Dealing with Anger in Children and Teens: Why Is My Child So Angry?

By

angry teen boy and girl glaring

Have you found yourself asking the question, “Why is my child always so angry at me?”

Do you feel like your adolescent surrounds himself or herself with a force field of anger and hostility?

In this article, James Lehman, creator of The Total Transformation® child behavior program, discusses anger, hostility, and your child.

Understanding Anger and Hostility

First of all, it’s important to make a distinction between anger and hostility. When you’re angry, you feel as if you’ve been wronged, and you want to strike back somehow.

We all get angry from time to time—it’s a natural reaction to certain situations. Well adjusted kids and adults get angry but can manage their anger when it arises.

In contrast, hostility is an attitude of defensiveness and waiting for an attack. Hostility is related to antagonism, animosity, and hatred. What a lot of parents experience as defiance is, in most cases, hostility.

Think of it this way: hostility is the attitude. And the attitude says, “Don’t mess with me.” Hostility is constant and full of bad intentions.

“My Child is Angry and Hostile All the Time”

I often describe angry kids as having a “force field of hostility” around them at all times. Even if you innocently ask your teen, “How was your day?” you get a response full of contempt and disrespect. Or you get no response at all. This is hostility. And as many parents know, it’s tough to deal with a child who behaves this way.

What can a parent do when their child is hostile toward them all the time?

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Some parents will punish their child for having an attitude. Other parents will yell, scream, and threaten. Unfortunately, these responses are ineffective.

I tell parents that if screaming at our kids was effective, I’d be out of business. You’d just yell at your child, and they’d change. Or you’d bring your child to my office, I’d shout at them and call them names for 45 minutes, and then they’d go home and be nice for a week.

The right response addresses the underlying problem—the hostility—and motivates your child to solve that problem by taking responsibility for their hostile behavior.

Anger, Hostility, and Thinking Errors

Hostile adolescents have a distorted way of thinking whereby they are always the victim. Their distorted thinking tells them that things aren’t fair, that their parents have placed too many expectations on them, that their teachers are idiots. They believe that nobody understands them except for their friends.

In some kids, this further develops into a general air of “I hate you. I’m against you.” And it leads to frequent bursts of anger.

Distorted thinking is what psychologists call thinking errors. Thinking errors are the thoughts we have that don’t match reality and are usually negative and self-defeating. And, as you might expect, those who commit thinking errors don’t realize that their thoughts don’t match reality.

Teens who employ thinking errors think that they’re always the victim. In their minds, they’re the victim of you. You’re the enemy. Or they’re the victims of their teachers who are “out to get them,” according to your teen.

When kids with thinking error face consequences, they don’t connect the consequence with their behavior. Instead, they view the consequences as further evidence that they are a victim of the people out to get them.

After using these thinking errors for a while, they get into more and more trouble and develop an increasing sense of hypervigilance. Faced with criticism or challenge, they either attack or shut down. These are the kids whose parents say to me: “I can’t even get two words out of my mouth and he’s running up the stairs” or “She’s screaming at me all the time.”

Related content: The Secret to Understanding Acting-Out Behavior: 5 Common Thinking Errors Kids Make

Accountability Is the Key to Managing Hostility

To end the hostility, the thinking-errors need to be corrected. And you address the thinking-errors by holding your child accountable for his actions so that they eventually learn to take responsibility for their behavior.

Indeed, taking responsibility for behavior is necessary for any long-lasting improvements in behavior. It’s the basis of The Total Transformation® child behavior program that I developed, and it’s the basis of the authoritative parenting style, which stresses setting and enforcing limits and, at the same time, expects parents to coach their kids to become independent and self-disciplined.

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“I’m Afraid to Ask My Child to Do Anything”

Parents tell me that they are afraid to ask their hostile child or teen to do anything because it just provokes an angry outburst. Parents reason that it’s better to leave the kid alone than it is to deal with the anger.

But parents have to understand that the purpose of anger and hostility is to keep you away. Hostility and anger are like a porcupine’s quills—when you get too close, you get pricked, and it hurts.

Hostile kids are like porcupines all the time. You try to talk to them, and they glare at you the way a porcupine warns you away with his quills. You try to get closer, and next thing you know, you’re full of quills in the form of a nasty outburst.

And it’s not just with you. They’re often nasty to their siblings. These kids often prefer to hide out in their rooms and avoid contact with the family.

There’s no such thing as a pleasant conversation with them. And if you ask these kids for anything, they reply with an angry outburst.

So now your child’s attitude is, “Don’t mess with me…don’t mess with me…don’t mess with me…POW! Now you did it.” And then an hour later, or the next day, the same thing happens again.

Parents learn to avoid making their kids explode, and, as a result, the behavior continues because it has the intended effect of keeping you away.

“My Child Will Hate Me If I Give Them Consequences”

Indeed, your child wants you to believe that they will hate you if you confront their hostility and give them consequences. And we fear that our kids will no longer love us if we make them too angry.

But here’s the truth: if you make your child or teen angry, don’t worry that they will no longer love you. That’s the last thing I tell parents to worry about. Here’s why.

There’s a word we use in therapy called ambivalence. Ambivalence is the concept of having conflicting feelings, and it’s common for kids in adolescence to have ambivalence toward their parents. Their ambivalence is that they love you, but at the same time, they hate you. They love you when you’re nice to them. They hate you when you hold them accountable.

So as far as kids loving you or hating you, I think you’re going to see a lot of ambivalence from your child. I think parents have to ride that out and accept it as normal during adolescence. In other words, your child can hate you and still love you at the same time.

Adults have ambivalence too. Many of us get angry at our spouses while, at the same time, we love them. We get angry at our children, and we love them too. Think about it, the people we tend to be the angriest towards are the people we love the most! Anger in relationships is normal; we just need to learn how to deal with it. And your hostile child needs to learn how to deal with it.

I explain ambivalence to parents so that they don’t equate their child’s anger and hostility with pure hatred. It’s more than likely just the negative side of the ambivalence they feel. Kids love their parents, even when they’re acting hostile. Unless there’s some abusive situation or neurological or psychological problem, their instinct is to love their parents.

I always tell parents, if you do things for your kids so that they love you, maybe they’ll love you and maybe they won’t. I don’t know. But if you do things and carry yourself in such a way that they respect you, then they’ll want to love you. Kids want to love the people they respect—and they’ll find things to love about you.

Nevertheless, hostility that is allowed to go unchecked can seriously hurt relationships. That is why we need to confront the hostility even if it provokes an angry outburst in the short-run.

Remember, you’re not looking for friendship, love, and affection from your kids. It may be there—and I think these kids love their parents—but it has more to do with getting your child to comply with the rules.

How to Manage Your Child’s Anger and Hostility

Hostile and defiant kids are willing to break things, call you filthy names, and even run away to avoid taking responsibility for their behavior. And parents can’t prevent their child from doing those things if their child is insistent.

That’s why parents need to focus on those things over which they have control. And parents control—or ought to control—their own home. Parents need to take a stand and enforce the rules with effective consequences if those rules are broken. 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 grades. Don’t bother me.”

So then you take their phone. If they refuse to hand over the phone, then you say:

“Well, then I’m removing your phone from the phone plan until you comply.”

And then remove them from your phone plan.

Think of all the things over which you have control and exercise your authority over those things. Consistent exercise of that authority over the things you control will eventually get through to your child.

In extreme cases, if your child threatens you, and you fear for your safety, then you may need to consider calling the police. That needs to be an option because you should never feel unsafe in your own home.

Protect the Rest of the Family From Your Hostile Teen

If there are other siblings in your home, have a safety plan for them. Let the kids know ahead of time what to do if their brother gets out of control.

Make the plan the safest, most helpful thing for your other children to do. An example might be that they can go to their rooms and play or read a book. When an argument starts, you can say to the other kids:

“Go to your room and read a book while I deal with Johnny.”

That gets your other kids out of the way. These episodes can be traumatic for younger kids, so you will need to talk with them afterward. But, when Johnny is out of control, the important thing is their safety.

