8 important things to do when teens get very angry

Adelaide psychologist kirrilie smout discusses anger in teenagers

Last week I was talking with a Mum who was very worried about her teenager and her anger. This teen was 14 and would scream and rage when told to turn off screens or that she wasn't allowed to go out and see her friends.  Her anger was scary - so much so that this Mum asked me "Does she has schizophrenia?"

She didn't.

While "rage attacks” can be scary, they are NOT usually a sign serious mental illness and are more common than parents realise.  Even teens who look like butter would not melt in their mouth while out in public, can get scarily angry at home.

Here are some ideas about how to cope.

1. First, understand that feeling extremely angry is often a very distressing experience for teenagers.  They aren’t simply “choosing” to be badly behaved, they are experiencing overwhelming feelings and strong biological changes in their bodies/brains at that moment.  They feel out of control and a desperate desire to get control back.  They are often experiencing intense desire to fight/hurt something or someone.

If we had their brains hooked up to monitoring machines we would see real changes - part of their brain is telling them they are being attacked by a tiger and they want to fight back.

If you take one thing from this article, please remember this:  an angry teenager is a distressed teenager.

Knowing this can help us not take it so personally and to stay calm ourselves.

2.  While the teenager is angry, try to stay around the teen - or at least be in the same house.  Don't crowd or invade privacy, and don't risk your own safety - but don't leave them entirely alone for a long period of time.  Some teens are at risk of hurting themselves when they are very angry and it is important to keep an eye on them and ensure their safety.

3. Don't try to reason with, problem solve or teach the teenager a lesson while they are very angry.  

Remember - when teenagers are very angry, part of their brain is in "attack mode".  Systems in the brain which do fighting and defending have been activated.  This also means that systems which do the complex learning, communication and thinking have been shut down.   I've heard it said that we are just as unlikely to "get through" to an angry teenager as we are being able to teach a fighting dog to learn to sit.

4. Instead, empathise if you can.  

Instead of reasoning with, arguing with or yelling at a teenager, take a moment to calm yourself.  Say silently to yourself "my teen is distressed". Then out loud - say something caring and supportive.

"I’m really sorry you are feeling this, it must feel pretty awful to be so upset."
"I can see you are very angry, I'm sorry you have to go through this."


Don't labour the point.  Say this once or twice and then stop.

5. Try to help to activate other areas of their brain to help them calm down.

Calming a very angry teenager is the first priority.  Here are a couple of ways to do this.

Distance – get them to move physically away from the source of distress if possible.  Get into another space - outside, in another room, away from people.  Go with them - or if this seems to make things worse, tell them where you will be and check in with them.

Distract – help them add other things into their mind – Playstation, TV, coming up with ideas about weekend, quizzes, other play etc. They will be resistant to this, so break it into manageable bits:

“I know you still feel really angry, but I would really like it if you would agree just to spend five minutes to watch a youtube video, get something to eat and take a breath”

“I’m not going to just forget this issue altogether, but before we do anything I think it would be good to take a break – how about you go and play basetball outside for a few minutes and then we can talk again”

6. Boundaries

Whilst doing all of the above, it is still important to set limits.  If teens are verbally abusing you, tell them you are going to move away into the next room and will come back in a few minutes.  If teens physically threaten you, tell them you will also move away.  Tell them you won't be able to do anything else (including making their dinner, taking them places) until you have a chance to calm down yourself and recover.  If you feel as though a teenager might harm someone, immediately call the police.

I can't talk with you while you are screaming at me.  I'm sorry you feel so bad, but I'm going to leave the room and come back in a minute.
I feel very upset to see you so upset.  But you swearing at me is going to make things worse, so I am going to sit in the car for a while unless you think you can calm down pretty quickly.
If you throw anything else, I am going to have to leave.  
I'm sorry that you are upset, but if you hit me or anyone else, I will have to call the police/uncle X/someone else in order to make sure things don't get any more unsafe.

7. Follow up Later

Some parents struggle with the approach I have outlined above because they feel as though the teenager is "getting away with" bad behaviour.   This is where this "follow up later" step is really important.

At some time when everyone is calm, the teenager is then required to have a follow up conversation about what happened, what went wrong and how it can be done differently next time.  No teenager ever wants to do this, but it needs to be a no choice activity.  It can be done via email, letter or face to face - it might be done with a mediator, or with another supportive adult - but it needs to be done.  Much of the conversation is questions NOT just a lecture.  Asking questions will help the teenager make changes more consistently than just "telling them off".  Questions which might help include:

What made you the most angry
Were you feeling hurt about something?
What didnt I really understand?
What do you think my concerns were?
How could we have done this differently?

After these questions, the parent should outline their own concerns.  The parent/teen can then discuss how things might be managed differently next time.

8. Teach repair

It is very important to teach teenagers how to repair relationships when they have acted in aggressive or abusive ways.  As parents we often feel deeply hurt by teenagers and it is vital to coach, explain and teach teens HOW to repair.  This is partly so that we feel better (which means we can parent better) and partly to help teens know how to do this in their other relationships.

Teaching repair skills means teaching teens to apologise (the words to say, when and how), how to be kind following an argument, how to quietly acknowledge hurt (what to do, and not to do) after an argument (ie not cheerfully asking for money three seconds after saying sorry!) and other skills.

Finally

It's not easy to follow these steps.  If you can just take one or two - then you should congratulate yourself.  

As always  - remember to be kind first and foremost to yourself.  Parenting an angry teen is hard work.


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