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What to do when your teen’s tone drives you up the wall

The problem

Teenagers often adopt a certain tone of voice that unfailingly drives their parents crazy.

Daniel and his mother are in a room together. Daniel's mother speaks to her son. She says his name.

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It is magical. Through a single spoken word a teenaged child can convey such extraordinary disrespect, condescension, scorn, ridicule. They also at times use phrases such as, "I'm not your slave."

Or, "Where's my green sweater?"

But the tone is key. It is immediately recognizable by the instantaneous effect that it has on a parent's body – a tensing of the muscles on either side of the neck, hot and cold flashes that go up and down the spine. Instant fury.

"Who the hell do they think they are?"

It can set the tone for a parent/child relationship across a whole adolescence.

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What not to do

Do not respond in kind.

"Daniel, don't you dare talk to me that way."

Though a perfectly legitimate and appropriate response, its only effect will be to get more of the same.

"What way? I'm not talking to you in any way."

Really, this is the whole point. What you do not want to do is to respond in the same key as their disrespectful tone. You want to be the one to control the tone of the interaction, not them.

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What to do

The hallmark of adolescence is that teenagers develop a temporary allergy to their parents. The disrespectful tone is the music produced by that allergy. But you don't have to go along with it. You don't have to take their tone so seriously. You don't have to be in harmony with their sour notes. The trick is in having your competing tone be in control.

Hence, upbeat to their downbeat.



Rather than: "Don't talk to me in that tone of voice."

Instead: "I was wondering, how was your day?"

"Susanna, would you hand me that empty glass?"

"I'm not your slave."

Rather than: "You better watch it, young lady."

Instead: "I know you're not my slave, but would you hand me the glass, sweetheart?"

"Where's my green sweater?" (On very demanding note.)

Rather than: "Who do you think you are, the Princess of Canada?"

Instead: "Gosh, I don't know sweetheart. Where did you leave it?"

My advice might trouble a lot of my readers.

"He's ignoring the disrespect."

But I'm not. I'm just not taking it seriously.

My way works, and it is a wildly more useful and far more pleasant approach to off-key teens. Try it.

Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books, including I'd Listen to My Parents If They'd Just Shut Up. E-mail him your thorny questions at

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