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Parenting an Angry, Explosive Teen: What You Should—and Shouldn't—Do

by Sara Bean, M.Ed.
Parenting an Angry, Explosive Teen: What You Should—and Shouldn't—Do

When your teen is angry and screaming at you, the temptation for many of us is to fight back and scream louder so you “win” the argument. But what does that do? It's natural to want to push back or stand up for yourself if someone pushes your buttons or provokes you in some way. We often unknowingly internalize this message and it becomes a parent’s mantra: “I’m not going to let my own child walk all over me.”

In addition to prolonging the argument—and encouraging your child to keep it going—yelling back also means that you’re giving up your power.

Related:  Why “You don’t have to attend every fight you’re invited to.”

The temptation to yell or fight back is so great that it can feel nearly impossible to resist. Yet giving in to that temptation can be quite costly in ways you probably didn’t realize. When you yell or scream back at your child, it simply challenges him and effectively “ups the ante.” To put it another way, it escalates the argument. Not only that, but it keeps the fight going longer—the more you try to “win” and come out on top, the more your child fights back, so the louder you yell, and then he starts throwing things… When does it end?  

Understand that in addition to prolonging the argument—and encouraging your child to keep it going—yelling back also means that you’re giving up your power. You and your child are now on the same level; you’re equal. You are engaging in the same exact behavior and as long as you do that, you’re only going to get more of it from your child time and time again.  By bringing you down to his level, your child gains the perception that he’s in control because he can make you lose control by getting you angry.

Related: How to step out of the daily power struggles with your child and start parenting effectively.

The Brain of an Angry Teen

First and foremost, it’s important to realize that 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. That considered, it does not make sense to really expect children to act like we do as adults. In fact, kids often perceive things in a very different way than we do, in part due to faulty or distorted thinking. The danger comes in when they use this distorted thinking to justify or rationalize their angry behavior.

In the Total Transformation Program, James Lehman identifies several different kinds of faulty thinking that kids experience. Keep in mind that faulty thinking is not something someone engages in intentionally. Rather, these are automatic thoughts, like “It’s not my fault that I broke the door. I was mad at my brother.” Or, “My teacher’s a jerk. Why should I do what she says?” If you pay attention to your own thoughts, I’m sure you’ll find that you experience faulty thinking from time to time as well, because it doesn’t just occur in children—we all do it.

Related: Why faulty thinking is at the heart of irresponsibility and inappropriate behavior.

What Not to Do

Yell, curse, or name-call: There’s no excuse for abuse—not by your child and not by you. In the same way that playing the victim role is no excuse for your child to abuse someone else, your child abusing you does not excuse your yelling, cursing, or name-calling. Being verbally abusive to your child only makes things worse, both in the short-term when the argument escalates, and in the long-term when your child’s behavior doesn’t change and your relationship becomes strained.

Threaten with consequences: It’s always most effective to avoid threatening your child with specific consequences in the heat of the moment. For example, saying, “If you don’t stop, I’m taking your computer for 3 days” is not likely to get your child to suddenly stop yelling and retreat to his room. Instead, it will upset your child even more and keep the argument going. What’s more effective is to say, “If you choose not to go to your room and calm down, there will be a consequence later” and then walk away.

Related: How to give consequences effectively.

Attempt to control your child:  This is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for parents. We hear from parents every day who, without realizing it, are trying to control their children. I think this is due, in part, to some common confusion about accountability and what that really means. Holding your child accountable does not result in a child who is obedient 100 percent of the time. It does not mean that your child will always choose to follow the rules even if you give him consequences consistently when he misbehaves. Accountability means that you set the rules and the limits, and you provide a consequence when your child decides to break the rules—period. The goal is not to prevent your child from ever breaking the rules. You’re not a puppeteer; you’re a limit-setter. Let your child make his own choice. Limits and rules were literally made to be crossed and broken because that’s how we, as humans, learn about consequences and accountability.

Another way to look at accountability is this: If your child doesn’t follow the rules, someone will find out and there will be a “price” to pay, a “cost” for his poor choice in the form of the temporary loss of a privilege he enjoys. When a child experiences this unpleasant outcome, he can use that information to help him think about things next time he is considering breaking the rules. He’ll learn to ask himself, “Is it worth it?” as he is making his choices in the future.

