annoyed.”
“You don’t understand!” means “I’m feeling misunderstood and you will never know the problems I experience inside my deeply, complex soul.”
“I’ll do it, I promise!” means “I’m not going to do it, ever, unless there’s some sort of punishment and even then I’ll decide if the punishment is worth it.”
“Her mom is letting her go!” means “I want you to be jealous of her mom so you’ll buckle and let me go too!”
“If you really loved me, you’d let me do it!” means “Let’s see how she responds to that.” The love card is sometimes employed at the last minute by savvy teenagers who have learned over the years whether it works or not.
“I can’t!” simply means, “I just don’t want to.”
By the way all this works for parents too.
After my daughter’s next tantrum I casually said, “Okay, honey, if that’s what you really want, I understand…” and then I walked away.
Of course, what I really meant was, “When you need help picking out a dress, and paying for the reception, and finding a babysitter you trust, mama will always be here, because mama loves you.”