Make the Rules Clear to Your Hostile Child or Teen

Clearly explain the rules to your child or teen, especially if you have not been enforcing them consistently. Make sure they know the rules and the consequences if they break the rules. You can say:

“You’re striking out at me. You’re hostile to me and the rest of the family. When you’re hostile, I will not help you. If you want a ride to school, if you need a ride to practice, if you want to go out, if you want to 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.”

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. Just remember, the carrot alone is not enough to create changes. You need to use effective consequences as well.

Coach Your Child on How to Cope with His Anger and Hostility

And ask yourself what your child can replace the hostility with if they don’t like what’s going on. How can they 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. It sounds hokey, and they might not do it the first time, but I’ve found that it works.

By the way, if your child says, “I need a break right now” and goes to their room, they should never be punished for that unless they’re trying to manipulate you to get out of a chore or responsibility.

Remember, a timeout is a coping skill. We hope kids learn to take them on their own. During a timeout, your child unwinds from over–stimulation until they’re calm and composed enough to understand the situation better. It gives them a chance to reconsider his thinking errors and distorted thinking.

Kids get overstimulated, and I believe that contributes to the anger and acting out. 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 would then say:

“If you act out and are angry here, don’t blame me. I gave you an option to take a break.”

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, they have to make that time up later on. For example, if they’re supposed to be doing an hour of homework at the kitchen table, and they take a timeout for 15 minutes because something bothers them, they have to make up those 15 minutes later.

In the same way, if your child takes a timeout when they’re doing chores, they have to come back and finish their chores.

Get Professional Help for You and Your Teen

If your kid is hostile, angry, and defiant all the time, you may need some professional help to deal with them. If you take them to a therapist, give the therapist six or eight weeks, and 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. The bottom line is that you need to learn how to effectively parent a child with angry and hostile behavior patterns. The right techniques are very powerful and can get your child on track and can restore peace to your home.

Hostile kids are hostile to everyone: to you, to his teachers, to the cops. You’ve got two options: (1) your child can go to a counselor for an hour every week in the hopes that they’ll learn some coping skills and apply what they’ve learned at home, and (2) you can get the effective parenting skills you need to help create change where it counts. I recommend both, which is why in my practice, I did both. I met with kids, and I met with parents. And I would teach parents the skills to promote change at home.

Be Businesslike and Firm When Confronting Your Child’s Hostility

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 a bad attitude. Keep calm and give them direction. Don’t get dragged into a fight.

I wouldn’t ask, “What’s wrong?” I wouldn’t ask about 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 behave like the rest of us.”

Disconnect When Your Child Has an Angry Outburst

The best way to handle an angry outburst 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 disconnect. 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 them. Don’t argue and don’t turn around. 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.

The idea is that once they’re in that angry, agitated state, they’re thinking that you’re the enemy, that you don’t understand, and they’re blaming you. They see themselves as the victim, and there’s nothing you can do at that moment to change them. They’re going to think what they’re going to 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 they usually quiet down if you don’t respond to it.

Don’t try to talk your child out of his anger. Don’t try to reason with them. When you try to reason, you give your child a feeling of false power and more of a sense that they’re in control, and you’re not.

Related content: Angry Kids: 7 Things Not To Do When Your Child Is Angry

What To Do If You Fear for Your Safety

Parents need to understand that when you disconnect, in some cases, a teen might escalate to the point of being destructive, threatening, and even violent.

In my opinion, if you feel threatened and fear for your safety or the safety of your family, then it’s time to consider calling the police.

Get the police to help you because if your child is behaving this way, they’re out of control. When you call the police, say:

“I don’t feel safe here. My son is out of control.”

No one should feel threatened in their own home. There is no excuse for abuse, and you should not tolerate abuse of any kind.

Your Child and His Feelings

In my experience, the more you ask your child about his feelings, the more your child will simply state his case. Indeed, they’ll scream their case if you let them.

Keep the focus on your child’s behavior. The behavior needs to change before anything. There will be time to discuss feelings once his behavior improves.