Get physical: This often goes hand in hand with trying to control your child. Your child didn’t turn the X-box off when you told him to, so you try to take the controller or the console itself in the heat of your argument when everyone’s emotions are running high.  Or, your child threatens to leave the house when she’s angry so you try to physically keep her in the home by blocking her path or holding her back physically. Let me be clear: it’s not a good idea to get physical with your child, first and foremost because it shows your child that the way to gain control of a situation is to use physical force. Secondly, you run the risk of escalating the entire situation. Remember how we talked about that natural urge to fight back? Well, I’m sure you know that urge is very real for your teen as well.  I’ve heard many stories from parents about their kids striking back in response to the parent getting physical with them first. Don’t risk it. It’s not worth it.

Try to “win”: If you’re one of those parents who already knows that the way to gain control of an argument with your child is to walk away and calm yourself down, then you can disregard this point. Realize that if you continue to try to “win” every battle with your child, you will lose “the war.” To be honest, I don’t like using “war” and “battle” comparisons because it makes it sound as if your child is your enemy. It may feel like it more often than not, but remember, your child is not really your enemy—he is a kid in need of some more effective problem-solving skills.

What I have found is that the goal for most parents I talk to is to raise their child to be respectful, accountable adults that can make it on their own in this world. If that’s the case for you, then think carefully about the battles along the way. James Lehman says, “Pick your battles, and be prepared to win the ones you pick.” This means asking yourself “Is it worth it?” before you go charging into “battle” with your child. It doesn’t mean to “win” by out-yelling your child—it means that you succeed by using effective strategies that are going to help you achieve that long-term goal.

What to Do: Try These Techniques Instead

Pick your battles and consider walking away: As mentioned above, ask yourself if it’s worth it to deal with this issue. Does it need to be dealt with right now? Should you take some time to calm down before you address it with your child? Are your buttons being pushed? Think about the situation carefully and allow some time for things to cool down. You can address it later if you still feel the issue is important after you’ve thought it through.

Use a business-like tone: James Lehman talks about the concept of treating your family like a business in the Total Transformation program. You’re the CEO of your “family business,” so when things are turbulent, remember to address your child in the same tone with which a professionally-mannered boss would address an employee with a performance issue. Stay calm and neutral, and stick to the facts.

Self-disclosure: Let your child know you’re having a hard time communicating with them in the moment. It’s perfectly okay to say things like, “It’s really hard for me to listen and talk to you when you’re screaming at me,” or “When you scream at me, I don’t really feel like helping you.”  This is a simple way to set a limit with your child and let them know their behavior isn’t working.

Challenge your child’s thinking: When I say “challenge” here I don’t mean invite your child to keep sparring with you by saying things like, “You think you’re pretty tough, big guy!?” What I mean is to point out that his behavior is ineffective. Say to your child, “I know you want to go to the mall, but talking to me like that is not going to get you what you want,” or “I get that you’re angry, but screaming at me isn’t going to get me to let you play your video games before your homework is done.”

Related: Trapped in a screaming match with your child?

Last but not least, one of the single best ways to teach kids is by example. Role modeling is one of the key components of teaching kids how to behave. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: If you don’t want your child to yell at you, don’t yell at him. If you don’t want your child to curse, don’t curse. As James Lehman says, “You’ve got to model the behavior you want to see from your child.”


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Sara A. Bean, M.Ed. holds a Masters Degree in Education with a concentration in School Counseling from Florida Atlantic University. She is a Certified School Counselor and a proud aunt to a 5 year-old girl. She has been with Legacy Publishing since 2009 working on the Parental Support Line. Sara has over 5 years of experience working with youth and families in private homes, residential group homes, and schools.

READER'S COMMENTS

More often than not it seems like you guys are living here with us. Your advice is priceless if I could only be more consistant in countering bad situations. .

Comment By : jsweet

Your articels and advices are terrific but they are not much help when it comes to a 21 year old child. We could use some advice on how to handle his anger and behavor and how we can make sure he respects our home and of course us his parents.

Comment By : Ra&Re

I really like the info. I did do all the wrong things, and now i have a very out of control 21 yr old son and he has been in trouble with the law and he is on probation still drinking and smoking spice and I am going to do an intervention this week. I will use this information from now on to deal with him, and no he does not live at home he lives with my 80 yr old father which is one of the reasons I have to act fast for the intervention, and because I love my son but I am at my wits end.

Comment By : jhelp

WOW YOU ARE JUST WHAT I AND MY 8th GRADER NEEDS!!!

Comment By : LORENE

This article is well written and concisely explains what so many parents need to know - that fighting with your children only teaches them to fight more. Treating your child with respect, quiet authority, and definite consequences works so much better. Thank you for such a reasonable article.

Comment By : Tom

I agree with this article but do you have any comments on teenagers who engage in dangerous behaviors and angry at the same time.

