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 behavior 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 in Chicago who treats violent and acting-out teens and their families.
But that doesn’t mean we should accept aggressive behavior as “normal,” Mayer says. Avoiding conflict by giving in to your teen’s demands or by shrugging aggressiveness and teen anger off and saying, “What can I do? They’re doing it at school,” will reinforce the negative behavior.
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 teenager who is bigger and stronger than you. Moreover, you may worry about the effects outside the family. Could the aggressive behavior come out as road rage, or negatively affect future schooling, work, or relationships?
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, don’t ignore it. “Communicate clear, predictable expectations that will help address this challenging behavior,” says Meredith Silversmith, a licensed marital and family therapist and co-founder and clinical director of Nassau Wellness in Garden City, New York.
Communicating and implementing consequences for unacceptable behavior 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 withhold the car keys, or you can shut off the Wi-Fi.
“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. “There must be a line in the sand at which point parents say, ‘If you continue with this behavior, I will have to call 911,’” Silversmith says. Then follow through, if the situation really warrants it.
Instead of immediately launching into “Why are you acting this way? What’s wrong with you?” when your teen loses it, create emotional distance with teen anger 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 behavior? “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 in Wellesley, Massachusetts, 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. 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.
Find a trusted therapist.
If your teen’s meltdowns continue to escalate, find the help of a psychologist or licensed clinical social worker who specializes in working with angry teenagers. “It’s the key to ensuring that your teen doesn’t have an underlying mental health issue that needs treatment,” says Silversmith.
Seek help sooner than later. “Most parents think they can handle their angry teenager 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 your teen’s temper doesn’t progress to even riskier behavior—such as substance abuse or harming others—or permanently erode your relationship. Having an angry teenager is tough, for everyone. But this tough period doesn’t need to last forever, and you don’t need to handle it alone.
Sandra Gordon is is a freelance writer in the New York City area. Read more of her work at sandrajgordon.com.