I tell parents, your child won’t feel their way to better behavior, but they can behave their way to better feelings.

The truth is, some kids want to appear out of control whether or not they are. Don’t forget, acting–out people get more power by looking like they’re losing control. They control you by acting out of control.

Don’t Accept the Hostile Behavior

If you think you have to accept this type of hostile, defiant, or angry attitude to be loved by your child, that’s called co-dependency. In a co-dependent relationship, you have to fulfill a certain role to be loved. That’s one of its main definitions. The co-dependent spouse of an alcoholic reasons, “You’ll love me as long as I make excuses for your alcoholism.”

With parents of a defiant child, it’s “You’ll love me as long as I put up with your garbage attitude and leave you alone.”

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 respect you. But they won’t respect you if you give in to and accept their hostile behavior.

Notes and References

About

James Lehman, who dedicated his life to behaviorally troubled youth, created The Total Transformation®, The Complete Guide to Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™, from a place of professional and personal experience. Having had severe behavioral problems himself as a child, he was inspired to focus on behavioral management professionally. Together with his wife, Janet Lehman, he developed an approach to managing children and teens that challenges them to solve their own problems without hiding behind disrespectful, obnoxious or abusive behavior. Empowering Parents now brings this insightful and impactful program directly to homes around the globe.

Comments (16)
  • Julia N.

    What are some methods my child could use to counter my comments, or actually leave me speechless?

    -Julia Nona

  • It’s hard at times. More hard then I ever imagined. I thought I did everything to the best of my knowledge... not a pity party here:/ both of her parents let her down and now she lives with me. We go to counseling and it seems that nothing stops her anger. I feel that she takes thing out on me that she wishes she could take out on her parents. I am definitely expected to be perfect.. so any little thing sets her off.. it’s hard and I keep hearing that it gets better.. but In there times it feels like forever...
    Never knows
  • Mary b
    Great article lots of pertinent information
  • Jillanna
    My 14 year old son has anger problems (stemming I think from anxiety)I am waiting for some help which I've arranged through NHS service.One being a counsellor who may use CBT and he has also been referred to community paediatrician in case they can diagnose a particular condition e.g.ADD e.t.c.HeMore is on an individual behaviour plan at school.School Pyschologist gaining information on him from teachers and will then meet him.My son finds it hard discussing his feelings and won't tell me what's wrong.He is bright in top sets but soon this will alter if his behaviour carries on.An incident happened last week and I'm mortified now as I think he will be kicked out of school.He swore and spat at a teacher.The problem is if he is expelled from school a strange new school would probably make his anxiety worse (I think he may have some form of social anxiety)so the spiral continues leading to a worse position than he's currently in.My main worry is that he will refuse to go to school at all.Do you have any advice to give?
    • Rebecca Wolfenden, Parent CoachEP Coach
      I hear you. It can be so frightening and worrisome when your child is acting in self-defeating ways, yet you feel helpless to do anything about it. It’s great that you have lined up some local support, and I hope that these appointments prove useful for your son.More In the meantime, you might try focusing more on your son’s behavior rather than his feelings. The truth is, your son might be feeling angry, anxious, or any number of emotions, and this does not excuse his actions at school. It could be beneficial to talk with him about what happened, and what he could do differently next time he is in a similar situation. You might find some tips on how to structure this conversation in The Surprising Reason for Bad Child Behavior: “I Can’t Solve Problems”. I recognize how challenging this is for you right now, and I wish you and your son all the best moving forward. Take care.
  • Lucy
    Grandchild has left home to live with his stepsister. They realize he is so full of anger and are having a difficult t time. He says if we bring him back home he will run away. He is almost 16 and a freshman in high school. What do we do.......soMore very sad.
    • Rebecca Wolfenden, Parent Coach
      I hear you; it can be very difficult to know what to do when your grandchild has left the home and refuses to come back. At this point, it could be useful to allow things to calm down while still maintaining contact with your grandson. When he isMore calm, it could be useful to have a conversation with him, as outlined in Running Away Part II: “Mom, I Want to Come Home.” When Your Child is on the Streets. You might find some useful tips through the National Runaway Safeline as well, which you can reach 24/7 at 1-800-RUNAWAY (786-2929). I recognize how challenging this must be for you right now, and I wish you and your family all the best moving forward. Take care.
  • Dola d

    I read your article on dealing with anger in teens part1.

