Coping with an Angry Teenager

Coping with an Angry Teenager

Picture of Meri Wallace
Meri Wallace

Meri Wallace, LCSW, a parenting expert and child and family therapist for over thirty years, grew up in Coney Island, Brooklyn. Meri completed her Masters degree in Social Work at NYU, specializing in child development. Meri writes a blog for “Psychology Today”, and is the author of “Birth Order Blues” (Henry Holt and Co.) and “Keys to Parenting Your Four Year Old” (Barron's Educational Series.) She has been a columnist for Sesame Street Parents, New York Family Magazine,and Brooklyn Parent and has been a consultant to Children’s Television Workshop. She is frequently interviewed by national publications including Newsweek, Cosmopolitan, and Parents Magazine.

Whatever I do or say sets him off

Recently at a parenting workshop, a mom described an interaction with her teenage son: “Every day, I drive my 15 y-o son to school. The whole way there he sits with this head down and his earphones on. If I ask him a question or try to tell him anything, my teenage time bomb goes off. I used to be able to talk with him about anything. I don’t know how to talk to him anymore.” All the parents nodded their heads in agreement. And then in a chorus they asked, “Why is this so?”

The teen years are all about kids separating from their parents and becoming independent. They are preparing to go out into the world. This is actually part of the natural process that begins at birth. It is related to a two year old saying no to everything, to assert her individuality, or a feisty pre-schooler exclaiming, “You’re not the boss of me.” The child declares in words and actions: I am separate and independent. This need feels urgent to teens and creates tremendous friction in the parent/child relationship.

Separation and independence is often achieved through aggression, including verbal rudeness and at times physical means. (When asked what makes their kids angry, parents will answer in unison, “Whatever I do or say sets him off.”) If you keep these developmental issues in mind, and view disputes with your teenager and his difficult behaviors in this context, rather than as a power struggle, a sign of his rejection of you or that he is a bad kid, you will survive this stage on a more even keel. Be aware too, that even though teens can seem so mature at times, they are not fully grown. The frontal lobe of their brains that regulates self-control is not fully developed (this happens in the mid-twenties) therefore they are still impulsive and cannot always think and act reasonably.

It is important to keep in mind as well, that the psychological and emotional turmoil of the teen years is fueled by puberty hormones that create intense roller coaster emotions and cause teenagers to have an extremely short fuse.

The way you communicate with your teenager and your actions play a major role in in the outcome. Here are some helpful approaches that can lead to more positive results:

Acknowledge her emotions: If you tell her she may not play any more video games and she says, “I can’t stand you,” focus on her anger and acknowledge it, “I can see that you’re angry, you’d like to continue playing.” Then set a limit, “Those words are hurtful. It’s ok to be angry, but you need to say, ‘I’m really angry’ and we can talk about your feelings.’”

Listen to his requests: Teens constantly lobby for more freedoms: “I want to hang out with my friends later,” or “I want to get a tattoo ”are common battle cries. If you say no immediately, the teenager will feel enraged that you have all the power. Rather than reacting: “What? Are you crazy?” or saying no immediately, open up a dialogue. You can say, “I hear you. You want to stay out later than you are. We have to talk more about this.” If you disagree with a request, try this: Restate the issues; “We have a problem. You want to go to the mall. You have a report due tomorrow. It’s my job to make sure you are doing your work for school. What shall we do?” Your child will feel his wish is being acknowledged, and he has some power because he is involved in the problem solving.

Respect your child’s privacy: Teens often see their room as their castle and connect it to their individuality. It is best to establish a family policy whereby members knock on the door and not barge into each other’s rooms. Walking in unannounced leads to unnecessary battles. Teens also feel very protective of their possessions, so it is always advisable to ask to borrow something and avoid going through your child’s things.

Avoid infantilizing your teen: Teens have an allergic reaction to being babied. She wants to feel you respect the fact that she is no longer your little baby and that she can take care of herself. Any hint of babying will make her livid, and she will scream, “I don’t need you.” Double standards reign, however. If she has a science project due, she may ask you to race out immediately and get her some poster board. It’s best not to jump in and fix something for your child without asking if she would like your help.

Avoid criticizing his every move: Teens feel insecure and hate feeling controlled. Therefore, it’s best to avoid giving your child an endless list of instructions, barking commands at him, or engaging in a running critique of him. Speaking in a respectful way is recommended to all people, but to a teen who feels easily insulted, and each experiences each criticism as a a blow to his self-esteem, it’s best to choose your words carefully.

Spend time with your teen: Even though your teen constantly seems to want distance and keeps pushing you away, she still wants your love and attention. Though she will not be around much and won’t want tons of interaction, try to establish a few family routines. If she enjoys playing games, set up an hour or two on a specific night for a family game night. Sneak in a pizza dinner, or a walk to the doughnut shop to give you a few moments to catch up.

Set up a weekly meeting: Teens are allergic to talking about college applications or other major responsibilities. A parent can feel anxious when the days are passing by, a deadline is nearing and nothing is getting done. Establishing a set time for a short meeting once a week to work on a large issue such as college applications, will lower your anxiety and reduce the feeling that you need to nag him to get anything done.