Now is the Right Time!
As a parent, you play an essential role in your teen’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-teen relationship, and growing your teen’s skills to manage anger provides a perfect opportunity.
Teens and emerging young adults ages 15-19 are still in the process of learning about their strong and changing feelings. They do not fully understand the physical and mental take over that can occur when angry. While striving for more independence, the sense of a lack of control that anger can produce can frighten them adding to the length and intensity of their upset. It might also humiliate them if they are mad in front of respected others like teachers, siblings, friends, or relatives. Teens may feel social pains more acutely because of the increasing importance of the roles of peers in their life. Learning how to deal with anger without suppressing it, beating it down, or expressing it by hurting others and/or themselves is critical. And, your support and guidance as parents matters greatly.
Research confirms that when teens learn to manage their emotions, it simultaneously strengthens their executive functions.1 They are better able to use self-control, problem solve, and focus their attention. This directly impacts their school success. However, the opposite is also true. Those teens who do not learn to manage their emotions through the guidance and support of caring adults have attention issues and difficulty in problem solving.
Yet, we all face challenges in managing anger. Your teen may slam the bedroom door as they refuse to tell you what is happening and why they are so upset. Anger may cover hurt, humiliation, fear, and stress. It may also mask guilt, shame, grief, or envy. Or, it could be the tip of an iceberg with a mass below of frustration.
The key to many parenting challenges, like managing anger, is finding ways to communicate so that both your needs and your teen’s needs are met. The steps below include specific, practical strategies along with effective conversation starters to prepare you to help your teen work through their roughest, most intense emotional times in ways that grow their resilience.
Whether it’s your fifteen-year-old melting down in frustration over trying to get math homework accomplished or your nineteen-year-old yelling after not being allowed to go to an unsupervised party, anger and its many accompanying emotions can become a regular challenge if you don’t help your teen create plans and strategies for dealing with and expressing anger.
Today, in the short term, learning to manage anger can create:
- a sense of confidence in your teen that they can regain calm and focus;
- trust in each other that you and your teen have the competence to manage a range of feelings; and
- added daily peace of mind.
Tomorrow, in the long term, your teen:
- builds skills in self-awareness;
- builds skills in self-control and managing emotions; and
- builds assertive communication to communicate needs and boundaries critical for keeping them safe and ready to deal with peer pressure.
This five-step process helps you and your teen manage anger. It also builds important skills in your teen. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are best done when you and your teen are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Teen Thinking by Getting Their Input
You can get your teen thinking about ways to manage their most upsetting emotions constructively by asking them open-ended questions. You’ll help prompt your teen’s thinking. You and your teen will also begin to better understand their thoughts, feelings, and challenges related to managing their intense emotions so that you both can address them. In gaining input, your teen:
- has the opportunity to become more aware of how they are thinking and feeling and understand when the cause of their upset is anger related;
- can think through and problem solve any challenges they may encounter ahead of time;
- has a greater stake in anything they’ve thought through and designed themselves, and with that sense of ownership, comes a greater responsibility for implementing new strategies; and
- will be working with you on making informed decisions (and understanding the reasons behind those decisions) about critical aspects of their life.
- Be curious about your teen’s feelings. You might start by asking:
- “How do you know when you are angry?”
- “What are some common things that make you angry?”
- “How can you tell when someone is angry with you? And what happens for you when someone is angry with you?”
- Use your best listening skills! Remember, what makes a parent angry can differ greatly from what angers a teen. Listen closely to what is most concerning to your teen without projecting your own thoughts, concerns, and feelings.
- Reflect or paraphrase back what you hear. For example, if your teen says, “Julie made fun of my clothes and called me fat.” You could say, “So I hear that Julie was really hurtful to you.” If you hear a subtext of feeling, as in this example, you can also reflect back the feeling implied. Also, you can seek further clarification if it’s needed. You could say, “I hear you were mad and probably quite hurt too.”
