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Q. My son is like Jekyll and Hyde. One minute he is hugging me goodbye before school. The next minute he is saying hurtful things -- for example, about his dad's forgetfulness or my weight or his sister's singing. When I try to talk to him about it, he always says the same thing. "I was just joking." Is this critical behavior normal for a 14-year-old? And how should I address the hurtful "joking"?
A. Unfortunately for parents of young teens their behavior is characteristic of what you describe as the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality. As you depict your teen, other parents would do the same. One minute a teen is kind and loving to family members, the next, critical and hurtful. One day controlled and thoughtful, the next ranting and raving because someone drank one of their colas. They're on an emotional roller coaster, in the morning a teen might be ecstatic and gleeful, after school sad, angry, annoyed or fiercely disappointed for not being included to hang out at the mall on Saturday with a group of friends. Typically, then, they retreat to their bedrooms, turn introspective analyzing themselves and others and this includes parents and siblings.
With respect to your son's inclination to poke fun at you, his father and sister, explain to him once that he might be having fun as he jokes about his Dad's forgetfulness, your weight or his sister's singing, but the three of you are not enjoying his mean-spirited teasing. He needs to hear from you that a joke is only a joke if both people are enjoying it.
You only explain the situation once because he's smart enough to understand what you're saying but his teenage mentality prevents him from voicing understanding, agreeing with you or apologizing. Just explain why he's not funny, that's what he's doing is hurtful and don't bring it up again.
Now that he's heard the truth of the situation from you, realize that it probably won't be enough to change his behavior. You, Dad and Sister need to take one step more. When he starts into a critical joking repartee, his victim needs to say, "That's hurtful. You're not funny. I'm leaving the room," and then do so. The other option is for each of you to completely ignore this hurtful joking. When you ignore him, do so by not looking at him when he starts up, look the other way, keep busy with what you're doing. In time this annoying critical habit it will drop out of sight.
Lastly, understand that teens are typically critical of parents. Teenagers' developmental task is to define who they are separate from their parents. To determine their own uniqueness, they go about analyzing how they differ from you. It's not always fun being the parent of a teen, particularly when it requires being attacked on a personal level. When it gets to be too much, take a few deep breaths and do some loving self-talk, "I'm fine, this difficult period will pass."