Comment By : concerned mom

I read this article to find out that I did everything wrong. I dont know if I read this first that I would not have yelled, slapped or call names. I know I ruin things for the future with the stuff that I say! mike

Comment By : mike

* To ‘Ra&Re’: Thanks for your feedback. You’re absolutely right—it is a lot harder to handle an angry child when your child is an adult. The suggestions I’ve offered here, however, do still apply. We also have many articles on our site that focus specifically on dealing with young adults still living at home. You can find those articles by clicking here.

Comment By : Sara Bean. M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

* To ‘concerned mom’: If a child is behaving in a way that could result in injury or harm to himself or others, we recommend contacting the police or a local crisis hotline for assistance. This is the most effective way to make sure everyone stays safe. When in doubt, call for help—it’s always best to err on the side of safety.

Comment By : Sara Bean. M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

When our 16 y/o plays his video games he becomes so involved that he acts as those these characters are real and becomes angry, yelling and swearing. Any advice, please?

Comment By : troubled grandmother

* To ‘troubled grandmother’: We hear a lot on the Parental Support Line about kids getting very angry when they’re playing video games and things don’t go their way. It can be incredibly obnoxious and hard to ignore. If you have a lot of other issues going on with your grandson, you might find it helpful to ignore this behavior and do whatever you can to tune it out since it’s not directed at a real person. An alternative is to talk to your grandson about what he can do differently next time he is angry instead of yelling and swearing and then establish a consequence. Do not give the consequence in the heat of the moment but rather after he has calmed down. An example of an effective consequence is to put one of his privileges on hold until he goes 2 hours without yelling or cursing in the house. This will help him to practice the behavior you want to see instead. We wish you luck as you work through this. Take care.

Comment By : Sara Bean. M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

Our son is 19 and in the military. The time leading up to his enlisting was a nightmare for our family. There was drinking, smoking, fighting and refusal to work or even help around the house. We tried everything, we took the car away which only made him angrier. We have 2 younger children who are now 17 & 13. It was a nightmare for all of us. We have been really proud of his accomplishments in the service and he seemed to be proud of himself. Then last Oct. he got a DUI while off base, he was reprimanded and fined. He knew he could not get in trouble again. Two weeks ago he went bowling, again off base with 2 superiors and a fellow PVT. The Sgts. bought them beer and shots. My son woke up to paramedics standing over him. He had a broken nose & needed 16 staples in his head to close a wound that they have determined was caused by being hit w/a beer bottle. He had a concussion & does not remember how it happened. He is most likely going to get dishonorably discharged along w/his 2 superiors. We are all so frustrated, angry, worried and dreading him coming home. My 2 younger children love him but they also do not want him to come home. He had a wonderful childhood, lots of family & support. We never spoiled them w/material things, but we were always there. The question "why" never goes away and I don't know how we can deal with this, heartbroken mom

Comment By : Heartbroken Mom

Heartbroken Mom, Your story sounds like my brother in law. He was a troubled teen w/ADHD, went into military and when he got out the trouble started. He is now 38 and has been in jail for DUI and drug abuse more times than I can count. His parents really never learned to manage him and still are abused by him daily. He self medicates to deal w/ADHD and other disorders. I do not allow him to deal w/me the way his parents do. I always discuss things calmly while I am telling him he is wrong. He has tried the verbal abuse with me but I tell him I wont tolerate it and I hang up. He gets the message and therefore he doesn't treat me this way. You must set boundaries for yourself with these disfunctional people and you must make them responsible and accountable for things in their lives. They must learn to be successful. Better at an early age. You can still love them without allowing them to disrupt your life.

Comment By : Kelly W

my 17 year old daughter has no respect for me and is just doin as she wants . she comes home at 9.30 and goes straight to her room . if challenged wejust get abuse and told how rubbish we r as parents . she told me i do nothing for her so now i am doing nothing

