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Don't worry, your teens do care about you - sort of

You've had a really hard day. The printer failed and you had to spend an hour - which you couldn't spare - on the phone with IT. Your back started acting up again. Andrea was going crazy about the Trundley account. And that was all before lunchtime.

The afternoon was worse. A 45-minute meeting became two hours. You missed a half-dozen client calls. The car's making weird, expensive-sounding noises. Oh, right - and the dog got out. Perfect.

"Dad, there's no bread. How am I supposed to make a sandwich for myself if there's no bread? You have to go out and get bread."

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"Austin, I've had a really hard day. I just need you to cut me some slack right now. Okay?"

"But I want a sandwich. I always eat a sandwich when I come home from school. You know that."

"Just today. Find something else, okay?"

"But I don't want to find something else. I want a sandwich. You have to go to the store."

He doesn't get it. It's like anything happening with you - any of your suffering - doesn't register in his brain. To him your existence is merely an extension of his needs. What is his problem?

We ask Austin: "Your dad just said he had a really hard day. Don't you think you should back off a little in consideration of him?"

"No, I have hard days, too. Besides it's his job to take care of me. If he didn't want to, he shouldn't have had kids."

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This is the way teens often think. Yet they are not monsters.

Austin helps old ladies across the street. He helped his friend's mother bring in her groceries, and she didn't even ask.

Teens have this deal: When they are at home or with their parents, they give themselves permission to act in this heedless manner. It is not exactly a conscious statement to themselves, but it is very real nonetheless.

Were we to put their rationale into words it might go something like: "When I am home it is okay for me not to be on good behaviour. I try on the outside, but at home I'm allowed just to be what I feel like. I'm allowed to act like a little kid. That's the deal. It's okay. That's what teenagers do. After all, I'm still a kid."

Fortunately, there is something that you can do that can change some of this behaviour. Unfortunately, it will not work in the moment. All they will do is argue. Instead, wait until later. Then go to them and let them know that their behaviour was unacceptable.

"What you did today, when I asked you to back off because I had a hard day, was really not okay. It was selfish and inconsiderate. I really needed you to cut me some slack and you didn't. That was really selfish."

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They'll still argue, but if you simply disengage, they will be left with your words. And they will feel guilty - because they know that you are completely right. It will have an effect. In similar circumstances in the future they will be more likely to be considerate.

But there is a caveat. You have to be very careful about how often you play the "I had a really hard day" card. If you do it too often, you risk never getting them to hear you.

"That's what Dad always says. I mean, I'm sorry he has such a lousy life. But that's not my problem."

And Austin is right. Part of the deal of being a kid at home is that you can act like a kid. Teenagers will be adults soon enough. But also part of the deal in being a parent is that for the most part you do have to rise above whatever your life is - good or bad.

And this is a stance that is good for you, too. You can give in to the misery of your hard day, or you can push yourself to once again resume the role of diligent parent. Which often can pull you out of yourself in a good way.

"Okay, but the price will be that you come with me in the car to get the bread and you tell me one good thing that happened in your day."

"That's a pretty steep price, Dad."

"Yeah, I know."

Also, for all their seeming heedlessness, they can and often do rise to the occasion. And it's really nice when they do.

"Austin was really good about cleaning up the kitchen when I was on crutches with my broken ankle for those three weeks. Of course, the minute they let me off the crutches, Austin didn't miss a beat."

"It's called a walking cast, Dad. So you really don't need me any more. Gotta go."

"But what about the kitchen? Austin? My ankle still hurts. Austin?"

Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books.

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