How to defuse your teenager’s anger

Constantly clashing with your son or daughter? Here are a few ideas to help calm things down

Young woman clutches head in anger
‘She seems to flare up at the slightest thing.’ Photograph: Alamy
‘She seems to flare up at the slightest thing.’ Photograph: Alamy
Annalisa Barbieri
Sun 12 May 2019 12.00 EDT

I have a 15-year-old who has issues with anger. I don’t know what language to use, as everything I say is classed as “boring” or “stupid”. We often end up shouting at one another, and we both get defensive. She seems to flare up at the slightest thing. She wasn’t always like this and I don’t know what to do.

Annalisa Barbieri: The first thing to try to ascertain is if something is wrong: is she having trouble at school, for instance? Children – even teens – will act out how they are being made to feel. So is someone calling her stupid or boring?

Anger is an entirely legitimate emotion, but to be effective – and not destructive – it has to be appropriately used, and that goes for both of you. I think it’s good that your teen is voicing how she feels; after all, you wouldn’t want her to just acquiesce, would you? Or is that what you are used to her doing up until now?

Parents who have been quite controlling with their children and haven’t prioritised discussion find it particularly hard when teenagers rebel against that control and start answering back. Remember it’s essential that teenagers start to break away from their parents and find their own voice.

Teen behaviour and how parents react to it can tell us a lot about ourselves. It can trigger unresolved issues from our own adolescence. How did you deal with her anger when she was a small child? And what does her anger/behaviour tap into for you?

I always find it pays to be authoritative but respectful and at times, sympathetic, to teens. Puberty isn’t easy. At no other point (other than as toddlers) do their brains go through such rewiring. The part of the brain that deals with primal emotions – the amygdala – also develops at a different stage to the pre-frontal cortex, which deals with reason. So, for a time, they have all the anger and emotion without the ability to apply perspective.

Never be afraid of a healthy discussion with your teen. Even if it doesn’t look like she’s listening, she will be. But learn to apologise if you are wrong and, hopefully, she will (eventually) do the same. The ability to spot hypocrisy and injustice is strong among children and teens. Look at how you speak to your daughter. Is she mirroring? Use “I” in your communication with her. “I find it hard when …” rather than “you do X and Y”.

Adolescence is also the time when anything unresolved from their childhood (especially from a time when they were pre-verbal) can rear its head. This is when you get “anger from nowhere” but, when you dig a little, it invariably comes from somewhere: maybe a trauma or a loss, often – with the best intentions – not really explained or handled properly. Children bear witness to a lot. Did anything like that happen at some point?

Make sure you have lots of one-on-one time with her and remember what it is you liked doing together when she was a child. When you are both calm you can try to discuss issues about which you both get heated. For example: “I find it hard when you call me stupid; it makes me feel wretched. How are you feeling when you say that to me?”

The time to sort out arguments is never in the argument, but when you have both had time to calm down and re-engage with the parts of your brain that bring reason.

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