- Help your teen make the mind-body connection. Ask your teen, “What clues did your body give you that you were angry?” You can also say, “What are you feeling in your body now as you talk about it?”
What makes a parent angry can differ greatly from what angers a teen. Listen closely to what is most concerning to them without projecting your own thoughts, concerns, and feelings.
Be sure you talk about anger at a calm time when you are not stressed or upset!
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
Because anger occurs as we go about our daily lives, we may not consider its impact on our teen and our relationship with them. Learning about what developmental milestones a teen is working on can help a parent know when their ages and stages might be contributing to anger or frustration. Here are some examples:2
- Fifteen-year-olds are in the final year of the major physical changes that occur in puberty. They may feel a bit insecure and sensitive to criticism. They may be preoccupied with peer interactions and impressions. Homework and academic goals are less important than socializing but still important. Teens may fear failure in front of you, in front of their teacher, or their peers and may seek to avoid certain projects or tasks to avoid that feeling of humiliation. Though peers are highly influential, teens at this age still look to you for encouragement that they can handle the bigger expectations and work load. The peer group can present all sorts of emotional challenges including worries about who’s in the “in” and “out” crowd, to whom your teen is attracted, and to whom your teen desires to build friendships. Strong friendships can serve as a key support and also help motivate your teen to work hard in school, so your coaching and support of their connections with friends can also make a difference in their sense of wellbeing.
- Sixteen-year-olds are at the end of the awkwardness of their new physical being and are beginning to feel and appear more confident in themselves and who they are. They may have new important goals outside of school, and along with them they may experience stress and worries related to learning to drive, getting a driver’s license, getting a new part-time job, or trying out a romantic partnership. All these are critical steps for their exploration of adult life. This age group might be tempted to stay up late studying or socializing, but that lack of sleep challenges their self-control and ability to manage anger and anxiety in healthy ways. So, your role can be most effective keeping an open, non-judgmental dialogue about their social, academic, and life goals and how they can manage the normal stress and uncertainty that goes along with it.
- Seventeen-year-olds have more serious pursuits on their mind and may become highly focused on their academic and life goals as they consider the fact that their graduation is coming up, and they’ll need to face life after high school. At times, they may seem to feel invincible and, perhaps, overly confident while at other times, they might resort to behaviors from earlier years, seeming fragile and scared. It can become a highly stressful time, so your support during this time is critical. They’ll require multiple options for dealing with stress in healthy ways, and this may represent your last year for practicing together while still under your roof. If your teen is going to college, applying and preparing for that major transition will create stress. Also, it’s common for teens to unconsciously create reasons to get angry with parents as they attempt to make the physical separation of leaving home easier.
- Eighteen and nineteen-year-olds are now considered emerging adults gaining the ability to vote and are socially recognized as adults. Many will be entering college with a brand new set of academic goals and expectations. Also, they may be facing living on their own for the first time. For this reason, they may be eager to discuss the complexities of adult responsibilities. Most of all, they’ll need your listening and reflecting back. At times, they may exude confidence while at other times, they may feel highly insecure and run to you needing comfort and security. This is a time for redefining your relationship so paying close attention to their needs, offering your assurance that they are ready and can do it on their own, and allowing for their independence are some of your most important roles.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your teen up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems. This is also an opportunity to establish meaningful, logical consequences for when expectations are not met.
- Learn together! Anger or hurt is an important message from ourselves. It means our emotional, social, or physical needs are not getting met or necessary boundaries (our rules or values) are being violated. It’s important to ask: “Why am I feeling this way? What needs to change in order to feel better?”
