Many of the phone calls received by the Salt Lake County Youth Services Outreach and the Prevention team are from parents asking what can be done with their angry or violent teenager. Below are some tips and helpful information that may help struggling parents better help themselves and teens find solutions in dealing with the frustration and fear of anger and violence.
Screaming fights, destructive behavior and volatile moods… Does your child’s anger and rage make you feel exhausted and out of control?
In a recent Empowering Parents poll, Angie S. commented, “I walk on eggshells around my 15-year-old son. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I’m afraid of his explosive temper.” In that same poll, more than 50 percent of respondents said that they end up “losing control and screaming back” when their child’s anger reaches the boiling point. But matching your child’s rage with your own angry response is not the answer.
Tired of fighting with your child? Learn how to get through to him effectively.
Many parents of oppositional, defiant kids walk around on eggshells around their children, trying not to upset them. I think it’s completely understandable why you would get into that habit. But remember, your child isn’t learning to behave differently when you do this.
In fact, by getting you to tiptoe around him, he’s teaching you to behave differently—he’s training you to anticipate his angry outbursts. So instead, do the things that you would normally do—don’t alter your behavior to suit your child’s moods.
When you talk to your child about his triggers, always ask, “How are you going to handle this differently next time?” That’s the real purpose of looking at triggers—to help your child better understand them so he learns to respond differently the next time he gets angry or frustrated. The most important thing to remember is that helping your child deal with his anger now will help him manage these feelings later on in his life.
With some kids, their explosive anger escalates until it becomes destructive. If your child breaks his own things during one of his rages, he should suffer the natural consequences of losing those items—or he should be made to replace them with his own money. Even a young child can help with the dishes or do chores around the house to earn things back. If your child is older, he can pay you back with his allowance or money from his part-time job. This is a great lesson because your child will clearly see that his behavior caused the problem: He threw his iPod against the wall—now he doesn’t have one.
Let me add that if your teenager is breaking your things or being very destructive in your house—threatening you, punching holes in the walls, kicking in doors—this is another matter entirely. If your child is doing significant damage when he loses his temper, or if you’re feeling unsafe, I recommend that parents call someone in, like the police. Look at it this way: If you don’t do anything to protect yourself, other family members, or your home, what’s the message that’s being sent to your child? He will learn that he’s in complete control—and that the best way to get what he wants is to be destructive.
If your child or teen has developed a pattern that includes breaking things, part of your plan would be saying to him ahead of time, “If this happens again and I feel unsafe, I’m going to have to call for help. I’m going to ask Dad to come in, call the neighbors, or the police.”
Dealing with angry teens
Anger can be a challenging emotion for many teens as it often masks other underlying emotions such as frustration, embarrassment, sadness, hurt, fear, shame, or vulnerability.
When teens can’t cope with these feelings, they may lash out, putting themselves and others at risk. In their teens, many boys have difficulty recognizing their feelings, let alone being able to express them or ask for help.
The challenge for parents is to help your teen cope with emotions and deal with anger in a more constructive way.
Establish rules and consequences. At a time when both you and your teen are calm, explain that there’s nothing wrong with feeling anger, but there are unacceptable ways of expressing it. If your teen lashes out, for example, he or she will have to face the consequences—loss of privileges or even police involvement. Teens need rules, now more than ever.
• Uncover what’s behind the anger. Is your child sad or depressed? For example, does your teen have feelings of inadequacy because his or her peers have things that your child doesn’t? Does your teen just need someone to listen to him or her without judgment?
• Be aware of anger warning signs and triggers. Does your teen get headaches or start to pace before exploding with rage? Or does a certain class at school always trigger anger? When teens can identify the warning signs that their temper is starting to boil, it allows them to take steps to defuse the anger before it gets out of control.
• Help your teen find healthy ways to relieve anger. Exercise, team sports, even simply hitting a punch bag or a pillow can help relieve tension and anger. Many teens also use art or writing to creatively express their anger. Dancing or playing along to loud, angry music can also provide relief.
• Give your teen space to retreat. When your teen is angry, allow him or her to retreat to a place where it’s safe to cool off. Don’t follow your teen and demand apologies or explanations while he or she is still raging; this will only prolong or escalate the anger, or even provoke a physical response.
