There can be no simple solution when facing a raging teen. It is not fair or even effective to expect mothers and fathers to avoid upsetting their teen. Once your teen gets pissed-off, you can’t always make it better.
Unfortunately, moms and dads can make it worse - and even reinforce angry behavior - if they shout, insult or argue back. Sometimes the best we can do is to not make it worse and then deal with a teen’s rage at a better time in a fair and effective manner. Giving teens a consequence later when you are not upset - and when they are not upset - is always best. They may get upset later, but at least your consequence was not given out of rage. Teens are less likely to "get even" later if you don’t discipline them when you are upset.
Dealing with Teen Rage: 15 Tips for Parents
1. In order to come up with a solution that will help, it’s important to first figure out what the problem is—what causes your child’s rage? You’ll be on your way to stopping the tirades once you identify your teen’s “triggers” (i.e., the events or situations that precede the rage). Learning your teen’s triggers is one of the first steps to helping her learn better anger-management skills. When she’s able to learn her triggers, she’ll start to recognize them when they begin to brew. Only when she recognizes them can she start to use a new strategy to manage them.
2. Actively listen to the emotions behind your adolescent’s rage. Then share observations like “When I become angry, it’s usually because I first feel hurt, disappointed, embarrassed or some other emotions” or “In that situation, I know that I would first feel rejected and then probably somewhat annoyed.”
3. Adolescents need help in challenging and replacing unrealistic thoughts (e.g., all or nothing thinking like “I need to be perfect or I am a failure”). Help them challenge such thoughts with more realistic and compassionate thoughts (e.g., “Just because I feel like I have to be perfect does not mean it is true”).
4. Adolescents need to learn skills in body awareness and relaxation in order to reduce the physical tension associated with rage. Simply deeply inhaling and exhaling three times can help an adolescent become relaxed. This approach can be rehearsed when your teen is calm so he easily remembers to use it when he actually experiences rage.
5. Adolescents perceive things very differently from grown-ups. You might assume you know what happened, but your teen probably experienced it very differently. So ask her about it even if you think you know the answer. For example, you might ask “What were you thinking right before you dropped the F-bomb during class?” Some adolescents have trouble putting their thoughts into words when they are upset. If your teen is still upset from the incident, give her time to calm down before trying to have any sort of conversation about what happened.
6. All adolescents benefit when they learn healthy rage-management. When they do so, they gain increased self-awareness, frustration tolerance, self-control, competence and empathy for themselves and others. In contrast, adolescents who mismanage rage may exhibit social withdrawal, academic underachievement, substance abuse, bullying, gang participation, prejudice and suicidal behaviors.
7. Enlist the help of other grown-ups in your teen’s life to observe your teen’s behavior and interactions (e.g., other relatives, other parents, teachers, coaches, etc.). If your teen starts raging while others are around, ask them what they saw happen right before the rage started (e.g., if she starting raging in school, find out what the teacher saw happening or what other students reported to her). Think of yourself as an investigator interviewing the witnesses so that you can piece everything together and start to make connections between environmental factors and your teen’s rage.
8. Let your teen know what you have observed about the trigger and the subsequent raging behavior (e.g., "I’ve noticed that when you think something is unfair, that's when you start calling me a bitch"). By connecting the dots for her, you are helping her learn what triggers her rage. Then come up with a plan for what your teen will do differently next time she is in this kind of situation.
9. Observation is one of your best tools for identifying your teen’s triggers, especially with those who have less self-awareness. Simply pay attention and be aware of the warning signs. Watch and listen, whether your teen is hanging out with friends at home, doing homework, or playing video games. You might start to notice patterns emerging. For example, maybe your teen does well with her homework but starts to get mouthy and upset when it’s time to do her chores. That would alert you that there may be a trigger related to chores that you want to explore more.
