Dealing with Teen Anger and Violence
If you’re a parent of a teen who is angry, aggressive, or violent, you may live in constant fear. You may feel like you need to tiptoe around your child to avoid conflict. You may worry every time your teen leaves the house that they could get hurt or hurt someone else. You are likely unsure of how you ended up with this angry teen and blame either yourself or your child.
Regardless of your situation or how it happened, the key to remember is this: putting up with out-of-control behavior and/or violence is as harmful for your teen as it is for you. Teens who learn coping skills for managing their anger are more enjoyable to be around and grow up to be more successful, have better relationships with others, and feel better emotionally. It is absolutely possible, and important, to teach adolescents how to manage their anger.
How to cope with teen anger
Anger can be a challenging emotion to understand because it often masks other underlying emotions such as frustration, embarrassment, sadness, hurt, fear, shame, or vulnerability. For example, we tend to become angry if we are embarrassed in a social situation or someone hurts our feelings or rejects us. Many teenagers don’t know how to recognize the root emotions driving their anger, let alone express themselves or ask for help. When teens become overwhelmed by these feelings, they may lash out.
Here are a few ways that parents can help their teens manage their anger:
Role model appropriate behavior. Youth learn how to deal with their feelings through example. Teens watch us more than we think and absorb our actions. Seeing how you react in various situations is the most powerful teacher to your child, so be sure to handle your own anger appropriately. If you yell, swear, and break things, don’t expect your teen to control their anger. If members of your family hit each other, call each other names, or throw things, your teen will naturally assume that these are appropriate ways to express their anger as well. Instead, talk about your angry feelings in a calm way. For example, you might say, “I’m really angry that you didn’t clean your room like I asked you to. I’m going to go take a break to calm down for a few minutes, and then, we’re going to talk about your consequence.”
Explain the difference between aggression and assertiveness. When you and your teen are calm, take the time to talk to your teen about anger. Explain that while angry feelings are completely acceptable, aggressive behavior is not. Define aggression for them as making threats, calling people names, destroying property, or pushing/hitting someone. Discuss the potential consequences of aggressive behavior. However, be sure to explain that while they shouldn’t be aggressive (intimidating), they should be assertive. Assertiveness is standing up for your right to be treated fairly and/or advocating for yourself in a clear, direct and honest way that is positive and proactive. They can share their feelings and their opinions as long as they do it in a respectful way.
Establish boundaries, rules and consequences. People are guided by the expectations of those around them, and teens need boundaries. At a time when both you and your teen are calm, sit down together to discuss family rules and the consequences for breaking those rules. Be specific about what you consider respectful and disrespectful. For example, you might say that name-calling, threats, or put downs won’t be tolerated. Get your teen’s input on what they think are reasonable limits and listen to their concerns if they think a rule you want is too restrictive. In addition, once you have set rules, establish consequences for when your teen breaks the rules. Consequences should be realistic and get your teen’s attention. Once the rules and consequences have been established, post them somewhere where you and your teen can see them and follow through on consequences when your teen crosses a line.
Empathize. If your teen is frequently angry, it’s time to determine the root cause. Is your teen feeling hurt, embarrassed, or afraid? Is your teen sad or depressed? Discuss what feelings are behind the anger and help your teen name and identify them. Be sure that you listen to your teen without interrupting or judging. This sends a powerful message to your teen that you care about what they think and feel, and that you’re willing to consider their viewpoint, even if you disagree. Many times, repeating back what your teen says to you, or saying you can understand why they feel a certain way, will help them know that they are being heard and feel understood.
Identify triggers and signs. All of us have triggers – things that make us angry – and signs – physical symptoms that warn we are becoming angry. We often aren’t even aware that these exist, but if you pay attention, you can often identify them:
Triggers. Are there certain things that your teen knows always bother him? For example, perhaps a certain class at school makes their blood boil or a specific peer at lunch gets them hot. When you know the trigger, you can teach your teen to make decisions to manage them. Sometimes your teen can simply avoid the trigger. Other times, your teen’s triggers may not be avoidable, but you can help them develop a strategy to stay in control of their emotions during those times.
Warning Signs. When people begin to grow angry, there are physical warning signs. Your teen may feel like their heart is racing, they might get a headache, they may begin to pace, they might be breathing faster, their face might flush, their muscles may tighten, or they could feel hot or sweaty. Teach your teen how to recognize their body’s own warning signs. When they notice their body beginning to react, it’s time to use an appropriate coping skill (listed in the next bullet) to defuse the anger before it gets out of control.
Find healthy ways to relieve anger. Your teen needs a collection of socially appropriate ways to deal with angry feelings, ready to use when anger rears its ugly head. Discuss positive coping skills with your teen and ask them to identify a couple that they feel might work for them:
- Exercise is an especially effective way of handling anger in a positive way. Running, biking, climbing or hitting a punch bag can help relieve tension and anger.
- Creativity is an excellent method for relaxing and/or expressing oneself in a constructive way. Dancing, journaling, drawing, or playing along to loud music can provide relief.
- Relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, yoga, visualizing a happy place, or meditating can quickly calm someone down.
- Time-out breaks are very helpful when discussions get heated. Taking a 15-minute break to calm down when they begin to feel angry is a very mature way to handle their emotions. When your teen is angry, allow them to retreat to a place where it’s safe to cool off. Don’t follow your teen and demand apologies or explanations while they are still raging; this will only prolong or escalate the anger, or even provoke a physical response.
Red flags for violent behavior in teens
If your teen is violent, you might be past the point of being able to teach these positive anger management skills to them. If your teen threatens you, bullies others, fantasizes about violent acts, is intentionally cruel to animals, shoves or hits anyone in your family, or punches holes in your walls, you absolutely should seek professional help. Contact your pediatrician’s office for a referral to a counselor or psychologist who knows how to deal with aggressive teenagers. If your teen is violent towards you, immediately seek help from a friend, relative or the police if necessary. It does not mean that you don’t love your child, but your safety and the safety of others should always come first.