My angry son: How I survived the teenage rebellion years

After my once-happy son's middle school depression turned to rage, here's how I learned to deal with it
By Donna RaskinPublished on 07/05/2018 at 10:00 AM EST
Illustration by Britton Korbel

“I hate you,” my son would growl, his eyes matching the snarl into which his lips were curled.

My response would vary, but, in the beginning, I tended to believe him and respond to his words. “I didn’t do anything!” I would say, in a kind of despair. How could he hate me? I was his only reliable parent, and for years we had been devoted to each other, always having fun and being adventurous. Just the two of us: calm and safe.

Nevertheless, at the end of sixth grade, the school called to say my once happy son appeared to be depressed, and even though I got him help, his depression eventually turned into anger, mostly directed at me.

Now, the backstory is that my son has had significant trauma in his life, including being raised by only one parent and having a parent with an addiction who left when he was 9 months old. But he has also been loved and cared for by not only me, but my parents, his friends, the parents of his friends, and his teachers. Was everyone perfect? No, but if I were to put the bad and the good on two sides of a scale….

…well, this is exactly where the problem began. I thought the good outweighed the bad and my son thought the bad outweighed the good.

Oh, and by the way, I saw myself as part of the good, and he thought I was bad. “I have two bad parents,” he frequently told me, his friends, and his school, even though I had been there every moment of his life.

I spent a couple of years defending myself against this charge, but pointing out all the ways I was a good mother only seemed to a) make him angrier and b) make me feel pathetic. Did I really have to prove my goodness to him?

My friends all said he was “taking out his anger” on me because “I’m safe,” but this did not help me because I did not want to live my life being the target of misdirected anger. I mean, I’m a person, not a punching bag.

A therapist told me: “He’s separating, and it’s harder when the dynamic is only two people.” Well, okay, but, again, that still made it seem like I was just supposed to allow him to run roughshod through the house.

My male friends told me all the ways they had treated their own moms when they were teenagers. One didn’t speak to his mother for six months and he could not remember why. Now, though, in his mid-50s, he lives with her (partly because he’s adrift and partly because she needs the help). This also didn’t make me feel better because I do not want my son to live with me when he’s 55!

The truth was, after asking friends and experts, I couldn’t find a rhyme or reason that caused certain kids to become angry, despite it being a common problem in families.

What to do? What to do?

It was clear that defending myself wasn’t working, so I decided to stop and, in fact, to take a break from my habit of defending myself when he was angry or of making requests which, for any other child, would be typical, such as “did you do your homework” or “do you want me to make dinner?” For a couple of weeks, I just stopped engaging with him. I took care of him, of course. Food was on the table and clothes were washed, but I stepped away from asking him questions and making suggestions. I was nice, I was friendly, but I didn’t engage, even if he tried to get me going.

Then, when my son was 16 years old, an old friend unknowingly gave me a key to the solution. Despite my friend’s child having grown up with two things my son was actually missing (a father in the house and an abundance of money), he had also suddenly gone from happy to angry. He sat around, he hated going to school, and he blamed his mother. And his mother could not have loved him more. She was everything I was, maybe more. Maybe better.

Aside from the reassurances I gave her, her son’s behavior shifted my own wheels into gear. For one thing, I wasn’t worried about her kid. In fact, I was completely confident that his behavior had absolutely nothing to do with her and that he will grow up to be a fine adult. If that were true for her, it must also be true for my own little rebel without a cause.

But I could hear that she was responding to his behavior with panic, just like I was. Not that I blamed her, of course! It’s just that hearing it made me realize that she had no reason to panic and that, probably, neither did I.

So, I made the great leap: I took my own emotional reaction out of the equation and instead of responding to his behavior–the yelling and the cursing–I began to respond to what he was saying without judgment or defense. In fact, I validated his feelings, which was exactly what I had learned to do when he was a toddler and I read the great parenting books, How to Talk So Your Kids Will Listen and Listen So Your Kids Will Talk. The author, Adele Faber, says that it is possible to both validate your child’s experience and then explain why you may disagree with them or have to make a decision with which they disagree. “I hear that you want candy, and I understand wanting candy now, but it’s dinnertime and you will feel better if you eat a healthy meal, so I’m not buying you candy.”

How did this work with a 16-year-old? Well, let’s just say that, as you know, as kids get older their problems get bigger, so it wasn’t as easy as just denying him candy. My son, for example, did not do most of his homework through high school. Rather than yelling and screaming about it (or doing his homework for him as many of my friends would have done) I would say things such as, “I completely understand not wanting to do more work once the school day is over, but if you don’t do your work, you might not pass for the year.” So, I made the tough choice to let him live with the consequences of his actions, which was difficult for me on a lot of levels (I have a master’s degree! I’ve written books!), because I came to understand that arguing with him would have a) made him feel forced to have to win the argument and so I would have lost anyway, and b) made the situation about me and not about natural consequences of his actions.

Eventually, my son, always a hard worker (he has had after-school jobs since he was 14 and has gone on international aid trips with me), decided that his goal for sophomore year would be to pass every class by one point. In this, he was entirely successful. Some of his friends have excelled and some of his are failing, but I am very clear that the parents who responded with yelling and anger did not change their children’s behavior by their yelling.

Is he going to college with his bad grades? No, not yet. He might join the Coast Guard. He might go to college later. I don’t know who he will be yet, but that’s okay, because he’s happy. He’s not depressed or angry, and now, when I look back over the past few years, I realize that it was my own combination of fear about his emotions and defensiveness about my parenting that made me unable to separate his behavior from my own reaction.

It probably took me six years to make a calm response my regular practice. But, I can honestly say that because of the change in my behavior, just like that, everything’s different now; not perfect, of course, but better and happier. With only a couple years of high school left, he doesn’t hate me anymore (in fact, these days, when I say I love you every morning when he leaves, he says it, too), and I feel more appreciated than targeted. He would have probably called this story, “My Angry Mother,” and, you know, I’m glad he wouldn’t say that about me anymore.

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