How to Deal with Surly and Indifferent Teenagers

Toby Hazlewood

Appealing to their better nature when they don't appear to have one

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Photo by Wesley Tingey on Unsplash

Trainee pilots are required to notch up 1,500 hours of flying time before they are let loose to fly solo or carry passengers. Malcolm Gladwell proposes that mastery of an art-form or skill requires 10,000 hours of practice to achieve.

Time spent in pursuit of role clearly correlates to ones ability to do it well.

It baffles me then, that with many thousands of cumulative hours as a parent and with many of those spent dealing with teenagers, that I still seem to struggle at times.

When it comes to navigating their moods, handling their whimsical demands and their social-media influenced expectations, each day can feel like starting from scratch once again.

It’s in dealing with the apathy, the indifference and the surliness that I particularly struggle. No doubt the complications and restrictions thrown into the mix by the events of 2020 haven’t lightened anyone’s mood. Nonetheless, it’s the era of parenting that I’ve found hardest, and that pre-dated Covid-19.

Having had a few years of fighting this same battle week-in, week-out I now feel I’ve figured out the best response — to do nothing. Or at least, nothing to rise to the bait, enter into the discord or to amend my behaviour. Instead, the best strategy is to carry on regardless, doing what I do in spite of the response it may (or may not) get.

My daughters live with me for alternate weeks as part of the equal co-parenting arrangement established with their mother after we divorced 13+ years ago. With only half their lives to enjoy their company I’ve always wanted to make those kids-weeks (as they’re annotated in my calendar) as happy and harmonious as possible.

As they get older and we edge closer to an empty nest I’m fearful of the opportunities for spending time with them diminishing — I want to make what I have left, count. My eldest daughter moved on to university a few years ago now, and my younger will do the same in Summer 2022.

And so it grates all the more that when I’ve looked forward to seeing her for the preceding days, within minutes of being together again her indifference towards me is palpable.

She can barely bring herself to grunt a few words in response to my kindly enquiries about her day, and certainly won’t reciprocate. To do that would be to show more interest than I’m clearly due.

I carry on regardless, outlining plans I’ve made and ideas I’ve had to enliven the week ahead and she can barely bring herself to acknowledge them.

I try and accommodate her whims and desires — turning off the evening news so she can put on one of her TV shows and she ignores the gesture completely. I’m ignored in favour of the Kardashians.

And so the evening continues. I don’t ask for much really, but if I hadn’t been seasoned to weather such exchanges, I might feel hard-done-by.

Fortunately I’ve learned over time that this is an innate part of the parent-teenager dynamic. I too was once the same way no doubt — similarly dismissive of the attention and interest shown by my parents. In all likelihood, you were the same too.

Teens don’t always want to acknowledge the existence of their parents most of the time, much less actually interact with them. They certainly don’t want to seem interested or engaged — to do that would be to show weakness, to let their veil of cool and indifference slip. To engage with those who seem desperate to engage would be to over-accommodate and flex outside of what feels natural or instinctive. They’ve got to keep you at arms length, lest they admit they might actually still need or appreciate you.

That’s how it feels anyway. Maybe I’m wrong (but I don’t think so).

Keep calm and carry on

Sometimes, I see the glimmers of hope and shreds of behaviour that remind me that the little girl who used to hang off my shoulders and who absorbed my every word are still in there somewhere.

She’ll disappear to her room, but then sheepishly come back a few minutes later to thank me for dinner or for putting her clean laundry in her room (things she’d singularly gone out of her way to ignore when she first came home). I know I’m appreciated and can deal with the lack of thanks, but it’s still nice when thanks come.

She’ll come up to me and spontaneously hug me hours after pointedly walking past me when she first came into the home. I know she still loves me. I know she knows I love her too, as much as ever.

She’s still in there somewhere — my little girl.

So — the tactic for handling her indifference? Well, I’ve tried it all.

I’ve tried delving into things with her (and with her sister before her). They don’t often want to talk about it. To do so would be to expose that there isn’t much at root of things at all. The indifference just is what it is — part of the teenage condition.

I’ve tried overpowering with kindnesses too — glossing over the indifference with overblown generosity and affection. That was equally ineffective.

The only useful tactic as it seems to me? To ignore it and carry on regardless.

To keep showing up consistently, refusing to be dragged down or drawn in. To demonstrate that no matter how they choose to react to me and what I say and do, I’m the same dad doing the same things in the same way, no matter what.

It’s definitely not about pandering to their every whim, forgiving poor behaviour or letting rudeness or beligerence slide.

I call that out whenever I see or experience it — in as calm and reasonable way as possible. I’m not in the business of being lashed out at, or treated like a serf. But I do pick my battles and I’m not about to end up feeling glum or creating a tense atmosphere by falling out with them.

By consistently being me and being there for them regardless, it sends a message that I’ll do what I do for them anyway — it’s up to them how they react and respond.

She may feign indifference that I’ve planned out a week of her favourite meals for each evening, but I know deep down she’ll enjoy them.

She may react sarcastically when I offer to cave into putting up the Christmas tree before December 1st (a personal rule that makes me ever more unpopular around the holidays) but I know that deep down she’s delighted.

She may pretend that I’m crowding her by asking after her recent homework project but I know that deep down she’s proud of it and has always liked to have her hard work recognised — not that it’s cool to admit it these days.

Showing up. Being consistent. Under-promising and over-delivering. These are the best ways that I can meet and react (or not react) to the surliness of teens.

I won’t rise to it. I won’t be flustered or shaken by it.

I won’t meddle and negotiate to try and change it.

I’ll simply ride it out and let them see that whatever they need, I’m there for them as I always have been.

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