Parents' Guide

Parents' Guide

Ages 13+
Teenage Negativity

4. Teenage Negativity

It can be difficult to know how to react to teenagers’ negativity. On the one hand, their attitudes may seem too extreme and unsophisticated to take seriously. On the other, they can be exasperating and even hurtful when directed against the parents themselves. But parents should do their best to avoid being either dismissive or defensive. 

The teenager’s emotional negativity is an extreme version of something we are all prone to indulge in from time to time, no matter how highly we may prize our calmness and understanding. Parents should remind themselves that this negativity is part of a bid to become a fully-fledged autonomous individual with an opinion deserving of recognition and respect. 

Parents can help them reach this goal by taking their teens’ complaints seriously. This doesn’t mean telling them they’re right when they aren’t, but treating them as conversation partners worthy of engagement. Parents can ask their children to substantiate and defend their claims using argument and evidence; challenge their children when they fail to argue well; and compliment them when make good points.

This can be a good opportunity for parents themselves to refresh their ability to put aside emotions and handle a topic fairly and dispassionately. By modeling these kinds of intellectual virtues parents make it more likely that their children will adopt them. Of course these arguments will not always go smoothly, but over time parents can help bring their children into the critical community. Arguing with our teenagers can even be fun, if we can successfully show them the kind of satisfaction that comes out of reasoned debate over complicated issues.

The quest for individuality and the rejection of the existing social order also manifests itself in a need to create or win over a new social group: one that can become, in a way, one’s ideal family.

The phenomenon of teenage cliques or gangs—and even radical organizations—arises from this mechanism. Not being understood or accepted is stifling. We need an escape valve, and so, as humans belonging to a social species, we create or join a group that meets our needs.

In breaking away like this, teenagers ironically show just how much they belong to the society they are “rejecting.” The critiques of society teenagers develop and the new social groups they join can reflect a positive adoption of the norms of free expression and individuality, especially if teens further develop critical reasoning skills as they break away.