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Teen Anger: Techniques to Avoid the Buildup

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All teenagers occasionally grow angry and rebellious and express these emotions in some fashion. Some methods of acknowledging aggressive feelings produce problems, others don't.

Anger and feelings of disapproval build up and then are released through different methods. We can exemplify this situation by using the image of an "anger" balloon. Each time something happens that we do not like, air is forced into the balloon and it starts to expand. Eventually, air has to be let out of the balloon. How anger is expressed is different for different people. Some people let anger build up until their balloon pops, and when this happens there may be an explosive outburst of anger over a minor annoyance. After this display of anger, there is usually a period of control until the balloon blows up again. Other people release air from the balloon every time it starts to fill. These are the individuals who appropriately express their feelings at the time they occur. Some other individuals release air through passive-aggressive maneuvers, displacement, or physical complaints.

In addition to helping the teenager appropriately express and deal with his or her angry feelings, parents should try to reduce the accumulation of anger and deal appropriately with aggressive and rebellious behaviors when they occur. The techniques that follow should help.

Encourage Appropriate Communication
The most effective way to deal with anger and rebellious behavior is to have teenagers appropriately communicate their feelings of disapproval and resentment. Encourage them to express and explain negative feelings, sources of anger, and their opinions—that is, what angers them, what we do that they do not like, what they disapprove of. If a teenager expresses emotions appropriately, in a normal tone of voice, she should not be viewed as rude or disrespectful. This is an appropriate expression of anger, and the youngster should not be reprimanded or punished. In other words, allow teenagers to complain, disagree, or disapprove, provided they are not sarcastic, flippant, or nasty. Remember, though, that allowing a child to shout, swear, or be fresh does not teach effective communication of emotions.

Listen. If the teenager is complaining about excessive restrictions, punishments, or other things that she does not like, listen. Try to understand her feelings. If the complaints are realistic, see if something can be worked out and resolved, or if a compromise can be achieved.

Avoid Excessive Negative Attention
It's a mistake to pay more attention to what the child is doing wrong—his failures, mistakes, misbehaviors—than to what he is doing right—his successes, achievements, good behaviors. When you go to bed at night, review the day you have had with your child. Have you spent as much time during the day looking at his appropriate behaviors as you have looking at his inappropriate actions? You should avoid using punishment as a primary method of control. Instead, substitute positive consequences, which place the emphasis on good behavior rather than on bad behavior. Eliminate verbal punishment (hollering, putting down the adolescent, name-calling, excessive criticism), and use reward as a disciplinary tactic. Emphasize successes, accomplishments, achievements, and good behaviors. Pay more attention to normal good behavior and be positive.

Constant nagging of a teenager will certainly result in a buildup of anger, resentment, and aggressive behaviors.

Try Not to React to Passive-Aggressive Behavior
Some of the opposition, stubbornness, resistance, and other passive-aggressive maneuvers of teenagers are designed to express anger and/or to get a reaction from the parents. Ignoring this behavior is often an effective way to reduce it.

Some ways of dealing with this passive-aggressive behavior will result in the development of more anger, while others will help deflate the anger balloon. For example, a child is told to set the table for dinner. While setting the table, she mumbles under her breath and every now and then you hear comments like, "They think I'm a slave. I want to go live at Grandma's, where I'm appreciated." Along with the mumbling, she is angrily tossing ice in the glasses and banging down the plates and silverware. This teenager is annoyed because she feels she has better things to do than set the table. Her mumbling and other actions are passive-aggressive maneuvers to express her anger and resentment. These behaviors are releasing anger and letting air out of the anger balloon. If you react to her mumbling by criticizing or scolding, you will be putting more air back into the balloon—that is, the anger that was initially released by the child's complaining and defiance will be offset by a buildup of additional aggressive feelings. By using the consequence of ignoring her, this additional buildup of anger can be eliminated.

There are several things that must be kept in mind when using this consequence, and there are a few different ways to ignore the behavior. In general, if you ask a teenager to do something and he is doing it, although complaining the whole time, ignore his complaints since he is doing what you asked.

Avoid Random Discipline
Parents often discipline after the fact. I call this random discipline. They set a rule and wait for the adolescent to break it before they decide upon a consequence. To teenagers, the concept of fairness is extremely important. If they are disciplined in this fashion, they may frequently feel unjustly treated. In addition, random discipline often makes teenagers feel that others are responsible for what has happened to them and anger is apt to develop. You should spell out the rules and consequences for your child's behavior at the same time. The most important part of this process is not the rule, but the consequence. Put the responsibility for what happens to the child squarely on his or her shoulders.

Don't Get into a Power Struggle
You tell the adolescent to clean his room and he refuses. Then you threaten, "You had better clean it, or you're not going out on Saturday." He replies, "You can't make me clean it and I'm going out on Saturday, anyway." Then you say something, he says something, you both begin to shout, and a full-blown power struggle has developed. This is a good way to generate anger in your child.

When possible, avoid battles and power struggles, which only lead to a buildup of anger. At times, it may be better to have the child experience the consequence of his behavior rather than to win the battle and get him to do what you want. If you try to win each fight, you may battle the child throughout adolescence, and will probably end up losing the war.

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From Keys to Parenting Your Teenager by Don Fontenelle, Ph.D. Copyright 2000 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc. All rights reserved. Used by arrangement with Barron's Educational Series, Inc.

Buy the book at Barron's.

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