Managing Your Teen’s Anger

By Sandra Gordon

Disrespectful texts from your teen: “I HATE U SO MUCH!” Yelling, screaming, shoving matches. Punching walls. The «F» word.

Verbally and physically aggressive behaviour isn’t unusual for teens, especially if it’s directed at their parents and siblings. After all, to develop their sense of individuality and independence, teens are biologically and socially programmed to buck the system.

“Some teen aggression is expected,” says John Mayer, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who treats violent and acting-out teens and their families.

“But that doesn’t mean we should accept aggressive behaviour as “normal,” Mayer says. Avoiding conflict by giving in to your teen’s demands or by shrugging aggressiveness off and saying, “What can I do? They’re doing it at school,” will reinforce the negative behaviour.

When things don’t go your teen’s way, such as when he refuses to follow your house rules and hand over his cellphone on school nights at 11 p.m., you may find yourself uncomfortably facing down a frighteningly angry teen who is bigger and stronger than you. Moreover, you may worry about the effects outside the family. Could the aggressive behaviour come out as road rage, or negatively affect future schooling, work, or relationships?

Teen tantrums can become a pattern, leading to outbursts in college, the workplace and in their personal life. “Teens can become so aggressive and out of control that they can sometimes miss out on important developmental steps they need to become successful adults,” Mayer says.

Help your teen manage anger now, while you still can. The experts say it’s not too late, and they offer some temper-taming tactics that can serve teens well into adulthood.

Establish clear boundaries and expectations. When your teen acts out by, say, shoving her sister or yelling, don’t ignore it or yell back. Instead, “Communicate clear, predictable expectations that will help address this challenging behaviour,” says Meredith Silversmith, a licensed marital and family therapist.

Communicating and implementing consequences for unacceptable behaviour can sometimes help. For instance, you can hold your teen accountable by telling her that shoving isn’t allowed and sending her to her room until she calms down. Or you can shut off the Wi-Fi, or withhold the car keys. “The key is to stay calm, consistent, and predictable,” Silversmith says, which can be challenging in the heat of the moment.

If your teen still acts out, don’t back down. Establish a consequence and follow through to nip bad behaviour. If you’re out to dinner, for example, and your teen says something mean to her brother, you might say, “We don’t talk that way to each other. If you keep it up, we’re done.” If the behaviour doesn’t stop, leave the restaurant. “As a parent, you’ve got to take risks,” Dr. Mayer says. “Some parents are afraid of their own kids, which is how aggressive behaviour gets exacerbated.” If your teen’s aggressive behaviour continues to spin out of control; if say, your teen punches a wall when you say no to going to a party, don’t be afraid to take drastic measures.

“There must be a line in the sand at which point parents say, ‘If you continue with this behaviour, I will have no choice but to call 911,” Silversmith says. Then follow through, if the situation really warrants it.

Dig deep. Instead of immediately launching into “Why are you acting this way? What’s wrong with you?” when your teen loses it, create emotional distance by anchoring yourself in the present. Take a mindful breath and ask yourself: What emotions and sensations am I feeling? What’s behind my teen’s behaviour? “If you lead with a sense of curiosity and compassion, any request you make will go over much better
with an angry kid,” says Mitch Abblett, a psychologist and author of Helping Your Angry Teen.

Taking a step back might also help you understand what you may be doing to add fuel to the fire of your teen’s anger. Raging adolescent hormones and sleep deprivation can ignite teen outbursts. “Your teen could just be tired,” says Abblett. But your teen might also feel like he’s not getting enough respect for his capabilities or resent having his privacy invaded, such as when a parent reads his texts or enters his room without knocking, or acting out because of something going on at home or at school.

Find a trusted therapist. If your teen’s meltdowns continue, find the help of a psychologist or licensed clinical social worker who specializes in working with teens. “Teens and parents can end up reinforcing a coercive cycle,” Abblett says. It can go like this:

You present a demand, such as “You need to put your phone into another room when you do your homework,” and your teen says no, or your teen makes a request, such as asking to go out on a school night, and you say no. Anger escalates and you give in or become so intense that your teen shuts down. A therapist can coach parents and teens on how to break those frustrating patterns and establish healthier ones.

“Working with a therapist is also the key to ensuring that your teen doesn’t have an underlying mental health issue that needs treatment,” says Silversmith, such as depression.

Seek help sooner than later. “Most parents think they can handle their teen’s anger themselves,” Abblett says. But it can take the experience and skill of a trusted therapist to help everyone get a handle on the situation so that a teen’s temper doesn’t progress to even riskier behaviour—such as substance abuse or harming others—or permanently erode your relationship. This tough period doesn’t need to last
forever, and you don’t need to handle it alone.