Teen anger - how to diffuse?
February 14, 2018 10:41 AM   Subscribe

Had a really upsetting evening with our teenager last night (Bob), and am in need of some insight. Does/did your teem exhibit random, prolonged outbursts seemingly without cause? Is this a thing? What worked to diffuse the situation?

Here is the set up. A brief conversation to talk to Bob (age 13) about a somewhat awkward but typical teen behavior was planned. Should have taken a few minutes. The approach was not lay down the law, or demand he stop doing something, it was: hey we know this is happening, please be safe, call if you get into trouble, we won’t bring this up again unless it becomes an issue or impacts school or other obligations, we love you. Should have been pretty straightforward, but it wasn’t.

Bob reacted with rage, couldn’t really explain why, and resisted all efforts to diffuse the situation. So, the focus shifted from a discussion on the teenage behavior to a ‘why are you so angry and how can we help you manage this anger’ type discussion.

We acknowledged his anger and asked if he know why he was angry, if there was something else upsetting him. He kept repeating that he was ‘just angry’, so we asked what he was going to do about that. At this point, he was talking about and actually punching pillows and walls. He spoke of joining the army at age 18 and getting to shoot bad guys to deal with the anger (we pointed out that that seemed like a distant and murderous solution (!) to a problem he seemed to be having right now). He couldn’t articulate any root cause for his anger, just that he was going to stay angry. At one point he said something about wanting more freedom, and we said sure we are happy to negotiate that but, Bob you need to stop raging so that we can have that conversation. We took a break to give him time to calm down. It didn’t help. The things he was saying were reminiscent of macho dude in a movie seeking justice, righting wrongs. “I’m not going to stop fighting” (could not answer, fighting for what?), “see what happens when you keep talking to me, just see what I’ll do” (no, do not threaten us, also your actions and how you manage your anger is on you), “I didn’t ask to be born” etc. It was bizarre. It was like he was trying on a tough guy, high conflict persona to see what would happen. He wasn’t high. He isn't on any prescriptions. This was sober ranting. Eventually, our voices were also raised and he was sent to his room. He was quiet and subdued this morning.

The thing is, I think most days he would acknowledge that he’s got a pretty good deal (aside from the having been born thing). He is a middle class kid in a good school with caring teachers and lots of family that loves him. He is smart and funny, and gets a lot of positive feedback. He has good friends. He has hobbies and lots of interests and only a couple of obligations around the house. He is not forced or pressured to attend lessons, or church or make straight As. He can date whoever he wants. He gets a lot of support, independence and love. He is usually pretty mild mannered. But for a moment last night I thought he was going to throw a punch at my partner. My partner wasn’t yelling, but rather was trying to deescalate (they are usually excellent with upset/sad/angry/frustrated kids, they have a relevant formal background).

So, my question is: Is your teen prone to rage-y outbursts? Or were you? What helped? I want him to be able to express himself, but without threats and property damage.
posted by walkinginsunshine to Human Relations (30 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Yes. Normal behaviour, based on experience with my 14yo son.

IME, it doesn't go well when you try to talk rationally to someone who doesn't want to do that. Applies to teenagers, but also equally much in other conflict situations. It can come off as condescending. In the face of rage, justified or otherwise, it might work better to disengage & then come back to that subject another time, in another context.

A good book to read is Brainstorm by Dan Siegel. It's about the development of the adolescent brain, and ways to communicate effectively with someone who possesses one. Covers all this sort of thing very well.
posted by rd45 at 10:50 AM on February 14, 2018 [16 favorites]

Have you already tried talking to him about it when he's _not_ angry? It's really hard to think and communicate clearly when actual rage hormones are going through your body -- in fact, it's pretty much impossible. The time to try to analyze this is before or after, not during, I'd think.
posted by amtho at 10:50 AM on February 14, 2018 [3 favorites]

ZOMG we had a year of this with our now 16-year-old. It was really distressing to him because he felt so out of control, so we talked a lot about the effect that hormones were having on him, and about ways to direct his outbursts. He was afraid he'd break something important or hurt one of the cats, so that was important. We also gave him a pass on things like when he said, "I hate you!" And we affirmed that he was a good person when not in the grip of these outbursts, because that was true and was also something he worried about.

