You thought the terrible twos were bad. Now you’re dealing with the terrible thirteens—and it’s even worse.
When she was two, she cried, kicked, and screamed. At 13, she’s yelling, slamming doors, storming out of the house, and screaming, “You can’t control me!”
You can reduce and eliminate teenage tantrums by taking these six steps. But before you start, understand that you need to take these steps when things are calm and no one is being confrontational. Don’t try this in the middle of a full-blown tantrum when you are both on edge.
When you look at a tantrum in progress, you see a teen who looks totally and hopelessly out of control. And your teen sees you, the parent, as so unreasonable that you’ll never give her any control over her own life.
In reality, you’d probably give her more control if you felt you could trust her to make good decisions.
When trust exists in your relationship with your teen, she has a positive influence on you. And you have confidence in her. And you’re more confident about giving her more freedom.
But your teenager doesn’t realize how much influence she could have on you if only she worked to build your trust. And a tantrum doesn’t build trust.
Related content: Explosive Anger in Kids and Teens
For example, let’s say you tell your 14-year-old daughter that she can’t go to a party on Friday night because you know there won’t be any adults present. And you suspect kids will be drinking.
If your daughter reacts by screaming and locking herself in her room, it does more than make you angry. Her poor reaction erodes your trust in her. And it hurts her ability to influence you positively.
When teens learn to accept “no” for an answer and not have a tantrum, it builds trust and positive influence with parents. Your child needs to understand this.
You can role-play with your teen to teach her how to build trust. Let’s go back to the party example. After your daughter calms down, you can show her a better way to respond that gives her influence. You can coach her to say:
“Mom, I’m really angry and disappointed that you’re not letting me do this. But I want you to know that even though I’m angry, I’m going to follow the rules. I hope at some point you’ll reconsider.”
When teens manage their emotions gracefully and honestly, it has a positive influence on parents. Also, as you teach the difference between positive and negative influence—and manage your own emotions calmly—you’re modeling the behavior you want to see in your teen.
Look for opportunities to say “yes” and teach your child on how to get you to say “yes.”
Often, when your teen acts out, beneath the outburst is something legitimate that he wants. But the way he’s going about getting it is completely inappropriate.
When I work with teens who act out excessively, I ask them these questions:
In most cases, the teen will admit it’s not working very well. Try asking your teen these same questions (during a calm time). Then, you can shift the discussion into coaching mode by saying:
“I noticed you said that you’ve used the same strategy with me several times, but it isn’t working. I’d be happy to suggest what would work. Are you interested in hearing what I have to say?”
Ask his opinion with genuine curiosity. Don’t attack or criticize him.
Here’s another way to begin the coaching discussion. Ask your child the following:
“Do you have any ideas on what would work to get me to say yes? I have some ideas. Do you want to hear them?”
Speaking to your teen in this way helps him to see why his behavior is preventing him from getting what he wants. It shows him that his strategy for influencing you isn’t working.
And, most important, you are providing him an opportunity to learn to do better and to get what he wants more often.
As parents, we are constantly catching our kids doing something wrong. But try to catch your kid doing something right. Tell your teen when he does something that builds trust with you.
Here’s an example. Let’s say your son wants to stay overnight at a friend’s house but you say no because you know there won’t be adult supervision. If your child respects your decision without a fight, reward him with positive praise. Say this to your child:
“I know you’re disappointed that I would not let you stay over at Michael’s house. But, I appreciate that you showed your disappointment politely. That shows maturity and respect.”
Here are some other examples of how teens can earn trust with their parents:
When your teen talks to you about the details of her day—without you having to pry it out of her—tell her that you appreciate her openness.
When you see her being compliant with your rules, notice it and say something.
Noticing the behaviors you want to promote helps to build trust. And it reinforces the preferred behaviors.
To combat teen temper tantrums effectively, it’s important to understand the “why” behind them. Teen temper tantrums are typically driven by two normal aspects of adolescence: self-centeredness and entitlement.
Teens are self-centered. They have a strong desire to advocate for themselves because, at this age, their world still revolves around them and their needs. Indeed, this is how it’s been their whole lives.
They also feel entitled to get their needs met because mom and dad have always met their needs. But now, suddenly, they are told that they are not entitled to be taken care of in the same way they were just a few short years ago.
To make matters worse, entitled teens also want maximum freedom to do what they want when they want. In short, teens want to be independent when it suits them and dependent when it suits them. They want it both ways.
This is a normal part of adolescence. This is a normal part of the transition from childhood to adulthood. And for some kids, the transition is hard.
Tantrums are unacceptable behavior, but you will remain calm and deal with them more effectively when you understand why they are happening.
Teens have a lot of stress, particularly about their peer relationships and the impact of peer pressure.
How teens respond to peer pressures impact their moods. When their relationships are going well, teens are easier to get along with. When they’re going badly, teens get stirred up, doors get slammed, and you get called foul names.
The next time your child has a tantrum, ask yourself what the tantrum is really about? Is it about cleaning his room? Or is it about some other stress in his life?
If your teenager is prone to tantrums, you might wonder how on earth you can talk to them without getting them angry.
You can begin by talking to your child about non-controversial subjects. It creates a flow of open communication in your home. When communication is generally more open, you may find it gets less heated around controversial topics.
Be patient, it may take several tries to have a successful, calm conversation.
Related content: 5 Secrets for Communicating with Your Teenager
There is a silver lining to teen tantrums. But you have to look at it in the context of normal adolescent development.
Your teen is a work in progress—we all are. To be successful as an adult, she will have to be able to identify and advocate for her own needs and persist in the face of adversity.
Realize that when your teen is pushing—albeit inappropriately—she is practicing behaviors that, when refined, are very useful life skills to have as an adult. There’s nothing wrong with trying to have things your way if you do it in an appropriate and gracious manner.
Michael Kramer, PhD is a Licensed Psychologist in the State of Maine. He received his PhD in Clinical Psychology from the University of Kentucky. His Portland practice is quite varied, providing psychotherapy to children, adolescents, couples, and families. In addition, he is an Organizational Consultant and provides multiple services to a wide variety of for-profit and non-profit businesses. A final area of specialization is Sports Psychology.