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My teen interprets everything I say as criticism

"Maya, have you seen my red sweater?"

"Why do you always pick on me! I didn't touch it."

"I was just wondering if you'd seen it."

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"Yeah, right."

Teenagers automatically feel you're picking on them. It's a result of the normal adolescent allergy to parents. Their need to feel independent from you makes anything you say feel like a personal attack. They truly believe you are singling them out, even take pleasure in criticizing them.

"Maya, didn't you notice you spilled the orange juice in the refrigerator? It made a big mess."

"Why do you always think it's me?"

"Because you were the only one home today."

"That's so unfair."

Sometimes you criticize them because they act heedlessly and you don't want them to do it again. They don't see it quite the same way – to them your gentle reminders and diplomatic entreaties are just part of your on-going outrageous persecution.

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"It is persecution. I was going to clean up the orange juice. It was just that it was inconvenient right then. But would my mom understand that? In my dreams."

At times, their hypersensitivity makes little sense.

"Maya, could you bring me a glass of water when you're done in the kitchen?"

"Why are you always picking on me?"

"I just asked if you would bring me a glass of water."

If we were to ask Maya, "Do you genuinely believe your mother is always picking on you," she's apt to respond with something like: "Yes, I don't know why. But she does it all of the time. When we're together – anywhere – she can't stop herself. It just pops out of her mouth. It's always some kind of criticism of me. And, never, I might add, of her precious son, Joshua."

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Does Maya really believe this? She does. But why is she like this? Are all teenagers paranoid?

As I've said, teenagers want to feel independent. But there is a part of them that is still strongly attached to you. Despite their most fervent efforts to block you out, your words do have an impact. So they often construe anything you say as an attack.


"See, she wants something from me."

"I just said 'hello.' "

So what do you do? Explain yourself?

"Maya, you're wrong. I don't always pick on you. But there are times that I'm going to say things that you're not going to be happy with. Like when you ignored the spilled orange juice."

"Omigod. There you go again. You do pick on me all the time. You don't even realize it? Omigod!"

Explanations have limited usefulness because your kid's interpretation of events is so different from yours.

So what's the answer?

Play it straight. You can explain if you want. But don't try too hard to get her to understand – that will only lead to more frustration. Try not to respond to their 'You're always picking on me,' and stay on message.

"Maya, have you seen my red sweater?"

"Why do you always pick on me? I didn't do anything with it."

"Oh, I guess I'll have to keep looking for it. But if you do see it, let me know."

Don't get deterred by their outrage, just keep moving ahead.

"Maya, didn't you notice you spilled orange juice in the refrigerator and it made a big mess?"

"Why do you always think it's me?"

"I would appreciate it if you would clean it up before it starts drying and getting sticky."

"Omigod, you don't listen to anything I say."

They are going to feel victimized regardless of what you say. They live in the same house as you and you talk to them. You can't protect them from that, nor do you want to try. And it is unfortunate when a parent is too cautious, even intimidated by the threat of an indignant reaction. It's one surefire way of producing a teenage tyrant. Accept that they may react, but don't let it affect you. Simply keep on with your day.

"Hi, sweetheart."

"Why are you being sarcastic?"

"I hope you're having a nice day. I love you."

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

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