Anger is a natural and inevitable part of life, teenage anger even more so.
For parents living with teenagers who are constantly having verbal meltdowns or exploding into violent fits of rage, life can feel like a never ending battle. The constant anxiety and walking on eggshells awaiting the next outburst, then picking up the pieces afterwards can be exhausting.
Unfortunately because of its nature, anger has a lot of negative connotations which result in people believing anger is wrong or bad. Anger is not wrong or bad. In the same way joy, sadness, helplessness or hopeless are part of the natural gamut of human emotion, so too is anger.
The problem with anger is how people express and deal with their anger. The feeling is not wrong, but often the actions it prompts can be very damaging and unhelpful.
These unhelpful consequences can take many forms. This post is directed to helping teens whose anger causes them to “explode” with verbal or physical actions that escalate tension and can potentially harm those around them. (The other problematic teenage expression of anger is when it is not expressed externally and instead focused inwards, this can manifest in self – harm, eating disorders, substance abuse, and other dysfunctional behaviour. This is for another post).
Anger is a tricky emotion to manage for most people, and especially teenagers. The added complication for teenagers trying to deal with anger is their brain is wired to feel first and think later – not a helpful combination when the world seems constantly unfair and out to get you, as it does for many teenagers.
However teenagers don’t have to be victims to their anger, and neither do their parents. In this post I will outline how to help reduce the negative impacts of teenage anger.
What Teens Need To Learn
In order to reduce the negative impact of explosive anger, teenager’s need to learn some skills to manage their anger, or particularly the behaviour their anger causes. For them to learn they need to be taught, and parents are usually in the best position to teach and coach their teens in anger management skills.
Some of the basic skills for teenage anger management are outlined below.
Be Aware of Triggers
Teens need to learn that while it is okay to get angry, as it is a natural emotion, being angry doesn’t excuse behaving or speaking in a damaging or unhealthy manner.
One of the most important skills a young person struggling with anger can learn is to identify situations where they are most inclined to get angry. Some common trigger for teens include;
- Parents don’t let them do something they want
- Someone takes their stuff or goes through their stuff without permission
- Kids at school / online make comments about them
- They make a mistake with schoolwork or hobby
- A subject at school they struggle with
- They haven’t had much sleep
- Spending time with certain people
- Being spoken to by a teacher in a certain way
- They are accused of something they didn’t do
- Having their privacy / space invaded
- Being nagged to do something
- Being forced to spend time doing something they don’t like
Obviously as you read through that list you realise some things are unavoidable or beyond your teen’s immediate control. However, that doesn’t mean identifying those things as a trigger is pointless. If your teen is aware of situations where they are likely to get angry it enables them to do two things.
1. Your teen can come with a plan to avoid, or minimise the amount of times they find themselves in these situations. If it can’t be minimised or avoided then your teen can at least prepare themselves for those situations by choosing in advance what they will do when it occurs to help manage their anger. More on that a bit later.
2. When your teenager identifies their anger trigger, get them to consider what about that situation makes them angry. Most of the time, anger is the surface emotion caused by a deeper sense of hurt, frustration, powerlessness, or injustice. If your teen is able to identify how the trigger makes them feel other than angry, you can then work with them to develop ways of processing and managing those feelings. By doing this, a lot of the explosive power is taken out of the anger.
Aware of Warning Signs in Body
Try to teach your teen to be aware of the physical sensations they experience or behaviours they exhibit when they start to get angry. Many teens, even many adults, don’t realise they are angry until it is too late and they have already let their anger take over how they act.
Teens are particular susceptible to a lack of awareness, given their brain is still wired to feel and act before the thinking and checking process kicks in.
We are all different, but some of the common indicators people experience when they get angry include.
- Mind goes blank
- Insult the other person
- Face turns red
- Body or hands shake
- Start sweating
- Throw things
- Heavy or fast breathing
- Scowl or make an angry face
- Scream, raise voice, or yell
- Clench fists
- Feel sick to the stomach
- Punch walls
- Feel hot
- Become aggressive
- Become argumentative
- Go quiet and “shut down”
- Pace around the room
- Can’t stop thinking
There are two ways to go about helping your teen with this list. First, make yourself familiar with what is on it and next time you notice your teen starting to exhibit some of the aspects on the list alert them to it and ask them if they are feeling angry.
For example, you see Jayden clenching his fists and beads of swear forming on his forehead. So you could say something like;
“Jayden I notice you are clenching your fists pretty tight and starting to sweat, are you feeling angry?”
The second way to use this list, is during a calmer moment after a recent outburst sit down and talk with your teen about managing their anger. Ask to think back to how they felt just before the incident occurred. They might struggle to remember so if you observed some things offer them your observation. Or you might just want to print off the list and ask them if any of the things on the list ring true for them.
Identifying the feeling or behaviour is only part of the solution. Once your teen has identified what happens to them when they feel angry, they then need to learn to acknowledge that feeling or behaviour and use it as an early warning alarm to do something, preferably one of the skills below.
