Holly slammed her bedroom door and flung herself onto her bed. After an angry outburst at the dinner table, her parents had sent her to her room. This had happened several times over the past few weeks. She was starting to get the message: Her parents didn’t want to listen to what was making her angry. They didn’t want to help her work through it, or didn’t know how (or both). She should just stuff her feelings.
Wrong Response: Wrong Message
Holly’s parents are responding to her anger like many parents do. Faced with an angry teen, parents are unsure how to cope. The teen’s anger can be frightening, frustrating and, if not handled well, more and more frequent.
Clearly, parents don’t want to send the message Holly is receiving. Parental response to anger shouldn’t encourage teens to stuff their emotions and never deal with them. It also shouldn’t discourage them from going to others for help (especially their parents).
So, what should parents do? What’s the proper response to an angry explosion? With good preparation, it’s possible to avoid these disasters and the emotional fallout that results (or at least minimize their negative impact).
The next time your teen blows up, try these CALMER tactics:
- (C)ompassion: Keep in mind, your teen still has a lot of maturing to do. Their brain has not fully developed to be able to control themselves as well as adults. They are also responding in a natural way. While you may not see or understand it, they are feeling threatened in some way. Their natural fight or flight response has kicked in, and they have chosen fight. Showing compassion for their internal struggles can go a long way in building trust in your relationship.
- (A)cknowledgment: Rather than immediately try to shut down their anger, try acknowledging it. “You’re very upset about...I’m sorry this is so hard.” When they are in a fit of emotion, it’s not the time to analyze, teach or reason. Just acknowledge how they're feeling. Once their emotions are recognized, it’s likely the underlying ones will surface. Fear. Sadness. The anger often evaporates as these rise to the top.
- (L)istening: Anger can be scary. As your own fight or flight response kicks in, sending the angry teen away may seem best. But, if you can offer compassion for their feelings and acknowledge them, you may reach a point where they are willing to share what’s really going on. Don’t miss this opportunity. Listen to what made them angry. Encourage them to talk it out.
- (M)aking it safe: While you want to help your teen work through their anger, you must also keep everyone safe. Set any limits necessary to do so. You may need to physically back away. It might help to offer a physical outlet – “Smash this pillow all you want. Stomp around and yell. But no hitting me or your brother.” If you do back away, remind them you’re giving them space to stay safe, but are right there when they’re ready to talk or need a hug.
- (E)mpathy: Met with compassion and a listening ear, your teen will feel safe expressing their anger. Offer empathy for their situation, and their anger will usually melt. They can then begin to heal from whatever is causing the anger. When they feel your empathy, they’re more likely to show you their vulnerable feelings that caused the anger. The anger will no longer be a necessary defense.
- (R)evisiting: Don’t try to talk things through until after they’ve calmed down. Then, try to make it a discussion of what happened rather than a lecture. Talk about what led to the outburst or incident and ask how they think they could get a better outcome in the future. Help them understand themselves, you and the situation.
This process will help your teen develop resilience. They will learn that emotions aren’t bad and can be verbalized in a positive manner. As you teach them to be CALMER, you’ll train them to cope with their feelings in healthy ways.
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