- Understand your mind when angry. Anytime you are emotionally shaken from fear, anxiety, anger, or hurt, you are functioning from the part of your brain that developed first – the primal brain – or amygdala. During these intense feelings, there is a chemical that washes over the rest of your brain that cuts off access so that your only functioning abilities are in your survival center. This “hijacking” of your brain, as Daniel Goleman author of Emotional Intelligence refers to it, serves a critical role.3 In true survival circumstances, you are able to focus on fighting, fleeing, or freezing. If you are being hunted by a tiger, your mind focuses immediately on running away. Your body surges with hormones, such as adrenaline, that give you an extra boost of energy. A high level of anger can quite literally paralyze thinking. Effective problem solving requires logic, language, and creativity though none can be well utilized when greatly upset. But, in family life, fighting with words or actions or fleeing out the door is often not constructive, safe, or practical. Creating a plan (as you will be guided to do in the tool that follows) for what each member can do when they are in this state of mind and practicing it can prepare all members to act with emotional intelligence during a crisis, big or small.
- Understanding this often misunderstood emotion is key to helping our teens better understand themselves and learn healthy ways to manage their intense feelings. The following are some ideas to think about:4,5
- Anger is not bad or negative. We should not avoid or shut down the experience of it. There’s good reason for it. We have all experienced someone in our lives who has lost control and acted in ways that harmed themself or others when angry. However, we know that every emotion, including anger, serves a critical purpose. Anger provides essential information about who we are, what emotional or physical needs are not getting met, and where our boundaries lie.
- Expressing anger such as yelling will not dissipate it. In fact, research confirms that the expression of aggression, whether it’s yelling or hitting (and that includes parents hitting, yelling, or spanking), exacerbates the anger.2
- Venting, such as complaining, ranting, or even mumbling, does not get out the upset thoughts and feelings. In fact, venting is to anger as rumination is to worry. We can churn through worrying thoughts in our minds repeatedly, but those thoughts go nowhere and ultimately are unproductive. So too venting, whether we are listing off our complaints to another or talking to ourselves, tends to reinforce our negative thinking. That’s because it does not offer an alternative view of the situation nor does it pose any solutions. Because venting doesn’t change thinking, the feeling persists.
- Avoiding or pretending you are not angry will not make it go away in time. Because the emotion – like any other emotion – is emerging to send a vital message to its owner, it cannot be avoided or denied. When turned inward, that anger can become destructive in the body. Also, when anger is buried, it can be stuffed down for a time but may contribute to a larger explosion (that may not have occurred otherwise) because of the build up of heated emotions over time.
Deep breathing is not just a nice thing to do. It actually removes the chemical that has flowed over your brain so that you regain access to your creativity, language, and logic versus staying stuck in your primal brain. Practicing deep breathing with your teen can offer them a powerful tool to use anytime and anywhere they feel overcome with heated emotions.
- Model behaviors (and your teen will notice and learn!).4 Here are some ways that you can deal with your own upset or anger.
- Create a plan. This is critical so you’ll know exactly what you’ll say, where you’ll go to calm down, and what you’ll do and consider when you are calming down. Then, prepare your family so that they understand your plan, will recognize it when they see it, and can learn from it.
- Recognize your anger. This self-awareness can come from a number of cues. Take note of physical symptoms when they happen. It can cue you into the need to calm down before choosing your next words or actions. Notice the signs, discuss what signs your teen notices, and take the following steps.
- Breathe first. Slowing down your breathing serves a critical biological function. It allows those chemicals that have surged from your anger to recede. Your body is able to regain its composure. And, your brain is able to think beyond fight, flight, or freeze. Practice deep breathing audibly. Try breathing deeply through your nose while constricting your throat slightly producing a sound like the waves of the sea. Not only will the sound help calm you, but it will also emphasize and call attention to your breath for your teen to observe.
- Use strange calm. Switch into slow motion. Use the burst of energy to become extremely slow and intentional about using your body. Breathe and go within to regain your calm. No matter what chaos is happening around you, you can be assured that you will accomplish nothing – except perhaps to make matters more contentious – by reacting in an angry moment.
- Walk outside. The fresh air helps you breathe better, and the natural surroundings are instantly calming.
