One minute your teenage daughter is having a relaxed, happy conversation with her friend on the phone.
The next, she stumbles over an algebra problem and is — instantly — as angry as you've seen her. She flings her pencil across the room, stomps up to her room, slams the door and shouts, "I hate my life!"
Your teenage son appears to be in a good mood, and you ask him in your best modulated tone if he remembered to empty the dishwasher. "Why are you always yelling at me? I hate this family!" he shouts, storming out of the room.
For decades, parents have attributed such hair-trigger emotions to raging hormones, and they weren't wrong. However, in recent years more has become known about how brain development — in concert with racing hormones — accounts for the differences in how teens act and think.
Psychologist David Walsh has written a book, "Why Do They Act That Way?" (Free Press), that offers an up-to-date explanation of the biological reasons for teens' behavior and offers parents tips to communicate and stay connected with the kids.
Walsh, who is president and founder of the National Institute on Media and the Family, in Minneapolis, says parents often think kids are deliberately misinterpreting situations or trying to drive their parents crazy, but this isn't the case.
It's because a teenager's prefrontal cortex — the brain's center for moderation, impulse-control and the understanding of consequences — is still under construction. Simultaneously the body's hormones — which Walsh calls the accelerator center of the brain — are surging.
"The prefrontal cortex is supposed to harness the accelerator center of the brain, but the impulse-control center is under construction," said Walsh. "This is the reason teens are impulsive, risk-taking, quick to anger. The acceleration center of the brain is in high gear, while the brakes are on back order."
Reading body language
In addition, Walsh said, the adolescent brain processes visual stimuli or body language differently than grown-ups do. In a study that asked adults and teens to interpret facial expressions, adults were more likely to correctly identify emotions, while adolescents often mistook fear or surprise for anger.
The study further showed, Walsh says, that adults rely on their prefrontal cortex to interpret facial expressions, while adolescents rely on the amygdala, in the anterior portion of the temporal lobe.
"Adults use the rational part of the brain to read emotions," Walsh writes, "but adolescents basically do it with a gut reaction. And they are frequently wrong."
Thus, a teenager may think a parent is yelling at them when they're not, or they may think a peer is insulting them when that's not the case.
Don't ignore bad behavior
So, knowing all this, how can you better communicate with your child?
First of all, Walsh says that although it may not be the teen's "fault" that he is volatile or erratic or impulsive, that does not absolve him or her of responsibility. Teens must learn to control their behavior, "and it's your responsibility as a parent to help," Walsh writes. "You can't simply dismiss his behavior or let it go. ... The experiences a teen has right now will have a big bearing on how he eventually learns to manage his own emotions and impulses."
Walsh suggests sitting down with your teen in quiet times and discussing what behavior is expected and what the consequences will be if rules are not followed.
"Don't communicate the consequences as threats," Walsh writes. "Just let him know in a matter-of-fact way what will happen and that the consequences will be his own choices."
Walsh emphasizes that parents should not get dragged into power struggles. "Teenagers are built for power struggles. The accelerator goes down to the floor so quickly," he said.
But parents must keep their cool if their kid doesn't.
When it's time to enforce a consequence, Walsh says, do it calmly. Your child may want to argue, but don't get drawn in.
"If you feel your blood pressure rising, take a deep breath and remember this advice: 'When you feel like taking the wind out of his sails, it is a better idea to take your sails out of his wind.' "
In cases of extreme problems, Walsh suggests drawing up behavioral contracts that clearly spell out the rules and the consequences.
To reduce the level of misinterpretation between kids and grown-ups, Walsh suggests telling kids how you feel. He suggests prefacing statements with "I'm not angry, but it does irritate me when ... " or "Or I'm not angry, but I do worry when ... "
Teenage Temper Tantrum
All teenagers have some dramatic moments. But if a teen temper tantrum is a frequent occurrence, parents may want to determine the reasons behind recurring teen drama. Parents can read on to find out if a teen is creating a scene as a parental manipulation strategy or perhaps lacks self-calming or time management skills. Or possibly a teenager is struggling with overachiever issues or strives for too much perfection.
