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Teen Anger: Techniques to Avoid the Buildup

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Look for Ways to Compromise
In many situations with adolescents, you should try to treat them the way you would one of your friends or another adult. Rather than get into a battle to see who is going to win, it may be better to create a situation where a compromise is reached.

Provide Appropriate Models
Children learn a great deal from modeling their parents' behavior. The way we handle our conflicts and problems is apt to be imitated by our children. If I handle my anger by hollering, throwing things, or hitting, there is a good possibility that my children will handle their conflicts in a similar fashion. The old saying "Don't do as I do; do as I say" is a very ineffective way of dealing with behavior. Therefore, if you see aggressive or rebellious behaviors in your teenager, look at yourself, your spouse, or an older sibling to see if one of you is modeling these behaviors. If so, the behavior must stop before we can expect to change the adolescent's conduct.

If there is a significant amount of arguing in the home, or if parents demonstrate disrespect for one another, it is likely that the teenager will adopt similar behavior patterns. If you scream at your child, he is likely to scream back.

One mother told me, "Every time I hit my daughter, she hits me back. What should I do?" My answer was very simple: "Stop hitting her." Whenever I see a child who is showing aggressive-type behaviors, I want to know if this behavior is being modeled in the home. If youngsters are dealt with through physical punishment, we may be teaching them to handle conflicts by physical force or aggressive behavior. It does not have to be the actual use of physical force. It can be threats of force. In other words, "I'm going to get you to do that because I am bigger than you and can control you by intimidation." If we deal with teenagers in that fashion, we are apt to cause a buildup of anger at the same time that we are indirectly teaching them aggressive and inappropriate methods of problem solving.

Parents who use physical punishment with the young child, as a primary method of dealing with his or her behavior, forget one important thing: children grow and usually get as big as or bigger than them. A young child disciplined through physical punishment will probably end up as an adolescent who gets into physical battles with his parents.

Parents must look at themselves to be sure they are not models of the behavior they are trying to eliminate in the child. Serving as an appropriate model is a good way to teach children how to deal with and express anger.

Who's in Control?
When I was a young parent, people would tell me, "Little kids, little problems. Big kids, big problems." At the time, I did not quite understand this bit of advice, but now that I have experienced being the parent of teenagers, I know exactly what it means.

Young children who have been pampered and spoiled—and have learned how to control their parents—are used to having things their own way. Therefore, they tend to be somewhat bossy and self-centered, behaviors that intensify during adolescence. If a child like this is told not to eat any cookies, he may defy the parents, sneak into the kitchen, and eat the cookies. Or if he is told not to jump on the couch, he does not listen and continues jumping. When adolescence arrives, the same child is told to be home by midnight and instead comes home at 4:00 A.M. Told not to drink and drive, he drinks and drives anyway. The little problems of the small child become much bigger during adolescence, and frequently result in more serious consequences.

I often see families where adolescents are out of control, will not take no for an answer, and will not accept parental authority. Many times when these teens do not get their way, aggressive, rebellious, and oppositional behavior results. Some of these adolescents have been in control of the family since they were young. The child determined the routines and activities in the home more than the parents. A seven-year-old was having trouble in school because she was not doing the required work in class, but instead was daydreaming and doing whatever she pleased. In talking with the parents, I discovered that they were having the same type of difficulty at home. The child would not cooperate, especially with routine tasks. They also mentioned that she was constantly complaining to them about the fact that her three- and four-year-old brothers did not have to go to school. Why did she have to? She did not think it was fair that her brothers could stay home, play, and watch television. Every morning before school, an argument about this usually took place. She frequently requested to stay home, and generally this issue produced a great deal of conflict in the home. In order to solve the situation, the parents put the two brothers in nursery school, demonstrating that the daughter was more in control than the parents. Rather than allow a child to call the shots and try to manipulate the environment to accommodate the child or to avoid problems, it might be better to have the child learn that there are certain things that must be done whether or not she wants to do them.

As I mentioned earlier, we can control young children, but with the adolescent we must exert authority. I am not talking about an authority by force or by dictatorship. I am talking about an authority that involves setting rules and being consistent in administering consequences. If parents can exert this type of authority, the probability that positive behaviors and attitudes can be developed will increase.

The child who has been in control his entire life finds it difficult to relinquish this power during adolescence. However, because of the severity of the consequences that can occur in adolescence, parents are usually trying to exert more control at this time. As a result, battles, conflicts, anger, and resentment occur when the teenager does not have his own way. Below are some techniques on establishing rules and consequences in a fashion that will allow you to have some authority over the teenager.

Stabilize the Environment
Teenagers who experience environmental change—especially divorce, separation, or remarriage—may develop underlying anger. The anger and resentment that result from the changes may be expressed in other ways. Try to identify the changes, stabilize the environment, and get him to express his feelings through more appropriate methods. If the adolescent has questions regarding a divorce or remarriage, discuss them with him.

Avoid Excessive Restrictions
Some children who are overprotected, excessively restricted, and generally not allowed to be like other youngsters their age may develop resentment and anger. They want to do things that others do, but are prevented from doing so. Sometimes you have to look at your teenager's peer group in order to decide what is and is not appropriate, and what is too much restriction.

Do Not Let the Behavior Get Out of Control
Once a child is actively involved in an aggressive behavior or shouting match, it is difficult to deal with the behavior. Rather than wait till the behavior occurs to handle it, sometimes it is possible, and better, to try to prevent it from happening or to catch it early and not let it get out of control. In some teenagers, the aggressive behavior develops gradually and may involve several steps. Some initial behaviors appear and then intensify. For example, a teenager's brother may call him stupid. Some verbal exchanges follow, then a pushing and shoving match begins, and finally a full-blown fight erupts. Rather than wait to react when the fight starts, it would be better to try to catch the behavior early, and intervene before the situation gets out of hand. Target the name-calling or verbal arguing and try to stop that, rather than wait to zero in on the fighting.

A mother tells her sixteen-year-old son to clean his room. When he says no, she counters back with a warning, then a threat. A struggle develops, and after some shouting and screaming on both parts, the boy goes to his room and throws something, breaking the window. Rather than waiting to zero in on the boy's destructive behavior, it would be better for the parent to catch this kind of sequence in the beginning.

Also see Setting Rules / Expectations and Consequences for Your Teen

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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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