- Distract yourself. Research has found that distraction really does work to calm rage. Books, television, or movies can help.
- Write. Writing down your angry thoughts (versus ruminating in your head about them) can offer you a chance to re-evaluate your situation. You can reframe it, look at it from another perspective, or search for the silver lining. When you reflect in your writing on what you can learn from the situation, it has a calming effect. You might ask yourself, “What positive goal can I set, or what next step can I take to make things better?”
- Brainstorm coping strategies. There are numerous coping strategies you and your teen can use depending on what feels right. But, when you are really angry and upset, it can be difficult to recall what will make you feel better. That’s why brainstorming a list, writing it down, and keeping it at the ready can come in handy when your teen really needs it. Here are some ideas from Janine Halloran, the author of Coping Skills for Kids: imagine your favorite place, take a walk, get a drink of water, take deep breaths, count to 50, draw, listen to music, build something.6
- Work on your family feelings vocabulary. Yes, at times, parents have to become a feelings detective. If our teen shuts down and refuses to tell us what’s going on, we have to dig for clues. In fact, it’s necessary to be able to identify our emotions to become more self-aware and successfully manage our emotions.
Though at times it can feel like it, there are no “bad” emotions. All emotions have a positive intention. In fact, every feeling we have is a vital message from our ourselves quickly interpreting what’s happening around us. Because feelings are merely that – an instant interpretation – we always have the opportunity to reinterpret our circumstances and particularly our response to our feelings.
When you are reflecting on your teen’s feelings, you can think about unpacking a suitcase. Frequently, there are layers of emotions that need to be examined and understood versus just one. Anger might just be the top layer. So, after you’ve discovered why your teen was angry, you might ask about other layers. Was there hurt or a sense of rejection involved? Perhaps your teen feels embarrassed? Fully unpacking the suitcase of emotions will help your teen feel better understood by you as they becomes more self-aware.
- Create a chill zone. During time without pressures, design a “chill zone” or place where your teen decides they would like to go to when upset to feel better.
- Design a plan. When you’ve learned about what happens in your brain and body when anger takes over, you know you need a plan at the ready so you don’t have to think in that moment.
- Teach your teen how to stop rumination. If you catch your teen uttering the same upsetting story more than once, then your teen’s mind has hopped onto the hamster wheel of rumination. In these times, it can be difficult to let go.
- Talk to your teen about the fact that reviewing the same concerns over and again will not help them resolve the issue, but talking about them, calming down, and learning more might help. Setting a positive goal for change will help. Discuss what they can do when they are thinking through the same upsetting thoughts.
- Reflect on your teen’s anger so you can be prepared to help. Ask yourself:
- “What needs is my teen not getting met?” Their needs can be emotional needs like needing a friend to listen or give them attention, needing some alone time, or needing to escape a chaotic environment.
- “Can the issue be addressed by my teen alone or do they need to communicate a need, ask for help, or set a boundary?” One of the hardest steps to take for many can be asking for help or drawing a critical boundary line when it’s needed. You’ll need to find out what those issues are in your reflections with your teen first. But then, guiding them to communicate their need is key.
- Help your teen to repair harm when needed. A critical step in teaching your teen about managing anger is learning how to repair harm when they’ve caused it. Mistakes are a critical aspect of their social learning. We all have our moments when we hurt another. But it’s that next step that they take that matters in repairing the relationship.
- Find small opportunities to help your teen mend relationships. Siblings offer a regular chance to practice this! If there’s fighting, then talk to your teen about how they feel first. When you’ve identified that they had a role in causing harm, brainstorm together how they might make their sister feel better. You might ask, “What could you do?”
- Allow your teen to supply answers, and you may be surprised at how many options they come up with. Support and guide them to follow through on selecting one and doing it.