Teen Drama Aimed at Parental Manipulation
Some teens engage in drama because it works to manipulate a parent in some way or another. Parental manipulation can take many forms depending on the dynamic in the parent-child relationship.
Could it be that a parent only pays attention when a teenager has a temper tantrum or makes a dramatic scene? Could it be that a parent takes pity on or gives in to a teen after tears or guilt inducing remarks? Could it be that a parent gets angry too during teen drama moments and says hurtful statements or yells?
A parent’s wrath can sometimes induce parental guilt which the parent relieves by being permissive and giving in to the issue that caused the teen drama . Also some parents “make up” for the their hurtful behavior by lavishing a teen with food or a shopping trip. Parents may want to keep a log of what follows each scene of drama or a temper tantrum and search for patterns that emerge. The patterns may help to give any clues of parental manipulation.
Lack of Self-Calming Skills in Teens
Some teens have not had the opportunity to develop self-calming skills. So they deal with stress by simply blowing up or throwing a temper tantrum. These teens may truly feel guilty or sorry that they’ve yelled or said hurtful things, but they do not know any other skills to use. Teens often handle stress the only way they know how and through the way they’ve seen others do it.
Parents can help teens learn self-calming skills by being good role models, by helping teens discover healthy self-calming skills and by not fixing problem for teens that teens need to struggle through to learn patience, problem solving skills and perspective. Parents can also help teens by teaching the concept of “Positive Time Out,” a Positive Discipline parenting technique to deal with teen drama.
Lack of Planning and Time Management Skills
Time management skills don’t come naturally to most teens. Teenagers are notorious for cramming as many activities into a day as possible. They want to live life to the fullest and seize any and every opportunity that comes along. This tendency can cause extreme tension when, for example, a teen “forgets” that it’s his day to roll the trash out to the street and a parent reminds him on his way out the door to a date. Or perhaps a teen wants to attend the school basketball game and gets home at 9pm to work on a ten-page paper that is due the next day
Signs for a Teen with Anger Problems
Many parents recognize that their teen has a problem with anger management. They feel their teen needs to develop anger management skills, or needs to find some kind of anger management counseling that will help them get along better in life -- in school, at work, with a parent, with siblings, and others. In some cases, professionals may have diagnosed a teenager with a “conduct disorder”, or “oppositional defiant disorder” beginning in adolescence. This site is to help parents be aware of specific warning signs that may indicate if a teenager has an anger management problem more significant than what is to normally be expected.
Types of Anger
The natural response to fear is to fight it or avoid it. When confronted with fear, animals and humans both go into “fight or flight”, “violence or silence”, or “gun or run”. They engage in the conflict, or they withdraw. Though many parents may equate “adolescent anger management” with the “fight-violence-gun,” uncontrollable rage, parents must also recognize that anger may be “turned inwards” in the “flight-silence-run” mode, which can often times be as dangerous, if not more so, than expressed anger.
The author of this information is a therapist at a program for struggling teens. As a therapist working at a youth program, he has learned, observed and verified the following trends. Generally, anger falls into three main categories: 1) Fight, 2) Flight, or 3) Pretend to be “Flighting”, while finding indirect ways to Fight. Most teens with anger management problems will go to either extreme of fight or flight. They tend to become aggressive, mean, and hostile, or they withdraw into themselves and become extremely silent, silently stubborn, and depressed.
“The Fighters”: Teen Anger Turned to Aggression
“The fighters” are pretty simple to recognize. They are aggressive. Many times, the characteristics of teens with anger management problems are included in the professional diagnosis for “Conduct Disorder” or an “Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD)”. Some of the warning signs in the following list are taken from the criteria for professional diagnosis (click here for more information). Others are additional common signs of anger management problems for teens that are “fighters”.
- Openly and often defiant of requests
- Often demeans or swears directly to parent or others in authority positions
- Has left holes in walls and doors from violent outbursts
- Loud and yelling
- Frequently vocalizes anger
- Makes threats
- Seems to have “emotional diarrhea”, and “lets it all out, all the time”
- Furious temper.
- Uncontrollable fits of rage (usually these “teenage temper tantrums” are used as threats to get their way)
- Difficulty accepting a “No” answer
- Does not follow rules
- Often feels rules are “stupid”, or don’t apply
- Destroys property
- Physically cruel to animals
- Physically cruel to people
- Initiates fights with others
- Seriously violates rules (at home, in school, or society in general)
This list does not list every possible warning sign for the “fighters”. The teen “Fighters” have anger management problems when the problems are creating an unsafe situation for themselves, for others, or for property around them. If animals and/or people are the focus of the anger and aggression, the problem is extremely critical to address. Teens who have abused animals or people as children, or as teens, are at a higher risk of becoming a threat to society than those who have not. Where these warning signs seem to be a part of daily life, intervention is strongly suggested. Intervention can be through anger management counseling, an anger management program, or a program dedicated and experienced in working with teenagers with anger management problems.
“The ‘Flighters’”: Teen Anger Turned to Passive Responses
The “Flighters” can also be fairly simple to recognize. They are passive. They do not fight back when confronted. Many of their characteristics may coincide with the diagnosis of depression. Some of these warning signs are taken from the professional diagnosis for depression, and others are taken from learning, observations and experience.
- Tends to spend a lot of time alone
- Seems to hold anger in
- Seems depressed
- Has difficulty expressing emotions
- Seems to have very little emotion
- Seems withdrawn
- Extremely passive, to the point of getting “walked over” by others
- May simply “go along” with whatever, even when it is a poor decision
- Does not engage in much conversation
- May blame self unnecessarily
- Deals with difficult emotions by “cutting” the emotions off
- Holds anger in, then “blows up” suddenly and violently
- May punch holes in walls or kick doors, when “the last straw drops”
- May be seen as a “loner”
- May have few friends
- Seems “emotionally constipated”
- Physical problems may include upset stomach, muscle aches, backaches, frequent headaches, or other physical symptoms from “holding it in”.
The “flighters” are in danger of destroying themselves emotionally from within. The “flighters” are like a balloon being constantly blown into, with no release valve. When they explode, their anger may be violent, and may lead to harming themselves, harming others, or destroying property. Internalized anger is potentially as destructive to a teenager as aggressive anger.
“The Pretenders”: Teen Anger Silently Planning Revenge
Perhaps the most difficult to detect, the “Pretenders” follow an anger style that seems to be calm on the surface, but is raging, scheming, and planning underneath. They are passive-aggressive. In its mild form, this is the upset waiter who goes in the back room and spits in the demanding client’s soup. In its extreme form, these are the teen gunmen of Columbine and other school shootings. These teens do not directly confront the anger as a “Fighter” would do. They will be passive and appear to accept what is said, and then will disregard what is said to do their own thing. They are sneaky. Often, they may be unnoticed. While they are giving a person a hug, they are also stabbing them in the back. They lack the courage to be direct, and perfect the skills to be deceitful. They know where the “back door” to revenge is, and will use it often.
They will give the appearance of a “Flighter”. The list of “flighter” characteristics also applies to them. Additional items to look for with “Pretenders” are on the following list.
- Sneaky behaviors
- Tends to sabotage
- Often gets caught in lies
- Inconsistency between what is said and what is done
- May be very good at blaming others
- May not admit mistakes
- Tends to avoid direct conflict, while creating problems in other areas
These warning signs are a few to look for the “Pretenders”. Teens who try to manage their anger through the “Pretender” style are as potentially dangerous to others and themselves as the other style. Parents cannot underestimate the “Pretender” style because the danger does not seem to be that of the aggressive “Fighter”.
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