It’s hard to get most adolescents to comply, but when you’re dealing with a hostile teen, it can be almost impossible. In part two of this series on anger and hostility in kids, James Lehman discusses concrete ways for you to break through your child’s force field of anger and defuse his hostility. Don’t give up yet—it really is possible to bring peace to your home.
EP: James, you’ve explained where anger and hostility come from in teens and how they use it to get out of meeting their responsibilities, but how do you get your child to comply without starting a fight every time?
“Don’t forget, acting–out people get more control by looking like they’re losing control. And what’s the agenda? To gain control.”
JL: I think compliance is a good goal to have when talking about hostile kids and teens. Remember, you’re not looking for friendship, love and affection. It may be there—and I think these kids love their parents—but it really has more to do with getting your child to comply with the rules at home and at school. What are the weapons hostile kids and adolescents use in that fight? I think hostile or defiant kids are willing to use anything: they’ll break things, they’ll call you filthy names, they’ll run away. They have all of those weapons at their disposal, but we as parents do not. There are a few things we do have, though, and one is that we have control over our homes.
I think it’s important for parents to take a stand. You might start by saying, “If you don’t do your homework, you’re going to lose your cell phone until your homework is handed in.” Now, while some kids will answer you with, “All right, sure, I’ll take care of it,” hostile kids will respond by saying, “It’s none of your business. It’s my grade; don’t bother me.” When you go to take their cell phone from them, if they slap your hand or push it away or act out in any way, my advice is that you call the police. In other words, you get the external controls you need, the external support you need to at least be able to control your own home. That’s the first step.
EP: OK, I want to come back to that point later. What if your child is also hostile to his siblings?
JL: If there are other siblings in your home, have a safety plan for them. “If Johnny freaks out, what can you do?” Make the plan the safest, most helpful thing for your children to do. An example might be that they can go to their rooms and play or read a book. In the moment an argument is happening, you can say, “Go to your room and read a book while I deal with Johnny.” That gets your other kids out of the way.
EP: Do you recommend explaining to your hostile child what the new rules are, so to speak?
JL: Definitely. I think you can talk to your child about it directly. You can say, “You’re striking out at me; you’re hateful to me and to the rest of the family. When you’re hostile, this is what’s not going to happen. If you want a ride to school, if you need a ride to practice, if you want to go out, if you want to go do something, if you want permission to go to parties or anything, you’re not going to get it. You need to learn how to make requests, not demands.”
And ask yourself what your child can replace the hostility with if he doesn’t like what’s going on. How can he learn to behave differently? With the kids I worked with, I would suggest that they keep a journal and write down their hostile feelings. They were able to take a timeout and write without a consequence. By the way, if your child requests a timeout, he should never be given consequences. If he says, “I need a break right now” and goes to his room, he should never be punished for that unless he’s trying to manipulate you to get out of a chore. Remember, a timeout is a coping skill. We hope kids learn to take them on their own. During a timeout, what happens is you unwind from over–stimulation until you’re calm and composed enough to see what’s really going on. It gives you a chance to let go of your own thinking errors and distorted thinking.
A lot of kids get really over–stimulated, and I believe that’s where the angry acting out often comes from. When I would work with kids in my office, I would tell them, “Any time you want to take a break, you just let me know and go sit in the other room. That’s fine with me. But understand, when you come back, we still have to deal with this.” I used to say, “If you act out and are angry here, don’t blame me. I gave you an option.” Just giving your child that option also gives them the power to exercise it.
By the way, if your child takes a timeout during homework time, then he has to make that time up later on. So if he’s supposed to be doing an hour of homework at the kitchen table and he takes a timeout for 15 minutes because something bothers him, then he has to make up those 15 minutes later. In the same way, if your child takes a timeout when he’s doing chores, then he has to come back and finish his chores.
EP: Is there anything else you can do to get your child to comply?
JL: I think that if your kid is really hostile, angry and defiant all the time, you may need some professional help to deal with him. If you try taking him to a therapist, give the treatment a certain amount of time. I’d say six or eight weeks is enough time for the therapist to get him to work on his hostility. If you don’t see any changes in that amount of time, I would look for someone else.
