Holes punched in the walls. Doors kicked in. Cursing, name-calling and screaming tirades. Violent outbursts. If this sounds like your child or teen, you’re not alone. According to a new study, nearly 66 percent of U.S. teens say they’ve had “anger attacks” where they’ve destroyed property, threatened violence — or resorted to it. The study also claims that one in twelve teens has Intermittent Explosive Disorder, or IED, which is characterized by chronic, uncontrollable fits of rage.
Ronald Kessler, the psychiatric epidemiologist from Harvard Medical School who led the study, says, “[This is] an enormous problem that mental health professionals have not taken seriously…. I think it’s clear from this study that needs to change.” According to Kessler, IED is the mirror image of panic disorder, in part because of the similar excessive “fight or flight” response of the teen.
If you’re the parent of an acting out child, this may sound all too familiar. While there is no known cure for IED, there are ways for you to teach your child to deal with anger by helping him develop better coping skills. In his article, “Anger with an Angle: Is Your Child Using Anger to Control You?” James Lehman MSW says, “Anger is a fact of life. Everyone gets angry, including kids—they get frustrated and disappointed just like adults do. The goal for children as they mature is to learn ways to manage their anger or, as I like to say, “Solve the problem of anger. That’s because anger is a problem—it’s not just a feeling.”
Just how do you solve solve the problem of anger? Here are three things James recommends:
1. Decide What You’ll Do Ahead of Time: If your child frequently acts out in public or at home, plan what you’ll do before the anger and intimidation start. Will you leave the room, or tell him that he’ll have consequences for his behavior?
2. Talk to Your Child about What Happened: After the incident, briefly discuss what happened with your child so he can learn skills that will help him deal with the situation differently next time. If you don’t do this, know that his behavior is not going to become extinct on its own. In most cases, it builds on itself over time. If he has damaged property or hurt someone, give appropriate consequences for his actions.
4. Ask your child what he’ll do differently next time he’s angry. You can say, “What can you do so you don’t get in trouble next time?” Come up with a list of replacement behaviors and then direct him toward those alternatives next time he’s about to blow. The list might include taking a walk, listening to music, riding a bike, or playing basketball.
The bottom line is that anger among adolescents seems to be growing, not diminishing. Teaching our kids appropriate coping skills will only help them later in life when they have to deal with the frustration of rejection, having a boss they might not like, or when they get a traffic ticket. For now, your child might not make an appropriate decision with his anger every time , but know that if he decides to take that time out and ride his bike tomorrow instead of throwing the remote and cursing, it’s a step in the right direction.
Elisabeth Wilkins is the editor of Empowering Parents and the mother of one son. Her work has appeared in national and international publications.