When parenting angry teens, it’s easy to "take the bait" and turn a minor challenge into a major power struggle – but that ends up being miserable for everyone. Instead, there are steps you can take to prevent or defuse a conflict and help your angry teen learn valuable lessons about respect and cooperation.
1. “No” is a complete sentence. Teens are programmed to push and resist against rules. Saying no is just a boundary, and if you feel guilty or bad for saying no, you are training your teens to have the belief that life should go their way – and if it doesn't, it's your fault as the parent! Say no, just once, and if she throws a tantrum, walk out of the room and let her anger be her problem.
2. Brainstorm solutions to the struggle. The idea is to never discount your teen’s idea. Write all the suggestions down and then hand the list to your teen first. She will go through them and cross off the ones that she doesn't like. Then you get the paper and the opportunity to cross off the ones you don't like. Usually there will be two or three suggestions left that the two of you can come to an agreement about. This is a wonderful problem-solving method and with enough practice, it can be done without writing anything down.
3. Don’t argue or challenge your teen when she’s angry. Many times moms and dads deal with angry outbursts by challenging their teens and shouting back. But this will just increase your feeling of being out of control. The best thing you can do is remain calm in a crisis. Think of it like this: If you get into a car accident and the other driver jumps out and yells at you, if you can remain calm, he will probably start to calm down and be rational. But if you yell back at him with an aggressive tone and say, “This was your fault mister,” the tension just stays elevated.
4. Don’t make empty threats. Giving harsh consequences – or multiple consequences – in the heat of the moment is a losing proposition. As you may have discovered, when you say to your teen, “O.K. Just for that, now you’re grounded for 2 weeks instead of one” …your teenager asserts, “I don’t care, screw you!” What’s really happening here is this: the mother or father has lost control and is desperately trying to regain control. Harsh consequences that seem never-ending to your teen are not effective, and will only make her angrier in that moment. Plus, most parents (after declaring that the child is grounding for 2 or 3 weeks) usually retract such a hard consequence later just to avoid further parent-child conflict.
5. Don’t try to reason with your teen when she’s in the middle of an “anger attack.” Many moms and dads fall back on logic when their teens are angry. After all, as grown-ups, we reason through things to defuse tense situations. This is always a challenge with teens, because they don’t have the same ability to stop and reason like we do. Thus, when you’re dealing with your angry teenager, you have to avoid using “reason” and use different techniques. Saying, “Why are you angry with me? You were the one who forgot your cell phone at school,” will only make your teen rage even more. She’s already “hurting” over the fact that she doesn’t have her cell phone, and now she perceives that you are rubbing salt in the wound. Instead, wait until she calms down, and then brainstorm some solutions.
6. Don’t wave the white flag. Some moms and dads give up when their teen throws a tantrum. The mother or father is emotionally overwhelmed and becomes paralyzed with indecision or gives in to avoid another bout of anxiety. If you’re this type of parent, you may find that your teen will get mad on purpose just to push your buttons – she will bait you by acting pissed or saying something hateful, because she knows that this will cause you to give in. So your job is to not take the bait (i.e., don’t get angry and don’t give in). Moms and dads sometimes have a tendency to renegotiate with their teen in these situations. They are having a hard time managing their own feelings, and as a result, they don’t know how to coach their teen properly in that moment. But remember, if you renegotiate, even every once in a while, you’re showing your teen that she gets her way in the end.
7. Emotionally detach. Sometimes we create patterns of reactive behavior with our teens. They say or do something we don't like, we react to it, they say or do something else, we react to that, and pretty soon, we are reacting to each other. The parent-child conflict escalates and we begin to try to force our teens to do things they don't want. We aren't solving the problem, and our reactions are hurting our teen and ourselves. The first step in emotional detachment is to understand that reaction and control will not work. The next step is to get peaceful and balanced. Out of that calm state of mind, a solution or an intuitive thought will emerge that will effectively resolve the issue.
8. Give consequences for the behavior, not for the rage. When your teen throws a tantrum, make sure you give her consequences based on her behavior and not on her anger. For example, if she calls you a “bitch” during a rage attack, give her a consequence later for that infraction of the rules. But if all she does is stomp into her room and slam the door, then let that go. Teens get pissed just like adults do. They need to feel that they have a safe place to blow off some steam. As long as they’re not violating any major rules, allow them to have their angry time.
9. Give your teen appropriate ways to be powerful. We all want to feel powerful, and if your teen doesn't have opportunities to do it appropriately, she will create ways to feel powerful that are inappropriate (e.g., power struggles, picking on siblings, etc.). In the middle of a battle with your teen, stop and ask yourself, "How can I give her more power in this particular situation?" It might be as simple as asking her for help in coming up with a solution.
10. Give your teen choices. We all like to feel influential – and our teens are no different. Let them make as many choices as they can that will give them control over what happens to them. For example, "Do you want to do your homework before or after dinner?" or "Do you want to have your friend over for pizza Friday or Saturday evening?"
11. Help your teen become aware of her sensitivities and tolerance level. Help her to see what she does and what she doesn't do when she gets overloaded. Urge her to verbalize her feelings and develop a reflective attitude toward her sensitivities. That way, she eventually learns to prepare herself for challenging situations.
12. Help your teen figure out what she needs. The most important way to help your angry teen is to become aware of her underlying insecurities and vulnerabilities and be as soothing as possible. Underneath the teen’s anger is her inability to let you know directly how much she needs you and how much she depends on you for comfort and security. The only response she knows is to act out (hardly a way to win friends). Therefore, you want to first gain your teen’s trust and confidence and somehow slip under her anger so that you can offer her what she really needs.
13. Let your teens know how valuable they are to you. The more they feel valuable to us, the less likely they are to use anger as a coping strategy. Ask their advice on buying clothes, or how to decorate your home. Have them teach you a video game or a fun activity.
14. Make your instructions fun and enjoyable. Many of us approach disciplining our teens with a serious, no-fun-allowed attitude. But think about how much more you learn when you are enjoying yourself. For example, try singing "no" (e.g., “no, not today”) instead of speaking in your usual admonishing tone of voice, or use a gibberish language to ask your teen to pick up her socks from the living room floor (e.g., “picky up socky’). Some parents think they don't have time to think of unique ways to teach their teens or that they aren't creative enough to come up with ideas. Those are just self-limiting thoughts, and you would be better served throwing them out of your brain. A great skill to have as parents is to think of fun ways to handle difficult situations. You might be able to immediately win a power struggle by forcing your teen to do something, but in the long run, you both lose.
15. Pay attention to your physical reactions. It’s important to watch your physical reactions, because your senses will tell you, “Oh crap, here we go with another knock-down-drag-out battle.” You’ll feel your heart start beating faster and your muscles getting tight. Even though it’s hard to do, the trick is to act against that in some way and try to stay calm. Remember, you’re showing your teen how to handle anger in these moments. By staying calm, you’re not engaging in a power struggle, and paying attention to your own reactions will also help your teen pay attention to herself because she won’t need to worry about you “coming down on her.” When you don’t respond calmly, your teen will work even harder to “win the battle.
16. Stick with the major issues. The average teenager receives approximately 12 minutes a day in actual communication with her mom and/or dad. The parents spend 7 minutes of that time correcting or arguing with their teen. That only leaves about 5 minutes with anything positive going on. So, carefully choose the major issues to work on with your teen, and don't hassle her with a lot of minor complaints. Working on too many issues at once can be overwhelming.
17. Take care of yourself. Have you discovered that when you are tired and overworked that you become irritable and controlling of your teenager? Possibly the most important thing you can do for your teen is to take care of yourself. To be an effective, loving mother or father, you need a lot of energy and encouragement. Make time for yourself whether it is a bubble bath, yoga, or a light jog around the park. Knowing your early warning signs of burnout is also important (e.g., your shoulders getting tight, noticing that you are getting grumpy, a headache starts to come on, etc.). These are signs of not taking enough time for yourself, and if you don't take that time, you will most likely become resentful over the time others demand from you.
18. Teach your teens to say “no” to you in a respectful way. How many of us were allowed to say no growing up? If we weren't allowed to, we did say no in a number of other ways. Like rebelling, or doing a job half-ass. Teach your teens to say respectfully, "No, I'm not willing to do the dishes, but I will sweep the floors and clear the table." This creates an atmosphere of cooperation and support.
19. Understand that “bad” behavior is a form of communication. If we hold the belief that misbehaving teens are "bad," then we get drawn into trying to fix the bad teen and make her "good." That type of belief system sets up the power struggle. Instead, understand that your misbehaving teen is trying to communicate something to you, and it is your job to "get" that message. Ask her if her behavior is effective, is she getting the results she wants. In this way, the judgment is taken out of the equation. You might say, "This doesn't look like it is working because it is making you even angrier. What else can you try?" …or show curiosity about her behavior, "Babe, I'm curious, why did you do that?" You will probably get an honest answer and have a better understanding about what is going on with your teen.
20. Use self-calming. This is a technique you or your teen can do instead of reacting negatively to a situation. Take a break to get into a peaceful state of mind, to work through your feelings and find alternative solutions to the problem. It is a way to relax instead of reacting in an angry or hurtful way. Try going to a special space you have created for yourself that is peaceful. Ask yourself the following questions: (1) What is the issue? (2) What is my part in this issue? (3) What is one thing I can do to solve this problem?
21. Use signals. Sometimes when a parent and teen are working on resolving recurring conflict, it is helpful to have a signal that alerts both of them to this pattern of behavior. Use signals that you both have agreed upon and feel comfortable using. Remember the more power and control you give your teen, the more likely she will be to cooperate. Signals that are funny are also a light way of reminding each other about your patterns.
22. Use win-win negotiation to resolve conflict. Most of us were not taught the concept of win-win negotiation. We most likely experienced situations that were win-lose or lose-lose. When your teen is angry with you for some reason, the most effective negotiations are when both sides win and are happy with the end results. It can be challenging since you must listen intently to what your teen wants while staying committed to what you want. Ask your teen, "I see how you can win in this situation – and that's great, because I want you to win. How can I win, too?" When teens see that you are just as interested in seeing them win as yourself, they are more than willing to help figure out ways that you both can win.
My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents