Ask the Doctor: Difficult Teenagers

Question: How do you deal with difficult teenagers?

Carmen McIntyre
Dr. Carmen McIntyre

I received a letter written by a gentleman asking how to deal with difficult teenagers at his job. He described them as rude and abusive. Basically, his problem is about dealing with bullies. Many websites discuss bullying in schools, typically involving children and teens. To my surprise, however, I came across an article in the Huffpost Healthy Living online edition entitled “10 Tips for Dealing with Bullies at Work.” Clearly, bullying can take place at any age.

What is bullying? Bullying is repeated, aggressive behavior targeted at specific people. Bullying can be physical, verbal or relational. Boys and men frequently bully using physical threats and actions, while girls and women are more likely to engage in verbal or relational bullying.

Examples of physical abuse: hitting, kicking, pushing, or threatening to do so, stealing, hiding, or destroying someone’s belongings, hazing, harassment, humiliation, or forcing someone to do things they don’t want to do.

Examples of verbal bullying: name-calling, teasing, taunting, insulting, or otherwise verbally abusing someone, yelling, intimidating, angry criticism and personal insults. Examples of relational bullying: refusing to talk to someone, excluding someone from groups or activities, spreading lies or rumors about someone, hazing, harassment, humiliation and forcing someone to do things they don’t want to do.

Unfortunately, bullying is common. Reports indicate that 25 percent of kids experience bullying, and 45 percent of American workers say they’ve experienced workplace abuse. Being the target of abuse has many harmful effects.

Results of bullying include:

• Being made to feel hurt, angry, afraid, helpless, hopeless, isolated, ashamed, and even guilty, as though the bullying is somehow your fault. Bullying affects self-esteem and confidence, makes existing mental illness worse, and can lead to depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

• Y our physical health can suffer, causing headaches, changes in appetite, high blood pressure and insomnia.

• You are more likely to miss, skip, or drop out of school, work, or other activities as you try to avoid the bully.

Why do bullies bully?

• They want to look tough or feel powerful. This gets worse if the person doesn’t stand up for themselves.

• They are jealous of you, or threatened by your potential success. They want to make themselves look better, or block your success, by pointing out your shortcomings.

• Sometimes they are trying to escape their own problems, stress and pressure. They may even be getting bullied themselves.

• Some may have a personality disorder or mental illness. Bullies tend to pick on people who are “different” or don’t fit in somehow. This could be because of how someone dresses or their physical appearance. The difference may be race, sex, religion, disability, or sexual orientation. It may also be just because you are new to the job, school or neighborhood.

What should you do when being bullied?

• Stay calm and walk away. Bullies want a reaction from you, and they want to control you. If you don’t get emotional, they don’t get what they want.

• Protect yourself. If the actions are physical and you can’t immediately walk away, protect yourself as best you can and get away as soon as possible.

• Report the bullying. If you don’t stand up for yourself, the bully will likely get more and more aggressive. However, most organizations do have ways of making complaints anonymous. Workplace bullying, especially, has serious consequences, and employers should address this immediately. Make sure to document everything.

• Never blame yourself. This isn’t about you, it’s about the bully. Do not let anyone make you feel ashamed.

• Do your best work. They are trying to beat you at a mind game, not your actual performance. However, their comments will seem more justified if you let them affect your work behavior.

• Be proud of who you are. There are many wonderful things about you. Think about those things rather than the things the bullies say.

• Get help. Talk to friends, counselors, Human Resources, even get legal advice. Get counseling to teach you how to deal with stress and build your self-confidence.

• Build a support network with coworkers or other students so that you have support and the bully can’t turn them against you.

• Stay healthy. Getting enough sleep, a healthy diet, exercise and recreation
makes you strong, resilient, and able to handle stress.

Finally, don’t expect or try to change the bully. You only have control over yourself. However, you can and should work with others to change the situation.

Dr. Carmen McIntyre is the chief medical officer at the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority. She is committed to ensuring that the Authority meets the mental health needs of those with substance use disorders, children with serious emotional disturbance, mental illness, and persons with intellectual and/or developmental disorders in Wayne County. If you have a question, please submit it to

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