Comment By : berrys mom

i am living with a 13 year old, son of my husband of 3years. He started out fairly ok with me but when I did not accept some of his behavior, it turned and for the last 2 years or so, he goes out of his way to say rude and mean, condescending things to me, does not help with anything, and openly has stated that he wants me to leave. I am overwhelmed actually, I wanted to be nurturing and caring but I now find I simply dislike him. He does have a mom he visits for short periods, he has told her he hates me. My husband does not intervene very strongly, in my opinion, he will sometimes tell him it's not ok and for him to know that he is hurting me, but otherwise, not much more. if i give a punishment, my husband doesnt really like it and will sometimes go along with it, sometimes he will talk with me that he thinks it is too tough. Of course, being a kid and a very smart one at that, he picks up on everything and runs with it. he knows the pucishment will be lifted early or he will not be held accountable for such things as calling me stupid, a bitch, standing in front of me close in a threatening manner, being sexually innappropriate, arguing every single thing he is asked to do , refusing to do them, introduces our dog, and not me,putting down my family or my me, my education-really anything he can think of to hurt me. It is very deliberate and abusive. i could go on and on. It is daily and usually multiple times a day. He had this issue before i came as i found out after i asked why now, he must not have been ok with anyone who he thought got into his space, and my husb told me he did. I am close to leaving and wrking in another area or working in the eve just to be away from him. I got out of an abusive relationship 10 years ago and went through some of this with my 2 sons until they realizd there are consequences-even tho I was the wicked one that wanted the divorce. I tried to keep it about behavior, responsibility and consequences and i think they are ok now. I really wanted them to be non abusors and at 21 and 24 I dont see that. Help me sort this out, pleas! Ann

Comment By : Ann

* Hi Ann. It can be so incredibly difficult to parent with someone and support them when it often feels like you are not on the same page, let alone in the same book. You and your husband are clearly having some difficulty meeting in the middle on consequences for your stepson’s behavior. James Lehman does suggest that in blended family situations such as this, you allow the biological parent to take the lead on setting limits and giving consequences. This does not mean that the two of you can’t talk about your common goals and rules that you both agree on behind closed doors, as well as some ways you might hold your stepson accountable for following the rules. In the moment when the inappropriate behavior is happening, it might be best for you to walk away and take care of yourself—if your stepson sees that his behavior pushes your buttons and hurts you, he’s far more likely to continue. Over time if you stay calm and walk away, his behavior should diminish. Here are some articles you will find helpful:
“My Blended Family Won’t Blend—Help!” Part I: How You and Your Spouse Can Get on the Same Page
“My Blended Family Won’t Blend!” Part II: What to Do When Your Stepkids Disrespect You
"I Hate You, Mom! I Wish You Were Dead!" When Kids Say Hurtful Things
We know this is very difficult for you and we wish you and your family luck as you continue to work through this. Take care.

Comment By : Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

were to begin, Uhgg, well my 19 yr old hasn't talked to me since her Birthday last October..so about 6mos at 18 yrs she was moved out and needed to move back in so I let her and she was always snapping at me and siblings and verbally abusive towards us. Well enough was enough, when she came in at 12:30am on her 19th Birthday, she woke up her 16 yr old sister that she shared a room with knowing she had school in am because she was starting college in the am and she waited until then to go at her sister and fight about who would have the bathroom 1st. Well I was in another room I heard her shouting and went to investigate and the 19 yr old had awakened my 16 yr old , turned on light and was trying to agrue with her about the am so I asked her to stop and told her if she wanted to plan times she should have come in at an earlier time and she went off on me shouting and screaming. So enough was enough, she had respect for no one in the house I asked her for nothing to stay living at home, she demanded everything and was out of control so I told her to get out. Well she didn't beleive me when I said it so I went to put my arm around hers and escort her out and she swung her arm up and somehow my ring scratched her neck and she freaked more and she tried to push her way around me and I didn't move so she fell back and landed on her full length mirror. Well she ran told everyone I beet her and says nothing but mean stuff towards me through her sister like when I die she will have a parade on my grave. I don't know how to get through to her. It breaks my heart...please if anyone has some helpful positive advice please share with me. Thank You

Comment By : Praying for My Family

* To ‘Praying for My Family’: It sounds like you and your daughter have been going through a really tough time. It’s so hard when you’re just about at the end of your rope with your child’s disrespect. We do support you in asking her to leave if she wasn’t able to follow the rules of the home. In your attempt to stand firm and show your daughter that you weren’t willing to tolerate any more disrespect, she got hurt. It’s most effective to follow through with conversations or discipline during a calm time instead of in the middle of a conflict. Try to remember that she’s uncomfortable and upset right now and it’s going to be easy for her to blame you. Of course, you didn’t intend for anyone to get hurt in the process. Chances are, she felt like she was entitled to stay there but at her age, she isn’t. It won’t be effective to try to get your daughter to understand your perspective. Even though it’s difficult, accept that she might need some space for a while. The best thing you can do here is to focus on what you can control, which is role modeling, reaching out to her to ask how she is doing, and anything else you would normally do when she’s not in the home. When you are able to make contact with your daughter here is an article that might help: Fighting with Your Teen? What to Do After the Blowout. We know this is tough and we wish you both luck as you work through this. Take care.

