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  • Writer's pictureSuzanne Jones

“But, I can’t control it!”

Updated: Jan 11, 2022

Meltdowns, crises, explosive outbursts are just a few terms used by parents and professionals to describe ‘angry’ responses from toddlers to teens. Angry responses can involve challenging behaviours which can have a negative impact on both the child/young person and the adults around them trying to manage the outburst. Staff and parents often describe feeling hopeless, upset and frustrated and at times scared. Having preventative and reactive plans in place is therefore essential for everyone’s well-being.

In this blog we focus on teen anger – perhaps the angriest and most explosive of all life stages!

What is anger?

Anger is a normal survival instinct which is helpful to us, for example, when our lives are in danger anger triggers the release of adrenaline which energises us to respond which can save our lives.

Anger affects us in a number of ways:

It can affect us physically, for example by making our heart beat fast, tensing our muscles and/or churning our stomachs.

It can affect our behaviours, when we are angry we can feel unable to control what we do, for example, we may run away, lash out or get upset/cry.

It can also affect our thoughts, especially after an angry outburst, we can think really negatively and critically of ourselves and can feel guilt and shame.

Anger is a normal feeling we all feel from time to time especially when we think we have been treated unfairly, or a situation is unjust.

Life for a teen is full of perceived unfairness! As a teenager, the young person often gets mixed messages about being responsible and independent, whilst at the same time in practice having limited independence and control in their lives. As such, it is perhaps the key time in our lives when we feel we are being treated unfairly or disrespected, or that life is unjust. Angry teen outbursts are often in response to perceived unfairness and, ‘why can’t I…’, they can…why won’t you let me…?’you let them…’ Couple this with a period of body and brain development and a whirl of hormones playing havoc with their system it is perhaps unsurprising that it is a time of strong emotional responses.

Top Tips for Dealing with an Angry Teen

1. Stop, breathe, walk away

Angry teen outbursts often provoke angry adult responses. So, if you can, walk away and as needed release your own anger and frustration somewhere else, somewhere safe and try to distract yourself.

Strategies we would often develop with young people such as stopping and breathing are also strategies that help adults when faced with angry, provocative teen responses. So, stop and breathe, count to ten and try to keep quiet / bite your tongue! Stopping and breathing helps slow the release of adrenaline and therefore the intensity of the physical sensations, emotions and thoughts are reduced.

2. Try not to take it personally

Anger often involves explosive verbal outbursts that can include hurtful comments, ‘I hate you, you’re a …. Try not to take it personally – what is said is often how they feel about themselves: ‘I hate myself, I feel…’.

3. Reparation

When calm allow reparation, try not to reprimand/’tell off’ just allow a hug or a touch. Later have a debrief, talk through what happened, and what helped and what didn’t, for example, did walking away help?

Develop a plan together for future outbursts, what will you both try to do next time? It can be helpful to role play and practice responses in the same way we practice fire drills – when calm. Also, acting out anger and both good and bad responses can be great fun.

Top tips to limit/prevent angry outbursts

Rules and routines

Feelings of unfairness/unjustness for teenagers can often be related to ‘unwritten’ rules or changing expectations. It can be helpful to take time to discuss rules as a household and develop house rules and routines, which can cover areas including:

• Sleep – bedtimes and morning routines

• Food – expectations about meals and snacks

• Technology

• Exercise and Relaxation

• Chores

• Homework

• Time to talk

Getting enough sleep, relaxation time and active activities are key to positive emotional well being.

If teens feel ownership and engagement in the development of the rules and routines they are more likely to comply. Also, as part of the rules it can be helpful to discuss rewards and consequences together. so that everyone feels they are fair and just.

Time to Talk

I often suggest having a planned time to talk and I often find that the key topic for teens is peers – boyfriends, girlfriends, friends and frenemies! Topics also often include experimentation for example in sex or drugs. When such areas are raised - try not to explode yourself! If you do it’s likely your teen will not then be open and honest again – try to stop, breathe, listen.

Sometimes it can be easier for young people to talk about things that are bothering them indirectly, meaning that they can find it easier to talk when engaged in a side by side activity such as baking, washing up/drying up rather than having a face to face conversation which may feel more confrontational.

Try to listen and not offer advice straight away. Ask permission to help problem solve together – I was advised many years ago when trying to problem solve or offer advice it’s useful to try to stick to the 3-5 rule, meaning try to keep responses at 3 to 5 sentences, as anymore can be too much and sound like a lecture!

Plan together

In your talk times develop a plan together.

Ask - when you get angry what do you want me to do? Would you like me to walk away, sit with you, give you a cuddle?

Discuss with your teen about keeping a diary including keeping a note of what makes them angry, including where and when, how they felt, what they thought and what they did. As an example, the diary could include:

Where it happened/what situations: place, task or people.

How they felt - bodily sensations: muscles tensing, fists clenching, feeling sick.

What they thought: “they should do what I told them”, “that was not fair!”.

If they feel comfortable to share it with you, you can then problem solve together. Discuss the ‘what ifs’.

An example

I was asked for involvement for Sam who was described by his parents, College staff and friends as having ‘anger issues’ and to regularly ‘explode’ at home and at school which was challenging for the adults around him. Adults described that he quickly got angry or upset and had ‘outbursts’ in response to seemingly minor issues/comments, for example in response to what someone had said, peer conflict or what he perceived as unfairness at College. Information shared also indicated that once upset or angry it was hard for Sam to then calm down.

We planned for Sam to have regular time to talk, agreed class and home rules with Sam and put a plan together for when Sam had strong emotional/angry responses including how adults would respond. After the plans were implemented the number and intensity of outbursts reduced and Sam described feeling more positive and in control with better relationships with staff, peers and parents.

Thank you for reading – I hope this provides a little insight into anger, managing and limiting angry outbursts and I hope the tips are useful.

Do look through the list of services and get in touch for further information.

If you or someone close to you needs urgent help you must contact local services.

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