The six most annoying teenage habits explained

Teenagers can be exasperating but it’s all with a purpose, say parenting experts Dr Angharad Rudkin and Tanith Carey. And understanding their behaviour can help you cope, too

Whether they’re shovelling their clothes into a pile and calling it ‘tidying’, or acting like they want the ground to swallow them up because you sang along to the radio, teenagers have a reputation for being unreasonable. But these kinds of annoying behaviours are not just sent to test us – there are developmental reasons behind them, helping teenagers along the path from dependent child to independent adult. And there are some surprising upsides to their most irritating habits…

‘Yeah mum, I’ve already tidied my room and I’m doing my homework!’ Photograph: Stocksy

They’re embarrassed by everything you do

Every parent with a teen knows there are many ways for adolescents to weaponise the word ‘Mum’. But by far the most deadly use is to mean: ‘You are the most embarrassing person in the world.’ And, for parents who feel hurt when they are censored by their offspring, it’s tempting to respond: ‘Why do you have to take what I do so personally?’

As with all things to do with teens, it helps to see this as a necessary phase. Teens are acutely self-conscious because they have an imaginary audience watching every move, even when there’s no one else in the room. Because they have not yet completely broken away from the tribe of their family to form their own identities, they feel that whatever their parents do rubs off on them, too – and they will also be judged harshly on it. It may even cause them physical pain. Brain scans show teens have more of an acute stress response than adults when they feel socially embarrassed.

The good news is that those intense feelings of humiliation-by-parent peak at about the ages of 14 and 15. As teenagers start to develop their own independence, they no longer feel you are letting down the family brand – and them by association. Avoid feeling hurt by remembering that it’s part of their necessary separation. Once they care less about what others think, they’ll go back to loving you just as you are.

They lie to you

Ask a parent what they most want from their relationship with their teen and the majority will say: ‘To be able to trust them.’ Research on teen dishonesty by psychology professors Nancy Darling and Linda Caldwell shows that close to 96 per cent of adolescents regularly tell falsehoods to their parents – and we find out less than half of the time.

But being lied to by your teen isn’t as bad as you might think. Studies show they don’t just do it to keep themselves out of trouble, they also lie about things they don’t need to, such as what music they’re listening to. This tends to hot up in early adolescence during their initial push for more independence – when they realise they have a separate life from you and can choose how much they reveal about it. Hiding the truth gives your teen the feeling of being in charge of their own choices for the first time. Thankfully, as their brain matures, their sense of self develops and their impulse control improves, teens tend to tell fewer of these gratuitous lies. By the late teens, their main deceptions will be omissions – particularly details around their love lives – because they’ve decided it’s time to get some healthy emotional distance from the parents who once were all-powerful in their lives.

Their rooms a tip

For younger children, a bedroom is a place to sleep and keep their things, but as they enter their teenage years, these four walls become an important expression of their identity. For adults, however, seeing the clothes their teen insisted they couldn’t live without piled in a heap on the floor can be exasperating. The secret to staying calm is to see it through the eyes of your adolescent. To a teen, their room is a haven where they can relax, be themselves and not abide by adult rules. It may be a mess, but it’s their mess. Being perched on a bed, surrounded by a nest of computer wires and food wrappers makes them feel secure. It’s here that your teen will process some of the difficult emotions they are going through.

View your teen’s untidiness as part of their necessary transition to adulthood.
The outward mess represents the massive reorganisation going on inside their brains. In fact, a tidy room could be more to worry about because a need to be overly in control of their environment may be a sign of anxiety. Rest assured that when your teen has their own home, they are likely to be every bit as houseproud as you are now.

Their crushes are all-consuming

The teen years are when romance becomes a priority for both boys and girls. Studies show that girls devote 35 per cent of their strong emotions to real or imagined relationships, whether it’s a pop star or a peer they barely know, while boys give 25 per cent.

Seeing your teen mooning over an object of desire who doesn’t even know they exist can feel frustrating, especially if they seem to have trouble focusing on anything else, like school work. And if your daughter has fixed her attention on a boy band, her insistence that she must have tickets to see them at every opportunity can prove expensive.

Crushes are a way for teens to practise being powerfully attached to someone who is not their parent. While these are not real relationships, they allow your child to have a trial run at playing more adult roles – just as they once played mummies and daddies, but this time with powerful sexual feelings on top. A crush allows them to experience intense emotions in a safe way until they are ready to have a real relationship with someone they actually know – usually a few years down the line, as it can still take young people some time to form a reciprocal relationship after this phase.

They only listen to their mates

The teenage years are a time of huge upheaval. Suddenly your child is stuck in a maelstrom of worry about how they look, how they are doing at school and how popular they are. This uncertainty is why your teenagers will insist they must have a specific new school bag or the same latest phone as their friends, because it’s safer having things they can feel certain their peers will approve of.

This obsession with what their mates are wearing and doing is actually an important survival tactic. Humans are social animals who have always formed groups to feed and protect each other. Exclusion from that group once meant isolation and death, and the safest way to get accepted is to be just like everyone else. As your adolescent starts to edge away from you towards independence, their friends are the support network they choose for themselves and which helps define them. So while it’s annoying when your teen is far more interested in what their friends have to say than in what you think, their slavish loyalty is giving them confidence to break away – while still under your protective umbrella.

They are uncommunicative

Confidence drops sharply during the teen years. After all, they have a great deal of unknowns to cope with, such as how the person they are turning into will be received by the world. Because they are unsure about themselves, your criticism will be heard particularly loudly and may confirm your teenager’s fears that they won’t be ‘good enough’. This could result in them folding inwards during this most difficult phase in the hope of narrowing the target for criticism – and that may mean becoming more monosyllabic or mumbling. Research shows this seems to hit boys the hardest, often triggered by self-consciousness about how they sound around the time their voice breaks.

Muttering no more than a couple of words in response to your questions is a way of asserting their right to privacy, as they realise the need to become increasingly independent. They are learning to manage their personal information and setting up the kind of boundaries they will need to protect themselves as members of the adult world.

Another irritation for parents may be the way your teen avoids looking you in the eyes when you are talking to them. Too quickly, we can see this as rudeness or lack of interest, but at a time when they are acutely sensitive to your judgment and don’t feel great about how they look either, it’s a form of self-protection. Brain scans have shown that teens are far more sensitive to facial expressions than we realise. They can even interpret your resting, blank face as negative, so they may be trying to avoid looking back at you to dodge any signs you are disappointed in them. It’s all part of the process of learning to read social cues, which they will need in order to navigate social situations as adults.

By smiling more, putting criticism on hold and letting them communicate in their own way through this phase, you will help your teen to grow into a young adult who will eventually return to communicating clearly and confidently.

What’s My Teenager Thinking? Practical Child Psychology for Modern Parents by Tanith Carey and Dr Angharad Rudkin is published by DK, price £16.99. To order a copy for £14.44 until 4 September, go to mailshop.co.uk/books