Susanne Says - Dealing with Angry Teenagers

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Part 1 - Anger vs. Disrespect

Parenting teenagers is one of the toughest jobs any of us will ever do!  We love our kids when they're 6-12. They're not babies anymore and they still find us somewhat fun and interesting to be with.

However, when kids hit puberty they go through so many biological, emotional, and social changes. But they also go through a huge change in their brain development. At puberty, the number of neural pathways (ways neurons connect) increases exponentially. Just as teens’

feet can quickly grow several sizes or they can sprout up six inches over one summer, the development of their brain goes through a major growth spurt. These changes are a significant part of the changes within them that affect their relationships with their parents.

The Facts of Teen Brain Development

Unfortunately, the pre-frontal cortex is not fully developed until age 25. The pre-frontal cortex is the smartest part of the brain; it helps us to solve problems and connect consequences with actions and behavior. That's why we have to do so much role modeling. Teens are still learning by what they see and experience. I mention this because when dealing with teenagers, especially angry ones, it helps to have perspective on why they've changed so much! In James Dobson's classic book, Preparing for Adolescence, he says it helps to explain to your kids that during adolescence they will challenge everything you, their parents, value and have taught them. If you have kids ages 10-12, I highly recommend having this conversation.

Role Modeling is Key

When raising kids there will be a certain amount of anger and frustration as part of daily living. We can't mandate "that we all just get along!" We have to role model how to deal with anger, resolve conflict, and compromise. We need to be demonstrating respect in our relationships first. It can't be "do as I say, not as I do." Teenagers are extremely critical of adults on many

levels, partly due to all the things mentioned above and partly due to the separation process. They become intolerant of any dishonesty we display, like the Pharisees (religious leaders) in Jesus' day who loaded people down with impossible burdens but had a different standard for their own behavior.  This type of hypocrisy is a major cause of teens' anger with their parents. We must take the beam out of our own eye before we attempt to take the speck out of our son or daughter's eye. (Matthew7:5). We must do our own personal inventory: How respectful are we when we're upset? How do we express anger? 

Switching the Behavioral Dynamic

When a teenager is disrespectful to a parent, it is an overt sign of anger. To get to the bottom of  the conflict, we as parents need to sort out the difference between anger and disrespect for our teenagers. What’s the difference? Anger is when I tell you how I'm negatively affected by your comments, behavior, etc. Disrespect occurs when I express that anger to you by using pejorative terms, character assassination, name-calling, cursing, and the like. We need to tell our kids that we will indeed hear their anger, providing they maintain an attitude of respect. "Talk to me, I'll just listen. But don't attack me. I can't listen if you're yelling or acting out of control." At times, we can redirect a conversation that starts out in a disrespectful tone and switch it up simply to expression of negative feelings. But make sure you're in a good space emotionally. Don't attempt hearing their anger if you're hungry, angry, lonely, or tired (H.A.L.T.). Get prayed up! 

I DON'T WANT TO HEAR IT

Sometimes the underlying problem is that we don't really want to hear our teens’ anger. It is possible that we're the ones with the unresolved anger issues. If that’s the case, no worries. It's not a crime, but do get some help! It’s impossible to help someone with their anger if we haven't yet gotten help with our own. I think we all know when we're overreacting to stress, being touchy, and losing our tempers too much. If we’re not sure, we need to ask our husband or a trusted friend. When many or most conversations with our teens wind up in an angry battle where things are said out of frustration and bad temper, it's probably time to speak to a counselor.

The Power of “I” and Owning Anger

We may feel that all anger is disrespect. Not true! Anger crosses over into disrespect when I focus on you and not me. Teach your teen to use "I" statements. “I'm angry because...I feel anger when _______occurs.” Instead of “You make me so angry when you…”   You're teaching them to own their anger, become comfortable in their own skin even expressing negative emotions, and yet maintain respect for the person they feel has hurt them or disappointed them.

The ability to own anger and maintain respect for others is a very grown-up ability. We are training our teens in the ways of the adult world. Anger is a feeling that is very useful in setting boundaries with others. The expression of anger has to be within the confines of mutual respect.  Calling someone an idiot when they upset you is not appropriate, but letting them know that what they did doesn't work for you is very much okay.

When we use "you" language we're blaming the other guy for our feelings. “You make me feel this way.” “You drive me crazy, you're the only parent who won't let their kid have an iPhone, iPod, go to the concert, etc.”  "You" statements are always fighting words. A family that switches from the blamey pejorative "you" statements to the high ownership "I" statements has already taught a very high level interpersonal skill!!!!!

Next month I'll talk about why we really do need to permit our teen’s anger and how to maintain parental influence with an angry teenager.  There's a huge difference between permitting their anger and permitting their disrespect. We’ll sort that out in Part 2.

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Susanne Ciancio, LPC, is a Licensed Professional Christian Counselor. She has been serving the Christian community as a professional Christian counselor in Essex county and the surrounding area since 1986. Beyond her private practice in West Orange, NJ she is involved in teaching, consulting, and pastoral supervision in various churches in the area. Click here for Susanne's website. 

EDITORS NOTE: While Susanne can’t answer specific counseling-related questions, she welcomes your thoughts, comments, and suggestions about what kinds of topics you’d like to see addressed here at Circles of Faith. Click here to contact us

photo credit: D.Clow - Maryland via photopincc

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