Parenting: 'Why has my teenager become so mean?'

On this week's 'Parenting' segment on the Moncrieff show, one listener sought advice about how to...
James Wilson
James Wilson

13.56 6 Jun 2022

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Parenting: 'Why has my teenage...

Parenting: 'Why has my teenager become so mean?'

James Wilson
James Wilson

13.56 6 Jun 2022

Share this article

On this week's 'Parenting' segment on the Moncrieff show, one listener sought advice about how to deal with her son's increasingly mean and upsetting behaviour. 

Joanna Fortune, psychotherapist specialising in Child & Adult Psychotherapy, joined Moncrieff to answer this and other listeners' questions.

The question:


"I’ve a 14 year old son, and up until he began secondary school he was a very chatty, funny boy. However, in recent years I’ve started to notice a real mean streak in him and it’s making me uneasy.

"He does stuff that aren’t bold or rude, it’s actions that have malice behind them – for example, recently my husband won an award for playing golf and he broke it on purpose in front of us.

"He does similar things to his siblings and I just don’t know why? It’s starting to break my heart as I feel like the person I know is disappearing.

"Myself and my husband feel at a disconnect now and it’s keeping me awake all night. I’ve tried different approaches like hard discipline and reasoning with him, but nothing works.

"This situation is now starting to change me so I need to fix it. Could you ask your parenting expert to help?" 

Parenting: 'Why has my teenager become so mean?'

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Joanna's response:

“Generally speaking, he’s 14, he’s in that early stage of adolescence, there’s a whole lot of changes that are going on internally for him… Part of the task of adolescence is to work towards autonomy and independence and some teenagers do it with a degree of refinement and some of them do it a little bit more clumsily than others in how they go about this. 

“It can also manifest - and often does - with ‘I want more privacy, so I tell you less.’ That can be really difficult if you’re a parent who wants to know everything and really wants to know more. 

“It can be that, ‘I have to experiment with new tastes, styles, music, friends.’ Anything that says, ‘I am my own person.’ 

“And while it can be very challenging - and have its moments of being deeply unpleasant - at the same time it is normal. 

“To look at this at another kind of angle is to think of it like a sieve and you’re sieving through what might be difficult and unpleasant but normal to see what’s left. What’s over and above the normal because this parent is stating, ‘This isn’t rudeness, it’s something else.’ 

“It can also be a sign… of stress or anxiety in a teenager. It’s a way of speaking something that [he] doesn’t have the words or emotional fluency to express verbally. 

“So difficult feelings are difficult to contain. They can be icky and uncomfortable - it’s not very nice to sit with a difficult feeling and one of the most effective ways to get rid of a difficult feeling is to evacuate it out of yourself and project it into somebody else. Have them feel the way you’re feeling… Sometimes in the hope that you’ll give it back to me in bite size pieces that I can make sense of. 

“You often hear that phrase, ‘Hurt people, hurt people’ and there is something to that. That’s a very generalised comment but people who are hurting will often lash out and hurt others.” 

Joanna continued: 

“The best way to reach a place of behavioural correction is to do it within an emotional connection. You’ve tried lots of things, you’ve mentioned ‘hard discipline’. I don’t really know what that means - I think that would mean different things to all of us - and reasoning. 

“But when you’re aroused by fear [and] anxiety, when you’re irritable, you’re not at your… best."

She added: 

“It is about coming at it from a different way and empathy is always the best way to do it and again it doesn’t mean you’re being permissive or soft or saying ‘Anything goes!’ It is very clearly stating, ‘This isn’t okay and it’s also not who you are. I know this behaviour is not who you are and because of that I’m curious what else might be going on.’ 

“Because what I’m not hearing here is, ‘Does this boy have friends? Does he have interests, hobbies, is he connected to groups of people outside of the family?’ 

“Because if he has friends and a friend group he is capable of positive interaction and connection because his friends aren’t going to keep him if he’s behaving in a ‘mean way’. 

“So be curious, could there be an underlying reason that you don’t know about? How are things in school? How are things with friends? 

“He can’t feel badly about himself and then see you think and feel badly about him because it’s reinforcing that negative viewpoint… So you have to come at it from a place of kindness and connection.”

Main image: Teenagers are seen on their way to school in Dublin. Picture by:

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