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Defusing Teen Anger: Remaining Calm in the Face of Chaos

Parenting teenagers is like playing with fireworks.

There are moments when they snap and pop at a safe distance. I can hear them from afar, but I don’t suffer.

There are other days when they explode just a bit too close for comfort. I might be in a nearby room and feel the reverberations. Though I may not be the target, I’m likely to experience some discomfort from the noise. A lingering headache is not out of the question.

Then, on the worst of occasions, I become the target of an incendiary event.

Because the M-80s and cherry bombs are lit and hurled by the ones we love the most, their impact can trigger an angry response. However, It’s important to remember that the culprits are not yet fully capable of rational thought and reasoning. Their teenage brains are not fully formed.

So, what should a well-meaning parent do to help them get through these years with minimal damage to the parent-child relationship?

Looking Back On My Own Teen Anger

In order to find the answer, I revisited my own memories of being an angry teenager.

When my teen anger boiled over, what did my parents say or do to make me feel better … or worse? When they pushed back with frustration and anger, I’d retreat to my room and punch something. But when they listened and simply remained calm, my anger would subside.

And even though I wouldn’t have admitted it at the time, when they took it all in and nodded to show their understanding, I couldn’t help but love and appreciate them.

I felt heard.

I’m sure I still stormed out of the room, but my anger softened. Their lack of resistance gave me nothing to push back against, and though it was confusing at the time, I appreciate the calm parenting strategy now that I’m a parent. Remembering my own unwieldy and often unprovoked teen anger that was always raging just below the surface of my understanding helps me better relate to my own teens.

I Just Listened

One summer morning, my daughter Maddie walked into the living room and greeted me with a tired grunt. Her days are always better when she has a plan, but on this particular day, her calendar was empty. It seemed like she intended to fill it with a healthy dose of attacking her parents for no apparent reason.

I have to be careful when asking questions when she’s feeling like that.

If she thinks I know that she doesn’t have plans for the day and I ask her what’s on the agenda, I get a snarky response. If I don’t ask her anything, she is frustrated because I’m ignoring her. I’m tuned into these no-win situations, so I thought I was being helpful when I asked if she’d like to shoot some baskets with me. “I don’t know,” she snapped. “It’s too early to think about playing basketball right now.”

A couple of days later, she limped into the living room, her new shoes having left a nasty blister on her heel. She’d recently covered the blister with a Band-aid. “Dad, how am I supposed to wear these things?” she asked. “I can hardly walk.”

I took a deep breath and, in that moment, ran through my possible responses while imagining her reactions to each:

Me: Why don’t you just wear a different pair of shoes today?
Her: If I do that, why did I bother paying for these new ones?

Me: Maybe you should just tough it out until the blister forms a callus.
Her: Oh, so you’re saying I’m a wimp and can’t handle the pain?

Me: You could try putting two Band-aids over it.
Her: If I do that, it will feel like I’m growing a wart on my ankle. Gross!

Because there were really no good response, and I honestly didn’t know what to say, I just listened.

I looked at her and reminded myself that, for whatever reason, she was hurting.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “Blisters can really hurt.”

She paused and then left the room without saying anything. I believe she felt my sincerity, and I’ll count that as a win.

I realize I’m making my daughter sound like a brat. She’s not. She has a job, saves her money, takes care of her responsibilities, and has a big heart. At times, her personality is shrouded in the mystique of being 15. It’s as though someone is constantly tossing a blanket over her head and she’s repeatedly trying to shrug it off. Her parents’ words, facial expressions, and gestures all seem to add to her irritability. Remembering that I felt similar teen anger some 30 years ago allows me, at times, to be empathetic to this stage of life she’s experiencing when dealing with an angry teenage daughter.

Despite the fact that I cannot predict my daughter’s actions or reactions, I have noticed one sure-fire way to maintain connection with her.

Remain calm and show compassion, no matter how much chaos swirls around her. That’s it.

While my daughter launches bottle rockets at my head, I must calmly step aside and never raise my voice. I must let her know that I hear her and am sorry that her heel hurts, that she is tired, or bored, or cannot slice her bread to the correct thickness. Those things suck, and they suck worse when it feels like she isn’t being heard. Simply acknowledging the suckiness of it all helps calm her. She cannot help but put down the M-80s and cherry bombs—and peace is again restored, if only for a little while. Sure, she might flick a few bang snaps at my feet as the conversation continues, but I can handle those with a patient smile. She’s a teenager, after all. And, like fireworks, I know I have to handle her with care.

David Rockower is a teacher and freelance writer. He has published articles in The Washington Post, Education Week, Your Teen for Parents, and is a regular columnist for State College Magazine. His book is titled The Power of Teaching Vulnerably: How Risk-Taking Transforms Student Engagement.

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