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Teen Temper Tantrums: 3 Steps to Stop the Screaming

By Michael Kramer, PhD

You thought “The Terrible Twos” were bad. Now you’re dealing with “The Terrible Thirteens,” and it’s just as bad, if not worse.

When you ask your child to help around the house, inquire about school or say no to something they want to do, your teen explodes. When she was two, she cried, kicked and screamed on the floor. At 13, she’s yelling, slamming doors, storming out of the house and screaming, “You can’t control me!”

The key to stopping your teen’s outbursts is to teach him about his ability to influence—specifically how he can have positive influence on you and other adults that will win him more freedom and less supervision.

Why Don’t Tantrums Go Away?

To understand the “why” behind teenage temper tantrums, it’s important to recognize two of the normal aspects of adolescence: self-centeredness and entitlement. Teens have a strong desire to advocate for themselves because at this age, their world revolves around them and their needs. They also feel entitled to get those needs met. When needing to make a decision, many teens think they don’t need to consult their parents. They want maximum freedom: no parental input and minimal parental supervision. This is a normal part of adolescence.

Then add in the stressors that cause teens to worry daily: the status of their peer relationships and the impact of peer pressure. Research shows that one of the biggest stressors in adolescent life is the quality of peer relationships. The ways in which teens respond to the status of their peer relationships, and to peer pressure, often greatly affect how they regulate their moods.When those relationships are going well, teens are easier to get along with. When they’re going badly, kids get stirred up, doors get slammed, and you get called foul names.

Related: Does your child’s anger make you feel exhausted and out of control?

When teens are being disrespectful and screaming, parents often don’t think about these other stressors. You have to ask yourself, what is this fight or tantrum really about? Is it really about the fact that he doesn’t want to clean his room, or is there some other stressor triggering this behavior?

How to Stop Tantrums: Positive and Negative Influence

If you look at a tantrum in progress, you’ll likely see a teen who looks out of control and who believes you’re so unreasonable you’ll never give him any control over his own life. In reality, you’d probably give him more control if you felt you could trust him to make good decisions.

You can give your teen more control by using these three steps. But before you take the first step, realize that the solution to teen tantrums does not happen when one is in progress. It happens when things are calm and no one is confrontational.

1: Teach your teen the difference between positive and negative influence.

When trust exists in your relationship with your teen, she has plenty of positive influence with you. You have confidence in her; therefore, you’re more confident about pulling back on supervision. Your teenager may not realize how much influence she has with you, and how she erodes it by doing things that destroy trust.

Related: Explosive anger in kids and teens.

For example: You tell your 14-year-old daughter that she can’t go to a party on Friday night because you don’t know if any adults will be present, and you suspect kids will be drinking. If your daughter screams, “You’re an idiot” and locks herself in her room, it does more than make you angry; it erodes trust and her ability to influence you in a positive way because she’s reacting with disproportionate emotion.

When teens are able to accept “no” for an answer and not make a federal case out of it, it builds trust and positive influence with parents. You can role play what that looks like with your teen. Let’s go back to the party scenario. After the blow-up has blown over, you can show her a better way to respond that gives her influence. For example: “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 kids manage emotion gracefully and honestly like this, it has huge positive influence with parents. Also, as you teach the difference between positive and negative influence—and manage your own emotions in a calm and reasonable way—you’re modelling the behavior you want to see in your teen.

2: Look for what’s legitimate in what your child wants and coach them on their strategy for getting it.

Often when your teen is acting out, beneath the outburst is something legitimate that he wants. But the way he’s going about it is completely inappropriate.

Related: 4 Things not to do when your young child has a tantrum.

When I work with teens who act out excessively, I ask them questions like this. You can try them with your teenager, again during a calm time:

  • What is it that you really want? Is it more power to make your own decisions? More freedom?
  • How are you trying to have influence to get what you want? How well is it working for you?

In most cases, the teen will admit it’s not working very well for him. From there, 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 the way you hoped. I’d be happy to suggest some different strategies that would work really well with me. Are you interested in hearing what I have to say?

You’re simply asking his opinion with genuine curiosity, not ganging up on him. Here’s another way to begin the coaching discussion.

Do you have any ideas on what would work? I have some ideas. Do you want to hear them?

Talking to your teen in this way about his negative influence on you helps him to see the strategy behind behavior. His strategy for influencing you isn’t working. It’s an opportunity to coach him on how to have positive influence to get what he legitimately wants.

3: Reward trust-building behavior.

We catch kids making mistakes all the time. Show your teen what he’s doing—specifically—that builds trust with you. Here’s an example: If your son responds maturely to being told he can’t stay over at a friend’s house, notice the specific actions that worked and reward them with positive praise. It could sound like this:

Even though I know you’re disappointed that you couldn’t stay over because there was no supervision, I appreciate that you showed your disappointment in a respectful way, and you came home on time. That shows maturity and respect.

Here are some other examples of how teens can influence parents in a positive way and earn trust at the same time:

  • Voluntarily sharing information about their day-to-day activities
  • Working to their academic potential
  • Consistently abiding by house rules
  • Accepting responsibility for their mistakes
  • Meeting expectations for behavior in the family and community

When your teen talks to you about the details of her day (without you having to pry it out of her), tell her how that influences you. When you see her being compliant with your rules (even if it’s twice), notice it. Noticing the behavior you want to promote helps to build trust.

How to Get Tantrum-Prone Teens to Talk

If your teenager always seems to be having an outburst, you might wonder how on earth you can talk to them at a “calm time.” Try this:  Just talk to your kids 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.

Related: Learn how to stay calm with your child, no matter what.

Although it may be hard to imagine in the heat of an argument, 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, rather than a finished product. 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.

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