Once the teen years hit, our once-babies are doing all sorts of new things—without us. We aren’t walking them to school anymore; they’re driving themselves. They’re making real-life decisions. We’re not picking out their clothes anymore (or they would be 16 and wearing Robeez); in fact, we pretty much have to zip our lips when they walk out the door in shorty- shorts or a sweatshirt that smells like dirt-sweat and Axe. Half the high school boys have mangy beards and the girls’ look closer to 27 than 16. They might be dating, breaking up, experiencing heartache, and mending. They are learning to live in a complex world and doing a lot of things we adults do, like juggling work and real life (school qualifies as both). Sometimes we look at them and are tricked into believing they are a slightly younger version of us.
We don’t always remember that they don’t think like adults—because they aren’t adults. Sara Bean, M. Ed, writer for Empoweringparents.com, explains, “Even though adolescents might engage in adult-like behaviors or try to act like adults, they do not have the brains of adults. The brains of adolescents are still developing, and they continue to do so into their early to mid-twenties.”
For all the adult roles our kids take on, the evidence that their brains aren’t fully evolved is there.
The proof is in things like The Milk Challenge, an entertaining-only-to-high schoolers trend that just won’t go away (Google it.) I’ve heard of a kid cheered on as he ate an entire head of cabbage on a dare. (My son was not cabbage-boy, but he was in the audience.) My basement ceiling has head-sized-holes from my teens competing to see who could jump highest. (I guess immature brains work overtime when there are bragging rights involved.)
These same teens have an awful lot on their plates. Imagine their daily lives: strapped to a desk 7 or 8 hours at a time and having to take notes and listen to often reeeaaally boring teachers, yet staying attentive enough to answer questions on demand. After school they have sports, jobs, clubs, homework, family obligations. They don’t truly have too much down time—and they virtually have no time when someone isn’t telling them what to do.
It’s no wonder that teen anger, which often grows out of frustration and anxiety, is ubiquitous. We ask so much of our teens, and when they melt down, we also ask them to keep it together. But, it’s times like this when we have to remind ourselves that these are cabbage-gobbling, milk-guzzling, ceiling-busting, not-emotionally-regulated-yet adolescents. We can’t expect them to comport themselves like adults. Even if we did, it’s not likely to happen.
I definitely had temper issues as a teen. When I was on the verge of exploding, I’d lock myself in my room and use a pillow to punch or scream into. I’d speed-stomp alone to the beach and chuck rocks at the waves. Not all adolescents try to deal with their frustrations like that. Anger might be expressed inwardly or outwardly, and sometimes a parent might end up witnessing, or being a part of, a confrontational, raging outburst.
When this happens, there are plenty of things that experts advise we, as parents, not do. For instance, we should never name-call and curse at the kid. (I thought we were never supposed to say “%^+@#, you little @#*^%,” but what do I know?) We cannot get physical—which, I have to admit, is difficult when a seething 170 pounds storms by and hip-checks you.
And we should avoid telling a teen to “calm down” in the midst of an outburst. I agree with this—not because I’ve said this to my teen, but because he’s said it to me. And it did not go well. And, really, what person in the history of “calm down” has actually calmed down? For me, that phrase has always been a signal to turn it up 17 notches.
Though it’s difficult in the heat of the moment, we need to remind ourselves that “it can take 20 minutes for a person who has experienced an angry state of arousal to calm, to move from functioning from the emotional area to the thinking area of the brain.” And this is also the reason it makes no sense to threaten with consequences. If a teen can be pushed over the edge with words like “calm down,” they would probably not respond positively to “or else” statements.
I know from experience that it helps a lot if we parents are proactive and not reactive, though it’s not always easy. Here are some strategies we might try to weather the storm:
After school my sons are typically tired and keyed up at the same time; they are surly and overwhelmed after a day of overstimulation and mandates. I like them to shove a sandwich in their mouths before the car even leaves the parking lot—because, in our house, ‘hangry’ is very real and can be the beginning of a rage spiral.
Create an environment that allows the teen to decompress.
Experts tend to disagree on this, and one faction believes physicality actually exacerbates teen anger. Based on my personal experience, this is crazy talk. An aggressive run around the neighborhood seems to tucker my teens out, plus it gives them time to reboot. And a punching bag? Invaluable. Though I got tired of the whole house shaking, the bag has been a much better option than slammed doors and punched walls.
Try not to engage.
Winning the battle isn’t the same as winning the war. In this case, the battles are against our child—but the war is against their uncontrolled anger. As Bean writes in her article “Parenting an Angry, Explosive Teen: What You Should—and Shouldn’t—Do,” the distressed child is not the enemy—“he is a kid in need of some more effective problem-solving skills.”
Allow your teen—or yourself—to step away.
It is hard to resist the temptation to stand there with hands on hips and challenge something like “Don’t you dare walk away from me” when you’re sparring with a teen. But allowing a teen to remove themself from a messy interaction is actually a very good way for them to reset. And, if you find yourself overly-agitated (and trying to win that battle) it’s best to step away and take a breather too.
This one I really struggle with, despite having the best intentions. My teens’ needs are not always consistent, and they seldom have the words to tell me what I can do to comfort or calm them. Sometimes touching or being near them will escalate their emotions—but five minutes later it’s exactly what they crave. At the same time, when I step away, my retreat will either help the anger dissipate or prolong the meltdown. Really, it’s a crapshoot.
Let them talk.
The article “20 Ways To Help Teenagers Handle Their Anger” advises, “When a teenager tells you about things that make them angry, this should not be seen as disrespectful. Don’t reprimand them or punish them.” I heartily agree and also think we parents should not try to solve any problem or give advice. I have learned over the years to shut up and let my teens rant. If I interject anything it is usually a “uh huh” or an “oh no” and then I stay mostly invisible.
Navigating teen anger has been one of the most difficult challenges for some of us. I do a C+ job overall, but let me admit right now that I am a chronic engager and threatener. As a parent who is sometimes in the eye of the tornado, I cannot help myself from making often obvious, rookie mistakes. I threaten to take away gas money or their phone, and pretty soon I’m threatening to sell their bed, withhold water, or send them to juvie bootcamp. I have done that thing where you ping-pong back and forth with the teen until their punishment, which started at a 3-day grounding, becomes 3 months–all by doing the bicker-dance.
Evidently, though my 50-year-old brain should have peaked a quarter of a century ago, I can sometimes tornado-react. And, let me tell you, it has never helped any situation fueled by teen anger. Which is no surprise.
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