Learn How To Cool Off
Now your teen is able to identify they are angry or likely to get angry, they need to learn techniques to use to prevent the explosive or unhelpful behaviour and regain an element of self control.
For teens who struggle with anger these techniques need to be decided in advance and a commitment to following through on the course of action made when feeling calm, because leaving the decision until the anger is welling up is too late.
As soon as your teenager realises they are angry they need to need to be able to say to themselves “I am getting angry. I need to cool down before I do something I will regret!”
Some simple cooling off techniques include:
- Taking 20 really deep breaths
- Counting slowly to 50 before saying anything
- Choosing just to walk away
- Self Talk; “I can handle this” or “This isn’t worth it”
- Tense up muscles in their body and relax them repeatedly
- Picture a positive place or something enjoyable coming up
The preferred method for teenagers, is to remove themselves from the situation as soon a possible. However this may not always be practical, so knowing how to stay calm is an important skill to learn.
For most young people this takes some practise. Don’t let them get discouraged if they fail to cool off completely the first few times they try.
Find Healthy Outlet for the Energy
Knowing triggers, learning the warning signs of anger, and then being able to cool off, empowers your teen to make different choices rather than being a victim of their own anger.
Assisting your teen to identify what choices they can make about how to release their anger when they are aware of it rising up inside them is the next crucial step. Remember it is not the feeling that is wrong, but rather the behaviour demonstrated when the anger is expressed.
There are harmless, even healthy ways for the energy and emotion of anger to be very expressed. Just as the triggers and warnings will be unique to your teen, so too the methods of healthy processing of anger and cooling off.
Some techniques for your teen to consider and adopt:
- Listen to music
- Go for a run or a walk
- Play an instrument, draw, or paint
- Play a computer game
- Write about their feelings in a journal
- Talk to a trusted person about it
- Scream into a pillow
- Go to a private space to think
Getting in a car to go for a drive is not a recommended way of releasing angry energy. Similarly males are prone to want to hit things, if this is the case invest in a punching bag, it will save on medical bills and repairs to your walls.
Learn Assertiveness & Negotiation
Being able to be clear about what they need or want in a respectful manner is a skill that will reduce the power of anger in your teens life.
Anger is often the result of feeling frustrated, helpless, or mistreated. This is particularly true of teen anger directed at parents. If you are able to teach your teen a more constructive way to express their feelings they will quickly learn that carrying on and angry outbursts are not the best way to achieve what they need to want.
Assertiveness will require your teen is able to identify anger and cool off, but having done so teach your teenager how they can make their point clearly and effectively. Some simple tips include:
- Avoid using words like “never” and “always”
- Avoid telling other people what they are thinking or feeling i.e. “You hate me” or “You are never going to let me….”
- Avoid insults or name calling
- Use “I” statements i.e. “I need” “I find it hard” etc
- Tell the other person how their actions or words are impacting them “When you …. I feel…”
- Focus on the key issue by stating what is “important“ or “difficult” for you in a certain situation
- Be willing to negotiate – to do this you will have to listen and compromise
What Parents Can Do?
Along with teaching and helping your teen develop skills to manage anger, parents can also assist in teenage anger management by being proactive in their role of parent in the house.
Set Fair Fighting Rules
An absolute must in a home where one or more members have an issue with anger is have agreed rules for fair fighting. These rules need to be set and agreed to by everyone, and they must be clear enough that any breach is recognised as soon as it occurs. When a breach does occur, someone calls it a breach of the rules and the conversation ends. There should also be a consequence for the person who breaches the rules, other than not being allowed to continue the conversation.
It is up to you and your family to set your own rules, some suggestions to start with:
- Physical violence is never okay
- Verbal violence (name calling, threats, extreme put downs) is not accepted
- Yelling and screaming results in the conversation going on hold
As a parent don’t be part of the reason your teenager’s anger escalates. When they start speaking or behaving unhelpfully simply say to them “I am not going to have this discussion with you until you have calmed down” then walk away.
Don’t let your teen follow and bait you into continuing an argument, you just need to walk away – lock yourself in your room if you have to.
Don’t get stressed if your teen’s behaviour gets worse when you first do this, they will calm down once they realise you aren’t rewarding their behaviour with attention.
Be sure to follow up with them once they have calmed down and reiterate with your teen the need for them to manage how they express their anger. If possible, debrief with them what happened and what you both could do differently next time.
Model Healthy Anger Management
Lots of teens struggle with managing their anger because they have been brought up witnessing unhealthy anger management. If you or your partner are prone to explosive or unhelpful expressions of anger it will be very hard for your teen to heed your advice on choosing to manage their own anger differently.
Along with being conscious of doing all of the above, let your teenager know when you are starting to feel angry. Tell them you need to deal with your anger and calm down before continuing with any discussion. This models to your teen that anger is an accepted part of life, and reinforces the importance of having awareness and making constructive choices.
Hope these parenting tips help bring about some lasting change for you and your teenager.
Image credit Tomaž Štolfa