- Teach assertive communication through “I-messages.” When you or your teen are in the uncomfortable position of disagreeing or arguing with another, it can be difficult to know how to respond in ways that won’t harm yourself or others. That’s why teaching and practicing I-messages can provide a structure for what you can say. This statement works effectively from partner to partner, from parent to teen, and from teen to teen. Here’s an example: “I feel _______________________(insert feeling word) when you_________________ (name the words or actions that upset you) because _________________.” Here’s how it might sound if a parent is using it with a teen: “I feel frustrated and angry when you keep playing your video game and don’t seem like you are listening because I feel ignored, and I believe what I have to say is important for both of us.”
- If you are helping your teen use this in communicating with a friend who has angered them, here’s how it might be used: “I feel angry when you pick all of our friends for your team but me, because I was counting on playing with everyone. Now, I am on a team with others I don’t know.” Practice the wording together with your teen’s specific issue.
If you tell or even command your teen to make an apology, how will they ever learn to genuinely apologize with feeling? In fact, apologizing or making things right should never be assigned as a punishment since then the control lies with the adult and robs the teen of the opportunity to learn the skill and internalize the value of repairing harm. Instead, ask your teen how they feel they should make up for the hurt they’ve caused and help them implement their idea.
Create a family gratitude ritual. We get plenty of negative messages each day through the news media, performance reviews at school or work, and challenges with family and friends. It’s easy and often feels more acceptable to complain than to appreciate. Balance out your daily ratio of negative to positive messages by looking for the good in your life and articulating it. Model it and involve your teen. This is the best antidote to a sense of entitlement or taking your good life for granted while wanting more and more stuff. Psychologists have done research on gratefulness and found that it increases people’s health, sense of wellbeing, and their ability to get more and better sleep at night.7
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills, Confidence, and Develop Habits
Practice can take the form of cooperatively completing the task together or trying out a skill with you as a coach and ready support. Practice is not only nice, it’s necessary in order for teens to internalize new skills. Practice makes vital new brain connections that strengthen each time your teen performs the new action.
- Use “I’d love to see…” statements. When a teen learns a new ability, they are eager to show it off! Give them that chance. Say: “I’d love to see you use your chill zone to find your feet again.” This can be used when you observe their upset mounting.
- Recognize effort. Recognize effort by saying “I notice…” like: “I notice how you took some deep breaths when you got frustrated. That’s really going to help you!”
- Accept feelings. If you are going to help your teen become emotionally intelligent in managing their biggest feelings, it is important to acknowledge and accept their feelings – even ones you don’t like! When your teen is upset, consider your response. You could say, “I hear you’re upset. What can you do to help yourself feel better?”
- Practice deep breathing. Because deep breathing is such a simple practice that can assist your teen anytime, anywhere, it’s important to get plenty of practice so that it becomes easy to use when needed. Here are some enjoyable ways to practice together!4
- Hot chocolate breathing. Pretend to hold your hot cup of cocoa in both hands in front of you. Breathe in deeply the aroma of the chocolate. And then blow out to cool it in preparation for drinking. Do this to the count of five to give your teen practice. Then, look for chances to practice it regularly.
- Ocean breathing. Practice making the noise of the sea waves while breathing deeply from your diaphragm. Close your eyes with your teen and imagine that your anger is a fiery flame waiting on a sandy shore. And as you breathe life into the ocean waves, they grow closer and closer to the flame to extinguish it.
- Include reflection on the day in your bedtime routine. Begin by asking about worries or problems that your teen will surely consider after you leave the room. Listen and offer comfort. Demonstrate that you are allowing and accepting of the uncertainty of unresolved problems. You could say, “There’s no amount of worrying that is going to fix things tonight. So, how can you talk about accepting what you have and where you are now and working on it tomorrow?” Then, turn to gratitude. Teens may not have the chance to reflect on what’s good and abundant in their lives throughout the day, yet grateful thoughts can be a central contributor to happiness and wellbeing. And, grateful thoughts directly wipe out ruminations.
