Parenting an Angry Teen: Four Steps for Fighting Smarter
By Meghan Vivo
Teenagers experience emotions more intensely than adults. Whether happy, worried, angry or sad, teens’ reactions can be exaggerated, and may elicit a similarly dramatic reaction from their parents.
Although disagreements and conflicts are bound to arise, there are ways to fight smarter rather than harder, according to PJ Swan, M.Ed., LPC, CADC, the clinical director at New Leaf Academy of Oregon, an all-girls therapeutic boarding school.
Step 1: Learn to Self-Regulate
The first step, according to Swan, is learning to self-regulate, whether through self-care, mindfulness, breathing techniques, meditation, positive self-talk, taking a timeout or some other soothing activity.
“When parents are angry, it can be scary for a teen,” explained Swan. “Even if they’re glad they pushed a few buttons, they ultimately see their parents as their safety net.”
Sometimes controlling anger is as simple as taking time before reacting so that you can formulate a more rational response.
Step 2: Examine How You Cope with Anger
There are four primary approaches parents take in dealing with anger and setting boundaries with their teens. What is your style?
When in passive mode, parents let anger have its way. They get overwhelmed and lose control, making exceptions to the rules and letting their child cross established boundaries. This approach often results in teens acting out even more.
Authoritarian parents take a rigid approach that leaves no room for flexibility. While certain rules should never be compromised because they protect a child’s safety, being overly rigid in other areas can increase a teen’s resentment without teaching them skills to self-regulate.
The anxious parent worries excessively, micro-manages and tries to resolve all of their teen’s issues for them. In addition to over-reacting to their child’s mistakes, anxious parents struggle to let their children figure things out for themselves.
The democratic style is an ideal that all parents can work toward. Democratic parents stop, look and listen before reacting, and take the approach that “everybody gets a say, but not everybody gets their way.” Teens feel safe in this type of environment because they feel heard and are confident that their parents will self-regulate and adapt to their changing needs.
Most parents identify with a number of these styles, and most “try on” different styles at different times in their lives. The key is to be mindful of what you’re doing in the present moment, evaluate whether it is what you want to be doing and make any necessary changes.
Step 3: Stay Mindful of Role Models
Parents are children’s first role models. Even though they look and act more grown up, pre-teens and teens continue to look to their parents for cues on managing anger and other emotions.
Swan recommends that parents observe how other parents interact with their teens, identify the qualities they admire and work to incorporate those into their own approach. Good role models do the following:
- Set fair and reasonable rules
- Practice active listening
- Use humor to diffuse difficult situations
- Model self-control through their own behaviors
- Set and consistently enforce consequences that help teens learn and be responsible
- Are flexible and adaptable
- Communicate openly and clearly
- Act as an authority figure while sharing information with their child and listening to their child’s thoughts and ideas
Step 4: De-Escalate Heated Situations
On the occasions when a battle can’t be avoided, parents can learn ways to fight smarter. Parents can’t control their teens (and attempts to do so will likely result in more heated arguments), but they can control themselves. By learning de-escalation techniques, parents can stay calm in the face of an angry teen.
In the heat of an argument, parents need to be mindful of the language they use so that the focus is on the issue rather than blaming the child. Even if parents do nothing else, avoiding threats will go a long way toward de-escalating a conflict.
“Conflict is reduced when we focus on the problem, not the other person’s worth or value,” noted Swan.
Other de-escalation techniques are:
- Speaking slowly and softly
- Repeating statements back to the teen and asking for clarification
- Asking open-ended questions to help lead the teen to a resolution while feeling heard and cared for (for example, “How do you feel about our disagreement? Is that the way you wanted things to go? How could you approach the situation differently next time?)
- Changing the environment by leaving the room and coming back when everyone is calmer (for example, parents might say “We’ll continue this conversation when your voice matches mine.”)
- Finding a healthy distraction such as music or exercise until you can decide on a solution
- Stepping back and trying to see the situation from a broader perspective (and accepting that not all arguments can be resolved immediately or on your time frame)
- Using “I messages” such as “I’ve been hurt and frustrated because our tones haven’t been respectful today” (but, Swan cautioned, avoid false I messages such as “I think you’ve been acting bratty today.”)
Swan also recommends that families make a plan in advance and agree on the approach everyone will take when arguments begin to escalate. Even if an argument doesn’t proceed as planned, parents have an agreed-upon strategy that they can refer back to.
“The biggest struggle can be not getting sidetracked,” explained Swan. “It is helpful for parents to have an image in their minds of what kind of interaction they want to have with their teen and what kind of parent they want to be, and then focus on taking actions that promote de-escalation rather than escalation.”
Parents should have a list of non-negotiable rules that are necessary to guard their child’s safety such as no drugs, alcohol or violence, said Swan, and fiercely guard and enforce them. But if parents can avoid unnecessary battles and be flexible on the less significant issues, there will be fewer blow-ups.
Finding Help for Teen Anger
Anger rarely gets either parents or teens what they want, and left unaddressed, can destroy relationships. Teens who struggle to manage their anger may need counseling or a stay at a therapeutic boarding school to develop new anger management skills and build stronger family ties.
Although frustration and conflict may be inevitable at times, we have the power to choose how we respond. And spending less time angry, and more time working together to develop solutions, will make everyone happier in the long run.