Sounds like times are pretty tough with your 16-year-old. Teens lash out for a number of reasons, so I want to be clear: It is more important to understand why she is struggling than it is to plan which consequence will work best (for now). I’m not saying your daughter shouldn’t be held to any standards, but suffering (hers) plus more suffering (punishments from you) usually equals more animosity, resentment and bad behavior.
So, why is your daughter acting out toward teachers and siblings, as well as playing the blame game? I don’t know, but you dropped a doozy of a reason in the letter: You and your husband recently divorced. Despite the ample literature available, some think that because a 16-year-old can look and sound like an adult, they don’t suffer from a separation the way a 7-year-old would, for instance. Because a 16-year-old sounds so rational, she can navigate this change with equanimity and patience.
This is (mostly) not the case. A 16-year-old feels the loss of a parent from the home acutely and, depending on the emotional climate of the home, doesn’t feel safe to express all her feelings to the proper adults. Teens feel all the big feelings of loss, but it can make them feel too vulnerable to take those feelings out on parents, so they lash out at teachers, siblings, etc. Laura Reagan, a clinical social worker who specializes in trauma, says: “Any time a child has a change in behavior at home or at school, the first thing we ask is whether any changes have happened in the child’s life recently. Children don’t have the emotional maturity to tell us that they’re having a hard time adjusting to a transition in their lives, but their behavior lets us know that emotional storms are brewing internally for them.”
When a teen is having emotional storms because of a transition such as divorce, the line of communication between you two must be kept open. Punishments and consequences are the fastest way to shut down communication. If you also allow her to act out, however, she feels increasingly out of control. How do you manage the attitude? Psychologist Kelly Heiges recommends you “try to keep up routines when possible and create space for them to open up about what change feels like for them. Because sassiness is common in teen communication, try to ignore the tone and listen for your child’s ‘real’ message. . . . What does she want you to know? Is she overwhelmed? Is she worried? Is she feeling out of control?
“If you can focus on the actual message, you can support her better and ultimately reduce her need to communicate with attitude,” Heiges says.
This advice is crucial because nonjudgmental communication will bring a feeling of safety to a teen, but it is not an overnight fix, and it doesn’t mean you will never have bad behavior from her. If you need to have consequences for your teen, discuss them ahead of time if possible. When emotions are level and the communication is flowing, call a meeting with her where you discuss both rewards and consequences for her behavior. There is nothing wrong with rewarding her for her efforts, and you can decide what should be done if she is rude to her teachers and siblings. Notes of apology, loss of tech, not seeing friends — it can all go on the table. I recommend not issuing punishments in the heat of the moment. Parents inevitably react emotionally, not rationally, when upset, and you don’t want to walk back consequences; you lose a lot of face if that happens repeatedly.
Finally, there is plenty of good therapy as well as therapeutic groups for children of divorce, and they often exist right there in the high school. Be sure to reach out to the counselor, as well her teachers, to let them know that your daughter isn’t bad, she is suffering. Most teachers will immediately have compassion and empathy for her.