"As children grow older, parents must give them greater freedom, including greater freedom to make mistakes. "

How to Calm a Screaming...Teen?

Q: Our 15-year-old daughter has become, over the past year or so, quite a disruptive influence in our normally peaceful home. She was a gem until she entered high school when she almost overnight become disrespectful and combatively argumentative. If she disagrees with a decision we make, she will begin screaming at us, calling us names, and the like. Despite the fact that her face is in her smart phone almost constantly, her grades at the secular private school she attends are still good to excellent and she’s not, to our knowledge, hanging with a bad peer group. We’re at somewhat of a loss to figure this out. Do you ever recommend boarding school in situations of this sort?

A: Sometimes, the sudden emergence of pronounced problems with a previously well-behaved teen are indicators of drug or alcohol use, the influence of undesirable peers, problems at school of one sort or another, or problems in the home. And sometimes, none of those factors are in play. Sometimes, there’s no explaining a flip-flop of this nature—it just is what it is.

Today’s teens, and especially the female of the species, seem drawn to the opportunity to create drama out of their lives. These dramas run the gamut, but usually whirl around conflicts with peers. If no other drama presents itself—if everything is hunky-dory in the child’s life socially and otherwise—then the default theme is “my parents are, like, idiots and, like, don’t understand me or my needs and I am, like, pitiful.” I must stress that these dramas do not necessarily reflect any reality outside of some idiosyncratic “reality” that exists solely in the teen’s smart-phone-addled brain.

Which is, in fact, a possible solution: to wit, take away the smart phone and get her a flip phone from a box store; one that requires three minutes of concentration to send a five-word text, doesn’t access the internet, and doesn’t take photos. And no, I’m not suggesting you do this as punishment for her disrespect; I’m suggesting that this be your new and very enlightened policy.

I have spoken of late to more than a few parents who have done exactly that. Without exception, they report that their children become more relaxed, respectful, and sensitive to the needs of other family members, including siblings. “She’s fun to be around again,” said one such parent. Some have even told me that their kids have testified to feeling generally better, less stressed, less “prickly,” and the like. And speaking of that word, one parent told me that after the loss of her smart phone, her teen daughter stopped using “like” every fourth word. Hallelujah!

On the matter of boarding school, I’d try cleaning out the smart phone addiction first. (Beware! The first week of withdrawal is akin to living with Satan-on-methamphetamine.) If you see no change in a few weeks, if she continues to be a constant disruption, then boarding school is certainly an option. My general feeling is that at some point, it is best to find other living arrangements for a disruptive child than for the entire family to continue feeling daily emotional torment as the result of his or her presence.

You might also consider helping her get a job as a summer camp counselor.

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