    My son who is 17 years old is showing signs of thinking error, its jst not possible to hold even a 5 min conversation with him. What should i do. I want to help us both build a healthy relation but he doesn't cooperate. Please help.

    Dola

    • Rebecca Wolfenden, Parent Coach
      Thank you for writing in. It can be quite challenging when you see that your child is handling situations ineffectively, yet doesn’t appear motivated to change his behavior. It’s typically more effective to focus on how you respond to his thinking errors, because this is an area whereMore you have more control. In the end, your son is in charge of the way he thinks about situations, and his role in them. In addition to Part 2 of this article series, you might also find some useful tips in The Secret to Understanding Acting-Out Behavior: 5 Common Thinking Errors Kids Make. I recognize how difficult this must be for you, and I hope that you will write back and let us know how things are going for you and your family. Take care.
  • Dp
    I just speed read through this and this summarizes my situation as a single mom. Thanks for sharing so that my journey, as is my child's, is acjnowkedges as somewhat "normal" whatever that means. Common might be a better word.
  • Helplessmom1329
    My son is 14 and a freshman in high school. He's failing 4 subjects (he doesn't have a learning disability) and has been told he cannot play on the HS baseball team. He has been playing baseball since he was 4 yrs.old. He is late for school everyMore day! His teachers email me frequently about his poor classroom habits. Everything that comes out of his mouth is "I don't care". He does not have a behavior problem in school in fact they say what a nice boy he is. Im afraid he is giving up and it breaks my heart to watch this. I think about taking him to counseling. I've never been a parent to an angry teenage boy before...please help!
    • Rebecca Wolfenden, Parent Coach
      I’m so sorry to hear about the challenges you are facing with your son right now. It can be difficult to know what to do when your child seems so angry and unmotivated, especially if this is a sudden change for him. When a child is failing, it’sMore normal to be worried and concerned about what this might mean. As pointed out in Why You Should Let Your Child Fail: The Benefits of Natural Consequences, it can also be useful to view failure as an opportunity to learn from a situation, and to start to do things differently. Working with local supports, such as a counselor, can be a helpful strategy, especially if you are concerned that there might be an underlying issue contributing to the behavior change you have seen in your son. You might also find some useful information in Motivating Underachievers Part I: When Your Child Says “I Don’t Care”. Please be sure to write back and let us know how things are going for you and your family. Take care.
  • SadMom1985
    My son's birthday is today, and unfortunately it wasn't the super fun day anyone anticipated. I had a medical procedure today and I wasn't able to drive or do anything.... and now my son is sullen and accusatory that I don't love him. Anything I say he just shoots down,More I am trying to use anti-inflammatory words and not use "I" in the conversation...he is just not understanding, something's just don't work out. I plan on celebrating his birthday this weekend, but it's just not good enough.
  • Sherrilldenise
    My son is 16 and it seems I can't do anything right, im at ropes end HELP
    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport

      Sherrilldenise

      It can be so distressing when it seems as though nothing you

      do is good enough for your child. Truthfully, it’s not uncommon for kids your

      son’s age to act like they dislike or are embarrassed by their parents, as

      Janet Lehman explains in the article https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/adolescent-behavior-changes-is-your-child-embarrassed-by-you/. As much as possible try

      not to personalize his behavior. Carole Banks gives some great tips for how you

      can respond to any disrespect you might be experiencing in her article https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/disrespectful-child-behavior-dont-take-it-personally/. We appreciate you writing in.

      Take care.

      • Aussie gram
        My daughter is 37 and still acts like a hostile teenager....... And I've never stopped loving her..... Now she has two daughters of her and I'm praying that I'"ll still be here to see how she copes with their antagonism!!! :+)
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