I think it’s also important to get help with your parenting skills when you have a hostile or defiant child. The bottom line is that you need to more effectively parent a child with this pattern of relating to others. You’ll see that a hostile kid is hostile to everybody. He’ll be hostile to you, to his teachers, to the cops. You’ve got two choices: your child can go to a counselor for an hour every week in the hopes that he’ll learn some coping skills and apply what he’s learned at home, or you can get the effective parenting skills you need to help create change where it counts. In my practice, I did both. I met with kids and I met with parents. And I would give parents the skills to orchestrate what they needed to do to promote change at home.
By the way, I always counseled parents to give their child a carrot big enough to make them want to change. This might include getting their driver’s permit, or having access to electronics or use of the car. And tell your child, “These are things I’m not going to do if you’re hostile. I’m not going to sign for you to take driver’s ed. I’m not going to let you get your driver’s permit.” If your adolescent is younger, then it can be, “I’m not going to let you go on the class trip. I’m not going to let you go to the junior high dance and football game.” Just remember, the carrot alone is not enough to create changes. You will need to coach your child to use their coping skills.
EP: Let’s say you want to make these changes but in the meantime, whenever your child comes into the room they fill the air with bad attitude. Do you recommend that parents just ignore that and talk to their kids normally?
JL: Yes, I would just keep giving them direction. I wouldn’t ask things like, “What’s wrong?” I wouldn’t inquire into their attitude. I would say, “All right, it’s four o’clock. You need to go to do your homework now, Jessica.”
Kids will walk around with a contemptuous attitude, and it does affect everybody and everything. But in my opinion, you just keep them focused on the task at hand. If they start making negative comments, say “Look, why don’t you go to your room until you’re ready to speak like the rest of us.”
EP: If you have an angry child, is there any way to calm them down during an outburst?
JL: I think the best way to handle their anger is to say what you have to say and then get out of the discussion. I recommend that you say something like: “I’m not going to talk to you till you calm down,” then turn and leave the room. If your adolescent yells at your back or calls you a name as you’re walking out of the room, don’t respond to him. Don’t argue; don’t turn around—don’t do anything. Just keep walking. If you have to get in your car and drive around the block, then do it as long as there are no small children in the house. But the point is to keep walking. Go to your bedroom and stay there for a few minutes.
Again, the idea is that once he’s in that angry, agitated state, he’s thinking that you’re the enemy, that you don’t understand, and he’s blaming you, his teachers, and other authority figures. He sees himself as the victim, and there’s nothing you can do face–to–face that’s going to take that away. People believe what they think, and teenagers believe what they think a lot more than they believe what their parents say. If a teenager thinks something isn’t too risky, it doesn’t matter if their parents say it’s a crazy stunt. Believe me, on a good day adolescents can hardly hear their parents beyond their own thinking errors and the way they view the world. So they believe what they think.
As soon as you extract yourself from the argument, there’s nothing to yell about. Your child may walk around the house shouting for a few more minutes, but the thing is, if you don’t respond to it, eventually he’s going to quiet down—or escalate.
EP: That brings us back to what you started talking about before…what should you do when your child escalates?
JL: I think it’s very important for parents to understand that their child might escalate his behavior. When you refuse to argue, some kids will break something or do something destructive. In my opinion, that’s when you call the police. Get them to help you because if your child is behaving this way, he’s out of control. When you call the police, say, “I don’t feel safe here; my son is out of control.”
Don’t try to talk your child out of his anger; don’t try to reason him down. Reasoning just gives your child a feeling of false power, and more of a sense that he’s in control and you’re not. What he hears you saying is, “You have huge shoulders Johnny; you have such big muscles. You’re so powerful.”
EP: James, in that case, do you think asking your child about his feelings tends to make things worse?
JL: In my experience, the more you ask what’s going on, the more your child will simply state his case; in fact, he’ll scream his case if you let him. The truth is, some kids want to appear out of control whether or not they are. Don’t forget, acting–out people get more control by looking like they’re losing control. And what’s the agenda? To gain control.
If you think you have to accept this type of hostile, defiant or angry attitude in order to be loved, that’s called co–dependency. In a co–dependent relationship, you have to fulfill a certain role in order to be loved. That’s one of its main definitions. An example might be, “You’ll love me as long as I make excuses for your alcoholism.” With a child, it’s “You’ll love me as long as I put up with your garbage.”
Personally, I think parents should try to maintain their dignity and self–respect. Remember, as I said before, kids want to love the people they respect. And they’ll find things to love about you when they do.