- Follow through on repairing harm. When your teen has caused harm, it’s easier to shrink away in shame and attempt to escape the problem hoping time will heal all wounds. But if real damage has been done – emotionally or physically – then your teen needs to take some steps to help heal that wound. It takes tremendous courage, however, to do so. So, in order for your teen to learn that a next choice can be their best choice and that they can make up for the harm they’ve caused, they need your guidance, encouragement, and support in following through on those steps. They are learning the invaluable skill of responsible decision making.
Step 4. Support Your Teen’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve taught your teen some new strategies for managing anger so that they understand how to take action. You’ve practiced together. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed. Parents naturally offer support as they see their son or daughter fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
- Learn about development. Each new age and stage will present differing challenges and along with them, stress, frustrations, and anger. So becoming informed regularly about what developmental milestones your teen is working toward will offer you empathy and patience.
- Reflect on outcomes. You could say, “Seems like you couldn’t get to sleep last night because you were feeling bad about what Julie said to you. Did you have a hard time paying attention in class? What could we do tonight to help?”
- Stay engaged. Working together on ideas for trying out new and different coping strategies can help offer additional support and motivation for your teen when tough issues arise.
- Engage in further practice. Create more opportunities to practice when all is calm.
- Apply logical consequences when needed. Logical consequences should come soon after the negative behavior and need to be provided in a way that maintains a healthy relationship. Rather than punishment, a consequence is about supporting the learning process. First, get your own emotions in check. Not only is this good modeling, when your emotions are in check you are able to provide logical consequences that fit the behavior. Second, invite your teen into a discussion about the expectations established in Step 2. Third, if you feel that your teen is not holding up their end of the bargain (unless it is a matter of them not knowing how), then apply a logical consequence as a teachable moment.
- If there are high emotions in your household most days, most of the time, then it may be time to consider outside intervention. Physical patterns begin to set in (as in depression) that require the help of a trained professional. Seeking psychological help is the same as going to your doctor for a physical ailment. In fact, it is wise to seek outside help when it’s time. The following are some resources to check out.
- American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) has definitions, answers to frequently asked questions, resources, expert videos, and an online search tool to find a local psychiatrist. http://www.aacap.org
- American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Healthy Children provides information for parents about emotional wellness, including helping children handle stress, psychiatric medications, grief, and more. http://www.healthychildren.org
- American Psychological Association (APA) offers information on managing stress, communicating with kids, making step-families work, controlling anger, finding a psychologist, and more. http://www.apa.org
- Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT) provides free online information so that teens benefit from the most up-to-date information about mental health treatment and can learn about important differences in mental health supports. Parents can search online for local psychologists and psychiatrists for free. http://www.abct.org
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
Though adults tend to forget, our attention is our teen’s sweetest reward. It’s easy to get caught up in the busyness and business of getting tasks accomplished like getting to work and school on time in the morning. But if your teen is working hard to manage their intense feelings, it will be worth your while to call it out. After all, your recognition can go a long way to promoting more of the same positive behaviors and expanding your teen’s sense of competence and responsibility. Add to your teen’s motivation to work hard with the following actions:
- Notice behavior! It may seem obvious but it’s easy not to notice when all is moving along smoothly. When teens are using the self-management tools you’ve taught them, a short, specific call out is all that’s needed. “I noticed you when you got frustrated with your homework, you moved away and took some deep breaths. Yes! Excellent.”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments in order to recognize. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. They need to happen along the way. Find small ways your teen is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Build in celebrations like game night, watching movies or shows together, or a favorite dinner. Include hugs, high fives, and fist bumps in your repertoire of ways to appreciate one another.
Avoid gifts or other physical rewards for performance. These actually have a de-motivating effect on teens. When you remove the money, for example, have they internalized the skills and also the sense of responsibility for performing them? There’s less of a chance if you’ve offered a “bribe.” Focus on your attention as the best reward.
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your teen. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for teens to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.