Dealing with Anger in Children and Teens: Why Is My Child So Angry?
Have you found yourself asking the question, “Why is my child always so angry at me?”
Do you feel like your adolescent surrounds himself 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 just 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 very hard to deal with a child who behaves this way.
What can a parent do when their child is hostile toward them all the time?
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 be able to yell at your child and he’d change. Or you’d bring your child to my office, I’d shout at him and call him names for 45 minutes, and then he’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 her 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 in our head 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 they’ve used these thinking errors for a while, they get into more and more trouble and they 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 “He’s screaming at me all the time.”
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 he eventually learns to take responsibility for his 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.
“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 just 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 any closer and next thing you know you are 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 just want 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 them 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 go “POW” and, as a result, the behavior continues because it is having its intended effect of keeping you away.
“My Child Will Hate Me If I Give Her Consequences for Her Behavior”
Indeed, your child wants you to believe that she will hate you if you confront her hostility and give her 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 she 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 just 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. And we get angry at our children while at the same time 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.
The reason I explain ambivalence to parents is 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 of the home 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 things for which 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 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.”
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 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. It sounds hokey and he 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 his room, he should never be punished for that unless he’s 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 he is calm and composed enough to better understand the situation. It gives him 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, then he has to make that time up later on. For example, 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.
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 him. If you take him 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 he’ll learn some coping skills and apply what he’s 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 him. 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 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. He sees himself as the victim, and there’s nothing you can do at that moment to change him. He’s going to think what he’s 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 if you don’t respond to it, most of the time he’s going to quiet down.
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.
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, he’s 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, he’ll scream his case if you let him.
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 his way to better behavior, but he can behave his 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 control 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.