How Parents Can Learn To Tame A Testy Teenager
If you're the parent of a teenager, this may sound familiar: "Leave me alone! Get out of my face!" Maybe you've had a door slammed on you. And maybe you feel like all of your interactions are arguments.
Kim Abraham, a therapist in private practice in Michigan, specializes in helping teens and parents cope with anger. She also contributes regularly to the online newsletter Empowering Parents. Abraham says, for starters, don't take it personally.
Teens just can't explode at their teachers or with friends, but parents are safe. And safe harbors are crucial for teenagers during these years. For them, everything is different than it was in childhood. Academics are tough. Friends behave differently. Expectations are high. Their brains are changing and their hormones are raging.
According to Abraham, anxiety from all of these stresses often comes out as anger: "There's always another emotion that precedes anger, like hurt, disappointment, embarrassment." So, it's important, she says, to "help your kids learn how to uncover what that trigger feeling is. You can help them learn how to move through that feeling and then move into resolution."
Take late-night texting, for example, the root of many arguments for Brad McDonald and his 14-year-old daughter, Madalyn. Madalyn feels it's important to stay socially connected with her friends even if that means texting late at night on a school day. Her dad thinks otherwise. He says, "On one level I don't want it to become an addiction, and she does need her sleep. And I want her to learn to communicate without texting — I think that's important."
Not long ago, the argument got so heated, Brad felt he had to physically grab the phone from his daughter. He wasn't happy about doing it, but he felt he had no choice.
According to Abraham, parents should try to resist getting physical with their teens by grabbing the phone or unplugging the Xbox, for example. Yelling back doesn't help, either, she says. "If you're getting in your child's face, that's a confrontation, and anger plus anger equals what? Bigger anger."
What you should do, says Abraham, is take a breath. Walk away. Let your child know there will be consequences later — and stick to them. Equally important, she adds: Always remember there's a reason for the anger. In the case of Madalyn's texting, she didn't want to disappoint her friends.
Another typical argument for parents and teens: music and movies. Recently, Madalyn and her friends wanted to watch Little Miss Sunshine. But it's rated R, and Dad said "no." Madalyn was embarrassed "because my friends' parents let them watch those types of movies."
In this case, Abraham suggests, "Brad can say, 'OK, I understand you get embarrassed. How can you move through that? You're still not going to watch it.' So, where can you find resolution?" Then, Madalyn can problem-solve. A solution could be that Madalyn doesn't even ask to watch movies when her friends come over because the answer might be no.
Or, Abraham says, she could "ask Dad ahead of time to list the 10 movies he's OK with so she doesn't get embarrassed in front of her friends."
In the case of texting, the resolution was a 15-minute warning. Now, says Brad, "there's no more excuses, no more pushing boundaries — 9:30 p.m. is the time, and she's much better at it now."
The key in all these disputes, says Abraham, is not to argue with your teen about being angry. Help them understand why they're angry. "That's something parents can remind themselves about when they see their children struggling with these things. The teenagers are building problem-solving skills and coping skills" that they can rely on for a lifetime, she says. They're becoming stronger people.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Parents of teenagers will have heard something like this: Leave me alone or I told you, we didn't do anything at school. Maybe they've had a door or two slammed on them. And maybe they feel that all of their interactions are arguments.
NPR's Patti Neighmond looks at some of the causes of teenage anger and some ways parents can cope.
KIM ABRAHAM: The first thing to remember is that for teenagers, everything is different than it was in childhood. Academics are tough, friends behave differently, expectations are high and hormones are raging.
And oftentimes, when we're stressed and we're anxious, it comes out in a variety of ways. One is anger.
PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: Kim Abraham is a social worker who specializes in teenage anger.
ABRAHAM: There's always another emotion that precedes anger, and it's going to be hurt, disappointment, embarrassment.
NEIGHMOND: Stress, anxiety. Teenagers deal with these emotions on a daily basis.
ABRAHAM: So if you can help your kids learn how to uncover what that trigger feeling is, then help them learn how to move through that feeling and then move into resolution.
NEIGHMOND: Take late-night texting, the root of many arguments. Here's Brad McDonald and his 14-year-old daughter, Madalyn.
MADALYN MCDONALD: He said, well, it's time to take your phone away. And I said, no, no. I got to wait for my friend to text back or I have another friend that I need to say goodnight to. And he said no, I need to take it. And then we got into a very heated argument until he got the phone.
NEIGHMOND: Wrestling over the phone wasn't at all the way Brad had hoped to resolve the problem, but at the time he felt he had no choice.
BRAD MCDONALD: On one level I don't want it to become an addiction. Another level, she does need her sleep. Another level, I want her to actually learn to communicate without texting. I think that's important.
NEIGHMOND: Abraham says parents should avoid getting physical with their teenagers. Grabbing the phone or unplugging the Xbox, for example. And yelling back isn't going to help either.
ABRAHAM: If you're getting in your child's face, that's a confrontation, and anger plus anger equals what? Bigger anger. I mean, that's just like throwing fuel on the flame. So you don't want to do that.
NEIGHMOND: What you should do, take a breath. Walk away. And let your child know there will be consequences later. And stick to them. And always remember there's a reason for the anger. In this case, Madalyn didn't want to disappoint her friends.
M. MCDONALD: I don't want them to feel like I'm ignoring them or I'm not listening to them. And I definitely want them to feel like I want to talk to them. So when my parents take away my phone like at night and I don't get a chance to say goodbye, I usually do get pretty mad.
NEIGHMOND: Another typical argument: music and movies. Madalyn and her friends wanted to watch "Little Miss Sunshine." It's rated R and Dad said no. Madalyn was embarrassed.
M. MCDONALD: I was planning on watching it with my friend or something and then I feel kind of like embarrassed that my dad doesn't let me watch and my friends' parents, like, let them watch those kind of movies or listen to that type of music.
ABRAHAM: As a parent, Brad can say, OK, I understand you get embarrassed. How can you move through that? You're still not going to watch it. And where can you find some resolution here? And then, she can problem-solve.
NEIGHMOND: One solution could be not asking to watch movies when her friends come over because the answer might be no.
ABRAHAM: Or, ask ahead of time: Dad, what are 10 movies that you're going to be OK with if we decide to watch movies, so I don't embarrass myself in front of my friends when asked to watch a movie?
NEIGHMOND: As for texting, the resolution was this: a 15-minute warning. Brad.
B. MCDONALD: There's no more excuses. There's no more I don't know what time it is or hang on, hang on, wait, wait, wait, wait. There's none of that. There is, you know, 9:30 is the time and she's much better at it now.
NEIGHMOND: The key, says Kim Abraham, is not to argue with your teen about being angry. Help them understand why they're angry. That way you help them build skills they can rely on for a lifetime.
ABRAHAM: So, something parents can remind themselves when they see their children struggling with these things. They're building problem solving and they're building coping skills, they're becoming a stronger person.
NEIGHMOND: And a more compassionate one. Patti Neighmond, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.