• Manage your own anger. You can’t help your teen if you lose your temper as well. As difficult as it sounds, you have to remain calm and balanced no matter how much your child provokes you. If you or other members of your family scream, hit each other, or throw things, your teen will naturally assume that these are appropriate ways to express his or her anger as well.
Make healthy lifestyle changes
• Create structure. Teens may scream and argue with you about rules and discipline, or rebel against daily structure, but that doesn’t mean they need them any less. Structure, such as regular mealtimes and bedtimes, make a teen feel safe and secure. Sitting down to breakfast and dinner together every day can also provide a great opportunity to check in with your teen at the beginning and end of each day.
• Reduce screen time. There is a direct relationship between violent TV shows, movies, Internet content, and video games, and the violent behavior in teenagers. Even if your teen isn’t drawn to violent material, too much screen time can still impact brain development. Limit the time your teen has access to electronic devices—and restrict phone usage after a certain time at night to ensure your child gets enough sleep.
• Encourage exercise. Even a little regular exercise can help ease depression, boost energy and mood, relieve stress, regulate sleep patterns, and improve your teen’s self-esteem. If you struggle getting your teen to do anything but play video games, encourage him or her to play activity-based video games or “exergames” that are played standing up and moving around—simulating dancing, skateboarding, soccer, or tennis, for example. Once exercise becomes a habit, encourage your teen to try the real sport or to join a club or team.
• Eat right. Healthy eating can help to stabilize a teenager’s energy, sharpen his or her mind, and even out his or her mood. Act as a role model for your teen. Cook more meals at home, eat more fruit and vegetables and cut back on junk food and soda.
• Ensure your teen gets enough sleep. Sleep deprivation can make a teen stressed, moody, irritable, and lethargic, and cause problems with weight, memory, concentration, decision-making, and immunity from illness. You might be able to get by on six hours a night and still function at work, but your teen needs 8.5 to 10 hours of sleep a night to be mentally sharp and emotionally balanced. Encourage better sleep by setting consistent bedtimes, and removing TVs, computers, and other electronic gadgets from your teen’s room—the light from these suppresses melatonin production and stimulates the mind, rather than relaxing it. Suggest your teen tries listening to music or audio books at bedtime instead.
Take care of yourself
The stress of dealing with any teenager, especially one who’s experiencing behavioral problems, can take a toll on your own health, so it’s important to take care of yourself. That means looking after your emotional and physical needs and learning to manage stress.
• Take time to relax daily and learn how to regulate yourself and de-stress when you start to feel overwhelmed.
• Don’t go it alone, especially if you’re a single parent. Seek help from friends, relatives, a school counselor, sports coach, religious leader, or someone else who has a relationship with your teen. Organizations such as Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCA, and other youth groups can also help provide structure and guidance.
• Watch out for signs of depression and anxiety and get professional help if needed.
This won’t last forever
It’s worth reminding your teen that no matter how much pain or turmoil he or she is experiencing right now, with your love and support, things can and will get better—for both of you. Your teen can overcome the problems of adolescence and mature into a happy, successful young adult.
Youth Services Outreach and Prevention team offer a free of charge 8 week Anger Management class that focuses on identifying anger triggers/thinking errors and teaching skills to better manage and diffuse anger. We also offer a free of charge 10 week Strengthening Families class to teach parents, teens and other family member’s skills to help open up dialog for better communication. Anger Management classes are open to teens 12-17. Strengthening Families classes are open to families of teens 12-17 years of age. Daycare is provided for children 11 and under. If you’re interested in any of these classes, please call the Outreach/Prevention team at 385-468-4528 or visit www.youth.slco.org.
Teenage behavior issues references and resources
Janet Lehman, MSW
Teens and Violence Prevention – Tips for parents about reducing or eliminating teen violence. (Palo Alto Medical Foundation)
Understanding Teens (PDF) – Information about typical adolescent development and how to handle common teen problems. (New Mexico State University)
A Parent’s Guide to Surviving the Teen Years – What to expect during the teenage years and how to handle typical adolescent behavior problems. (KidsHealth)
Parenting Troubled Teens – Articles and resources for parents raising a troubled teen, including information on programs for troubled teens.
That Teenage Feeling – How Harvard researchers may have found biological clues to quirky adolescent behavior. (APA)
Authors: Lawrence Robinson and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D.