10. Often there are physical symptoms that come along with triggers. The nervous system kicks into high gear when a trigger is present and can cause rapid heartbeat, warm flushed cheeks, rapid breathing, cold hands, muscle tension, and a lot of other signals. Ask your teen what she feels in her body when the trigger you are talking about is occurring. When your teen is aware of the warning signs her body gives her, it will serve as a natural cue to put the new plan you came up with during your problem-solving discussions into action.
11. Partner with your teen to establish some type of cue that you will use whenever she is starting to get upset (e.g., clapping your hands, clearing your throat). Choose one specific trigger to work on, and then come up with some kind of hand signal or phrase that will serve as an alert to your teen that the trigger is present. This allows you to make your teen aware of the trigger subtly in social situations. Once you have alerted her, she’ll have the chance to self-correct. If you cue your teen, but she doesn’t use the response the two of you had planned on, have her take a break from whatever is going on and come speak to you in a quiet place, away from an audience. This is where you step in and help your teen correct her behavior. Let her know you gave her the cue, but you noticed she didn’t respond the way you had discussed. Remind her of what you talked about and let her know what the consequences will be if she doesn’t use the plan the next time you cue her.
12. We teach "healthy anger" to adolescents by helping them realize they are more prone to experience negative emotions and related rage when they maintain unrealistic expectations and conclusions regarding others and ourselves. Your teenager may be prone to rage when he has rigid expectations (rather than a desire or wish) that he or others “have to” or “should” behave as expected (e.g., your daughter may experience expectations of entitlement that make her vulnerable to rage following the slightest disappointment).
13. We teach adolescents healthy anger-management when we help them recognize that rage is most often a reaction to other negative emotions such as embarrassment, anxiety, guilt, shame or hurt related to rejection or feelings of inadequacy. Sharing your emotions, unrealistic expectations and conclusions that underlie your rage, helps your teen reflect on the meaning of his rage. By modeling reflection and self-awareness, you also offer your teen permission to candidly and openly accept and discuss his feelings and thoughts.
14. Visual imagery offers a way towards physical control and relaxation. The following exercise can be rehearsed so that your adolescent can gain physical composure when he actually experiences tension associated with rage:
- Have him sit in a comfortable chair, close his eyes and visualize a place that is extremely relaxing and peaceful.
- Suggest he imagine the colors, the sounds, the air quality, the shapes, lines and texture of the objects in his scene.
- Once relaxed, suggest he shift his attention to envisioning his muscles becoming more relaxed, beginning with his forehead, his face, jaw, neck, shoulders, torso, and down to his toes.
- Then have him do this once again. By rehearsing it, he develops the capacity to relax his body without having to actually picture the scene.
15. Healthy anger implies managing it in a constructive way, not denying, minimizing, or suppressing it, nor letting it “all hang out” in the form of rage. Most importantly, we teach healthy anger-management by helping adolescents recognize that anger is a natural emotion. We teach healthy anger-management by helping them to:
- Recognize and identify the negative emotions behind their rage
- Identify, challenge and replace unrealistic conclusions and expectations
- Learn physical relaxation skills to maintain composure
- Develop problem-solving skills.
With time, most adolescents not only learn how to respond more effectively when triggers occur, but they learn to anticipate them and even avoid situations that might set them off. They will start to see triggers as real things that they can manage with real tools. When your teen realizes there are things she can do to manage her triggers appropriately, your pay-off is a teen that knows herself well, has improved anger-management skills, and feels more confident about herself. And when you’re able to help your teen reduce her tirades, you’ll feel calmer and more in control too.
Problem solving skills may involve brainstorming, thinking through alternative ways of managing rage, communicating rage and evaluating effectiveness of strategies for managing rage. While most adolescents benefit from these strategies alone, some may need additional support from professionals. Special support is indicated when your adolescent’s rage is of a long duration (several weeks or longer), is intense (physically or verbally) and is pervasive (directed at many different individuals and in many different settings). Learning healthy anger-management is a process that takes time. It requires commitment, practice and patience – from you and your adolescent.
My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents