I’ve lived in NYC for over 30 years, so there are times when I think that nothing will shock me.
But last weekend, as I was running errands in my neighborhood, I overheard an argument between a mother and her daughter. The daughter looked like she was in that 13 to 15 zone, which is the age that most parents should fear. You think the Terrible Twos are bad? The teen years will make you pine for those days.
Just you wait.
The mother and the daughter were approaching me and I could hear the girl saying, in an elevated voice, that she didn’t want to go to some class they were apparently heading to. The mother, speaking in measured tones, explained that she had to go for a few more weeks and then it would be over. The girl stopped then and sighed. “You’re such a “f****g b**ch, you have no idea!” she snapped at her mother.
I couldn’t hear what the mother said then, partly because my gasp was louder than her voice.
Because although I’m ok with my kids calling me by my first name, I draw the line at curse words. I don’t even like when my children call someone “stupid” as an insult; I can’t imagine what I would do if they flung hardcore swear words at me.
These kind of moments are one of those things that they don’t tell you when they put your newborn on your chest. That one day your baby will be a teenager and the two of you will have a disagreement and, in a moment of rage, she will yell words at you that you have to dare to say to your own mother as an adult.
The thing is, the mother on the receiving end of that tirade looked familiar. She looked like a person that could be me or one of my friends, and that terrified me. In the multi-second span that I observed her and her daughter, I knew that a child cursing at a parent could happen to practically anyone, and I wondered what the appropriate response should be.
In an e-mail exchange, Dr. Nancy Berk, a clinical psychologist from Pittsburgh, recommended parents take a deep breath and step back from the situation. “Issue a reminder about respect and take away a teen privilege that will illustrate its importance. AND look at your own language,” she says. “If you’re quick with the four letter words, it might be time to clean up your own vocab.”
Certainly a parent who curses herself needs to re-examine her choice of language. But what if a parent’s language is without reproach and the child is still disrespectful?
In an e-mail interview, Brooke Randolph, a family therapist practicing in Indianapolis, Indiana, suggested that “parents should talk to their teens about the consequences of this type of behavior in other circumstances,” such as when the teen speaks like that to a teacher or an employer. However, she warns that “teens may be more likely to hear how such behavior is perceived by others from someone other than their parents, especially if they are the type of teen to call their parents vulgar names. It may be helpful to enlist the help of a godparent, ‘cool’ aunt or uncle, or respected teacher to help the child see how this may be impacting how others view him or her.”
As for consequences, I believe in taking away privileges, but Randolph has another idea: “A logical consequence of a teen not respecting his or her mother would be the teen not benefiting from the privilege of having a mother – going on strike, as one mom I know likes to say. Privileges of having a mother that a teen might miss out on could be having meals prepared, laundry completed, help with homework, morning wake up calls, etc.”
Which makes a lot of sense.
And makes me feel a bit more prepared in case the unspeakable (ahem) should happen.