Being a teenager is difficult: Adolescents, especially younger adolescents, face a challenging combination of emerging social pressures, physiological changes, and a strong need for independence. As a result, most kids between the ages of 10-15 experience an increase in negative emotions, including anger. It’s not uncommon for kids in this age group to lash out (sometimes dramatically) over issues that appear very minor to the adults around them.
While most teens’ angry outbursts don’t signify an underlying mental health problem, dealing with their extreme anger can be disconcerting for parents. Knowing how to cope with your teen’s displays of frustration can help her stay calm, reduce your own anxiety, and help you better understand the underlying cause of her behaviour:
1. Understand that getting angry is scary for teens.
Though teen anger can be shocking to parents, it typically feels even more alarming from the perspective of the teen experiencing it. Teens who lash out seldom intend to behave poorly; instead, they’re unexpectedly blindsided by overwhelming feelings of distress and react by trying to fight off the perceived threat. Teens are prone to this type of “fight or flight” behaviour because their brains work differently than the brains of either children or adults. Research shows that adolescents react more impulsively to threatening stimuli than any other age group, particularly in social situations.
When your teen lashes out, remember that she’s probably frightened by the intensity of her own anger. She desperately wants to regain control over herself, but her brain isn’t allowing her to do so. Knowing this can help you keep the situation in perspective, understand that your teen’s remarks aren’t personal, and respond with empathy when she’s ready to calm down.
2. Don’t try to reason with your teen while she’s angry; empathize instead.
When the brain’s “fight or flight” response is activated, it suppresses activity in the areas of the brain associated with complex thinking and communication. As such, trying to reason with an angry teen is almost always futile, no matter how logical your points are. In the heat of the moment, any new information you ask your teen to process will heighten her sense of threat.
Generally, the best way to handle an out-of-control teen is to remain calm and empathize with the pain she’s feeling. Try saying something like, “I’m really sorry you’re feeling so upset; this must be very difficult for you.” If your teen doesn’t respond, ask if there’s anything you can do to help. If she still doesn’t want to talk, don’t pressure her to answer; step back and wait until she’s ready to discuss the matter further.
Note that empathizing with your teen doesn’t mean you should tolerate verbal abuse or physical threats. If your teen behaves inappropriately towards you, remove yourself from the situation until she’s calm enough to treat you with respect.
3. Try to divert your teen’s attention briefly.
If your teen seems willing to communicate with you, suggest the following techniques to help her calm down and tap into her reasoning abilities:
Distance. Remove your teen from the distressing situation (with her consent). Find somewhere safe and peaceful away from other people where she can regroup. Then, ask your teen whether she wants you to stay with her or give her some space for a while.
Distraction. Sometimes, focusing on something fun or relaxing for a few minutes can help teens “reset” and gain control over their feelings. Try suggesting small, manageable diversions to your angry teen; e.g., “I know you’re really angry right now, but I’d like it if we both took a time-out to listen to music for a few minutes,” or, “I want to talk about this issue later, but first, how about I fix us both a snack while you watch a YouTube video? I think we could both use a break.”
4. Be respectful, but be present.
Most teens need some “alone time” to help them calm down after they have an outburst. Still, while you should respect your teen’s request for breathing room, it’s a good idea to remain available in case she needs you. Don’t leave the house when your teen is angry, and occasionally check in with her to reassure her and make sure she’s all right.
5. Teach your teen how to reassess and repair the situation.
No amount of lecturing can prevent angry outbursts, but you can teach your teen to examine her own behaviour and repair any damage she’s caused. Once your teen has calmed down, encourage her to review the situation by asking open-ended questions, such as:
Out of everything that happened, what upset you the most?
Were you feeling hurt before you got mad? Why?
Did I not understand something you were trying to tell me?
Do you understand my perspective on the situation?
What do you think we could do better next time, so we don’t argue?
If your teen doesn’t feel comfortable answering these questions face-to-face, allow her to answer them via email or text messages. Using a mediator, like a therapist or another supportive adult, can also be helpful to resolve very volatile or recurring conflicts.
Your teen also needs to be given strategies to repair any damage she’s done to her relationships. These include apologizing for her behaviour, understanding and empathizing with the hurt she’s caused, and asking what she can do to make the situation right again. Your teen should also be willing to accept appropriate consequences for her actions, if necessary, such as the removal of any privileges she’s violated.
When is Anger a Cause for Concern?
Most teens learn how to manage their excess anger by age 16-18, but for some young people, anger becomes a chronic, debilitating problem. If your teen’s outbursts frequently interfere with her ability to manage her personal or academic responsibilities, you should work with a therapist to uncover what’s driving her anger. Likewise, teens who appear to be a danger to themselves or others (either through violence or indirectly through self-destructive behaviour) must be connected with professional help as soon as possible. Dealing with anger issues early in adolescence is the best way to prevent more serious behavioural problems later in life.