Comment By : Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

First, let me say how much I appreciate The Total Transformation. I keep the CDs in my car and I listen to them frequently to keep myself on track. I am feeling like such a failure, so sad because my family is not at all what I pictured it should be. My 12 year old is defiant, disrespectful and angry at home (but never at school, thank goodness), and still has temper tantrums worthy of a 2-year-old. I appreciate the advice above, but his verbal abuse is getting increasingly worse, and it worries me. I would never have imagined I would have a child capable of such language and abuse of a parent. I am running out of ideas for appropriate consequences. On another note, we feel that he is hanging out with kids who are not the best influence on him, and we are not sure how to handle that, either. Thank you for all you do. Even if you don't have a response for me, it feels good to have somewhere to vent. There is no one I can confide in about this. The rest of the world thinks we have a picture-perfect family.

Comment By : sad mama

* To ‘sad mama’: It’s easy to understand why you are feeling so sad. Nobody ever dreams of having a child who verbally abuses them. It’s very normal to have a certain picture in your mind of your child and how he and parenting him will be, and it’s so hard when this image doesn’t quite line up with reality. It’s important to remember that you as the parent are not the problem—your child’s lack of problem solving skills is the problem. You have the tools in front of you (literally!) to help your son change his behavior. Remember that there is no perfect consequence and that consequences alone are not enough to change behavior. Be sure to review lesson 6 and implement that lesson along with time and task oriented consequences for verbal abuse. For example, no cell phone until he goes two hours without being verbally abusive toward you. To provide you with more specific suggestions tailored to your family’s situation, it would be really helpful for us to be able to speak with you and get additional details about your situation. I would encourage you to call the Parental Support Line and talk to one of the advisors-- phone number is included in your package material. We are open Monday through Friday from 9:00 AM to 10:00 PM EST In the meantime, here are some articles that might be helpful: "Parents Aren't the Problem—They're the Solution" & Does Your Child Have "Toxic" Friends? We look forward to hearing from you and coming up with solutions together.

Comment By : Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

Thanks for this article. I see that I do all the wrong things. I know they aren't working but I also feel slightly better that I'm not the only person on the planet with this issue. This article reminded me of my grandfather, whom I never saw yell but everyone respected him and did what he told them to do. It was also the fear of what he would do. The recommendation that "there will be a consequence later," builds the imagination of what the consequence could be. The imagination is usually worse than reality. That is exactly the sort of thing my grandfather used to do and it was very effective. We are trying to come up with planned responses to our angry and explosive preteen. It is so hard for us to think on our feet and we usually don't make good decisions in the heat of the moment.

Comment By : Brontegirl

thanks for the article

Comment By : jocel

You say call the cops when your child becomes abusive, are you suggesting that I call the cops on my 9 year old daughter? She has gets physically abusive with me every time I try to discipline her, and has left bruises. However, I can not imagine calling the cops on her! That just seems a bit overboard to me, not to mention cops have more pressing things to deal with.

Comment By : kris

* To kris: Making the choice to call the police on your child is a highly personal, and emotionally charged decision, and may not be appropriate in every situation. The important focus is that your daughter will need to learn other ways of responding to limits other than becoming physically abusive. We recommend problem solving with your daughter when things are calm about other, more appropriate things she can do when she is told “no.” For example, she might choose to journal in her room, or go outside and play basketball for 10 minutes instead of becoming violent. Then, the next time you set a limit, if she chooses to use this other strategy she could earn extra time with a privilege. In addition, you might consider checking in with her doctor as well to discuss this behavior and to see if he or she has any additional local resources or strategies to try. I am including a link to another article you might find helpful as you continue to work through this; take care. My ODD Child is Physically Abusive to Siblings and Parents—Help!

Comment By : Rebecca Wolfenden, Parental Support Advisor

my 16 year old son is in a constant state of agitation. he has no buffer for anything that annoys him. he lashes out verbally at me, my husband (his step dad) and his younger siblings. we end up in screaming matches. I try things like taking his keys away, that works for a while, but he is always back to the old behavior. Taking away xbox, tv or cell phone is a joke because he simply will not turn those items over to me when told. He gets violent (shoving and swinging at us) when things don't go his way. he screams and cusses at us over the smallest things. when he is at his dad's house he doesn't behave this way, he is not a model citizen, but he doesn't have the outbursts there like he does with us. I feel like we are constantly trying not to upset him, he knows that and uses it to push. we have taken him to counseling, he refuses to participate. his dr prescribed medication and he refuses to take it.

Comment By : worn out

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