Ultimately there didn't seem to be much we could do about it except wait it out, and there wasn't a lot we could do to de-escalate in the moment, but the specific events tended to pass fairly quickly. So I don't have advice but can tell you that for us, our otherwise awesome and well-adjusted kid came out of that stormy phase of adolescence an even more awesome and well-adjusted young adult.
posted by Orlop at 10:54 AM on February 14, 2018 [11 favorites]

So, my question is: Is your teen prone to rage-y outbursts?

OMG. My son was lovely and wonderful until he turned 13 and then I understood why some species eat their young.

When he's having a fit, or whatever, just let him be (as long as safety isn't a concern). Not everything needs to be resolved this instant, and honestly, sometimes, it's just a mood - there's no greater problem at hand to talk about.

It makes you crazy though, because you don't know from one minute to the next which version of your kid you're going to get.

It's a hard time - for him and for you. There is a lot going on developmentally, and that goes harder for some kids than others. At least the volatility implies that the outbursts are typically short lived.

They outgrow it though. They really do. Just keep your chin up. You aren't a bad parent, and sometimes it's ok for the goal to just be surviving until tomorrow.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 11:00 AM on February 14, 2018 [7 favorites]

I was a very unhappy teenager, and that often manifested as anger. There wasn't a "reason," unless "hormones" is a reason. There were things I grabbed at to describe as reasons - school, family, friends, the unfairness of the universe, the failure of my crush object to return my affections - but in hindsight it was all just desperately trying to find a cause for something that boiled down to "my brain is not working like an adult's yet, please stand by."
posted by Tomorrowful at 11:02 AM on February 14, 2018 [16 favorites]

From the way you worded the discussion topic, to me this is reading very much as intense embarassment being covered by anger to push you away from discussing it. Pretty normal teen reaction in my experience. If this rage is an unusual reaction for him I don't think any more action from you is necessary - he's not likely to keep raging once you drop the topic. He'll mature out of that reaction with time as he learns to deal with strong emotions - I wouldn't worry too much about it at all unless he's doing it frequently, or talking hatefully/threateningly about specific people or groups, or hurting himself or others during these episodes.
posted by randomnity at 11:03 AM on February 14, 2018 [30 favorites]

Hormones plus pushing boundaries. It’s normal-ish but if sending him to his room & being firm ended it, next time be firmer sooner.

Sometimes depression or shame come out as rage. It would help to know what the initial topic was. Kids sometimes get embarrassed about sex and flip out as a weird cover.

Also, frankly, wall-punching and other threatening physical behavior is not okay. That needs to be addressed proactively and taken seriously.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 11:05 AM on February 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

I've recently been introduced to the concept of fight-or-flight as it relates to teen behaviour (I'm woefully familiar with it in other contexts) and the speaker who was talking about it used "red brain" to describe the periods that the rise in adrenaline effectively disconnects the teen from his/her ability to access the higher functions of their brain. The green brain is shut off and the red brain is in charge. Anxiety is often a trigger.

The speaker I was listening to (Dr Stuart Shanker) said there is really no moving forward in a red brain conversation until the child or teen is able to calm down. Turning off all the lights, reducing anything stimulating, deep breaths and waiting is the way to go.
posted by warriorqueen at 11:12 AM on February 14, 2018 [7 favorites]

Testosterone is a hell of a drug (affects girls too). Honestly he probably needs an outlet that is physical and a bit dangerous or at least very exciting. Sports like snowboarding, gymnastics, boxing and riding horses are popular with teens for a reason. They are socially acceptable, if often gendered, ways for them to act out the energy, aggression and thrill seeking they are feeling. Also why teens fight, do drugs and drive too fast. After coaching a lot of sports over the years I almost think it's harder for a gentle or low energy kid to experience puberty than one who's always been rambunctious because they haven't already developed the habit of working stuff out, whereas the ones who were bouncing off the walls from age 2 have a routine down

If he doesn't have a physical hobby like that I'd encourage him to get one. Or a physical job for the summer. Like puppies, a tired teen is a well behaved teen or at least better behaved. Also they won't lose it like that around coaches and other adults or bosses so it's good to learn restraint.

Remember the trick with teens is to keep them alive. They are godawful at that age. There is a reason people used to send theit teenagers away to work on farms.
posted by fshgrl at 11:24 AM on February 14, 2018 [20 favorites]

My partner wasn’t yelling, but rather was trying to deescalate (they are usually excellent with upset/sad/angry/frustrated kids, they have a relevant formal background).

I'm guessing Bob is aware of this background, and attempts to use these techniques are very likely to backfire for the foreseeable future. I'm angry just thinking about how that probably felt for Bob. Not that you did anything wrong, but when you're in that state these kinds of techniques are just fuel for the fire.
posted by ewok_academy at 11:35 AM on February 14, 2018 [17 favorites]

"IME, it doesn't go well when you try to talk rationally to someone who doesn't want to do that. Applies to teenagers, but also equally much in other conflict situations. It can come off as condescending."

Yeah, even as a supposedly rational grown adult, if I imagine myself in a situation where I was (for whatever reason) incredibly angry, and somebody was calmly telling me "you need to stop raging so that we can have that conversation", I can't imagine that calming me down. As an adult I'd probably have the sense to just leave. A teenager may not know to do that, or (since they don't exactly have a home of their own) may not feel it's an option.

No expert, but I'd be inclined to disengage, make sure they've had enough food and rest, etc. And try a different approach at that conversation another day.
posted by floppyroofing at 11:35 AM on February 14, 2018 [34 favorites]

So, y'all seem like pretty intelligent and intellectual people, but also caring. Which is good! But I agree with rd45 that it might not be the best method to deal with "I'm really angry and I simply am incapable of articulating why!" also, joining the military to kill teh bad guys sounds like a pretty standard adolescent power fantasy.. Might be worth examining (privately, between the adults) what he feels powerless about.

And fwiw, I was raised and often hear that hitting a pillow is a decent first step at dealing with feelings like anger. (walls, of course are a different matter...)
posted by Jacen at 11:49 AM on February 14, 2018 [4 favorites]

When my son was about 13, we had a mom-kid book group, reading To Kill a Mockingbird. We were driving home from a social event, staring ahead at the road. We talked about the scene that bugged us, the one where Scout is trying to make sense of Miss Gates who with one breath denounces Hitler and with the next vilifies and dehumanizes the African Americans of the town. Scout invites Jem’s help in trying to understand Miss Gates; “Jem was suddenly furious. He leaped off the bed, grabbed me by the collar and shook me. ‘I never wanta hear about that courthouse again, ever ever, you hear me? You hear me?'”[2]

I asked him what he thought; why did Jem get so angry, and at Scout? He said to me,”Mom, I get it, because sometimes you say something, and I get so angry and upset. And I know that what you said isn’t the thing that made me angry, but I can’t help myself.”

I think about that moment a lot, even now that he's 17. Teenage adolescence, from the outside, seems difficult, full of lots of anger and frustration and, well, of course it makes sense that he directed it at me, someone who could and would love him through it.

Anyway, yes, this is normal, yes it will pass, but this stage is also a great moment (when he's not in a rage) to have conversations about emotional languages, powerlessness, etc. We also--during those same years (11-12?) watched the whole series of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, taking time to talk about violence, consent, etc.
posted by correcaminos at 12:07 PM on February 14, 2018 [12 favorites]

Yeahhhhhh... he probably felt you were being patronizing. My inner teenager bristled at the conversation you described.
posted by catspajammies at 12:09 PM on February 14, 2018 [34 favorites]

Dittoing wearing him out physically. This technique worked for me as a teen with difficulty controlling anger, as well as my brothers. My parents spent a lot on groceries mostly to heat up the local river with canoe paddles. But that and the mental stresses of managing winning and losing racing competitions went a long way to helping all of us understand and manage our emotions.

I don't think the activity matters, but activity and safe proxies for winning and losing are pretty healthy for kids like this. Sports are only one possible venue, but an easy one if he takes to it.
posted by bonehead at 12:31 PM on February 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

Does "somewhat awkward" mean that this discussion may have been embarrassing to him, either because of the topic of discussion or because the behavior in question was a foray into independence/adulthood and your efforts to manage it (kind and respectful though they seem to me as an adult) struck him as condescending or belittling?

Adolescent brains turn humiliation into uncontrollable rage so, so easily. I'd say his reaction is a fairly common one, but that doesn't mean he's excused entirely; he still has to learn how to manage strong feelings (and not by punching walls). I love warriorqueen's "red brain" terminology, and I call it "werewolf mode," because I think it helps to treat that emotional state much like an overpowering, unpleasant physical force overtaking the kid: learn how to recognize it, notice the signs that it's coming, and manage it until it passes in a way that minimizes damage to the kid and those around him. There isn't really a reason for it--not a proportionate reason, at least, in terms of the events that set it off--and it honestly makes things worse to ask kids for a reason they're acting that way that justifies the severity of their behavior, because it's really just normal problem + teenaged brain = werewolf.
posted by xylothek at 12:31 PM on February 14, 2018 [6 favorites]

Whatever break you took, it unfortunately wasn't long enough, I think.

In the aftermath, I would ask him to think about how he felt in his body just before he started yelling. It sounds like he doesn't have a ton of insight into his own feelings, which is not too uncommon for kids his age and esp. gender.
Was his throat tight, did he feel his face clench up, did it feel like there was a flood of something going through him? Then ask him if he can think of a way, like a codeword, to let you know that he's feeling like that--anger--and everyone needs to take a break from whatever the pending discussion. If that goes okay, ask him what he thinks he could do when that's happening to feel better (not "stop raging" or "calm down," but feel better). Presumably you yourselves as adults have such techniques, so if he is at a loss, you could suggest one or two he could try next time.

Basically, I think when a teen is that much out of control, but not actually harming anyone/anything valuable, it's best in that moment to step back and let it burn itself out. There's a point at which no engagement of any kind will be tolerable. Afterwards, if your relationship is otherwise good, you can talk about it, not as his being bad or a failure, but as a new skill he needs to learn.
posted by praemunire at 12:32 PM on February 14, 2018 [5 favorites]

A technique to manage anger in the moment: adrenaline-fueled anger lasts about 15 to 20 minutes. It's followed by a low-energy trough. Back off, De-escalete, let him go run or read or play a game and talk to him again in a half hour. You may find that the conversation is much different.

This is absolutely teachable to him as well as an immediate anger self-management tool.
posted by bonehead at 12:53 PM on February 14, 2018 [4 favorites]

FWIW, I often feel a kind of claustrophobic panic or aggression when people try to either impose authority on me or corner me on something, even when they're in a position to do so. The setup you describe, where it's two on one and the adults are presenting themselves as a unified front ("we," "us") would, if anything, intensify that. So maybe at the least try having this kind of conversation on a one-to-one level. (If embarrassment or visceral disappointment with himself is also part of the issue, that approach also lets him 'save face' a little with respect to the parent not in the room.)
posted by trig at 1:13 PM on February 14, 2018 [9 favorites]

I'm on the younger end of MeFites (mid 20s) so I think I was a teenager more recently than a lot of people here. This does seem normal to me. I totally remember that rage that would just consume me like a fire. I also did a lot of punching pillows, slamming locker doors, shouting, ranting, all that good stuff. I think you're doing exactly the right thing! My rages were usually met with "quit overreacting!"-type responses, and I would have benefited so much more from an approach of validation ("you are angry") and support ("how can we help you manage your anger?").
posted by capricorn at 1:25 PM on February 14, 2018 [3 favorites]

What efforts did you as parents make to back off and let him have time to self-soothe and approach you when he was ready to try the conversation again? I do see that you took a break, but I don’t see who initiated it, if it was when Bob started to show signs of extreme frustration or if he had been upset for some time, or who decided when the break was over. Bob was in the grip of powerful emotions and you were determined to control the conversation and make him explain his emotionalresponse, a skill many adults don’t have. If/when this happens again, acknowledge his emotions, take a break for as long as *he* needs (even if that means waiting a day or more to resume the conversation), and stick to the original topic.
posted by epj at 1:53 PM on February 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

This is a great opportunity - since it's only happened the once, before it happens again - to recruit him as a team member in deciding not only what to do when these inevitable rages occur, but also in how to do stuff like Have Talks With People, which is a thing that all humans have to do all their lives and people who have better skills at it generally have better lives.

Maybe this stuff would be easier for him as a walk-and-talk, or maybe you have once- or twice-weekly Family Touch Base meetings and agree to use that agreed-upon planned-out time (maybe even with calendar invite and agenda) to talk about any Stuff that's not an emergency, so it's not an ambush. Those meetings are where he can make his case for these freedoms he wants, y'all can issue these updates on policy and procedures, everyone discusses the meal plan/personal schedules/school stuff for the next few days, family votes on a Fun Thing to do the next weekend, then everyone has a brownie and meeting is adjourned.

Agreed with everyone else that you can't solve this in the moment. You'll have to work with him in the quiet times to make a plan for what to do when he redlines, and he's going to have to figure out what helps him when he's angry and use that information to make the plan. It may take some trial and error, but I would recommend guiding him toward a recognizable strenuous activity to burn off that energy rather than a specifically violent action because teaching him to hit or break or hurt when he's angry is bad news and could very well get him in tremendous trouble or dead or in prison. As part and parcel, he needs to have a plan for what to do when another man goes off like that, because very nearly every one of his male peers is about to start this too. You have to talk about it not just as a self-control issue, but as something he's going to encounter from friends and strangers and authority figures too, and how to de-escalate (or at least not escalate) when it's someone else.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:22 PM on February 14, 2018 [5 favorites]

Thanks for all the great insights and suggestions. For those curious, the break was about 5 hours. We'll devise a different approach going forward.
posted by walkinginsunshine at 2:33 PM on February 14, 2018

It's probably just as everyone says: he's just being a new teen and not knowing how to say "Nunya" to his parents while really really needing his parents to quit asking about his business.


If it keeps happening or if it gets worse or if there's other spectacular moodiness or if he just appears generally miserable or keyed up or irrational or otherwise strikingly not like his old self, take him to the doctor and see if it's bipolar disorder. It's worth finding out because the sooner it's treated, the better with that particular problem, and your description does not look UNlike it--although, as everyone has said, it also doesn't look unlike normal adolescence. Bipolar disorder frequently manifests in bursts of mystifying rage, and early teens is about when the disease starts looking like its future self. Watch for flameouts and watch for crashes.
posted by Don Pepino at 3:16 PM on February 14, 2018 [4 favorites]

Yes, fairly normal, I'd say, based on our now 25, 21, and 18 yr olds. The Frontline program Inside the Teenage Brain gave us some insight and guidance.

I'd also add that your/my/the parent's desire to help the kid figure stuff out is at odds with the kid's desire to differentiate themselves.

Stay strong, be patient.
posted by at at 3:43 PM on February 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

When I was a teenager (I'm male) I mainly felt two things: sadness and anger. There weren't really reasons for the emotions, because I was in a pretty wealthy family, didn't face abuse or alcoholism or anything related, etc. But my body chemistry was just out of whack and it was really hard to deal with.

I was suicidal for a bit and the main reason was because I wanted other people to feel some of the emotional pain I was experiencing. I wanted them to hurt like I hurt.

Puberty just hits some people weird.
posted by tacodave at 3:49 PM on February 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

So, the focus shifted from a discussion on the teenage behavior to a ‘why are you so angry and how can we help you manage this anger’ type discussion.

perhaps this says more about me than about every teenager, but I cannot imagine this unilaterally imposed "discussion" working for any purpose whatsoever at any time. you cannot calmly discuss someone's anger with them when they're angry, unless your goal is to make them feel powerless and humiliated or to exert control over their emotions. you can give him a choice between calming down if he wants to talk and going off to be angry by himself if he wants to be left alone -- meaning you can help (demand that he) manage his behavior; you cannot dictate his emotions and you (maybe especially your partner) shouldn't try to keep him, or anyone, locked in a conversation they have indicated they want out of. that's never going to help.

think of this kind of anger explosion as a speech act, like Hello or Thank you, where the historical etymological meaning of the words is irrelevant to what you mean to convey by saying them. imagine that when he says OH BOY I'M GOING TO JOIN THE ARMY IN FOUR YEARS YOU JUST WAIT what he is actually telling you is SHUT UP SHUT UP LEAVE ME ALONE LEAVE ME ALONE. what even could possibly motivate you to take this as invitation to discuss/ "point out" the plausibility and proportionality of him seriously joining the army!? I am angry just imagining it

he can't leave. he can't say Fuck you and stomp on out the door to get his own apartment. not unless he has some scarily rich and independent older friends, or unless he has a developmental delay that makes him incapable of realizing, when enraged, that he has nowhere to go really. he is a prisoner until he's 18 and he knows it and he's mad about it. this is good; he's got a grip on reality. you don't have to tolerate screaming and abuse, you can tell him to stay in his room until he's calmed down and over it, and if that takes 24 hours then just let it. but trying to use Techniques on him is cruel and unusual and not respectful, even if there is some textbook somewhere that says it is.

and finally, sending a kid to a psychiatrist when he's just a normal teen and doesn't really need it isn't the worst thing you could do. he doesn't sound to me like he has any particular disorder, but if he ever voluntarily tells you that he feels out of control in more than just the usual hormonal way, that he has depression crashes after his rages, that he thinks there's something wrong with him, run him by a good professional just for the hell of it. it doesn't count if you prompt him into it, only if he comes up with it on his own. and I think he's probably just a normal angry teen. but it shouldn't do lasting damage if you decide you'd feel better with a third opinion.
posted by queenofbithynia at 7:18 PM on February 14, 2018 [8 favorites]

This answer isn't about teens specifically. You mentioned that your partner works professionally with distressed kids. I don't do that, but I am a nurse, and I have been known to get going on nursing autopilot in my personal life, when people I'm close to are going through hard things. Sometimes that's fine, but at least once my close person felt me go into professional mode on her, and it was really distressing and made the situation worse. So what I'm saying is, professional expertise in coping with others' emotions can actually be counter productive in personal interactions. I now try to be intentional about checking those skills at the door when a personal moment is getting serious; maybe this is something for your partner to consider.
posted by snorkmaiden at 8:41 PM on February 14, 2018 [6 favorites]

To agree with everyone else, I saw this and similar behavior literally hundreds of times when doing school discipline files. It's suuuuuuuuuuuuuper normal.

One of the biggest insights I took away from that process, btw, is that adolescent boys are given exactly one socially acceptable negative emotion -- anger. When you talk about how he sounded like he was imitating movie tough guys -- that's exactly what they do. Overwhelmed with negative emotions they can't name and don't have experience expressing, they reach for cultural examples of men with negative emotions, and, again, the one socially acceptable negative emotion for men is ANGER, particularly movie tough-guy anger. So boys who are frightened, embarrassed, stressed, overwhelmed, sad, hangry, grief-stricken, frustrated, hurt, jealous, anxious, annoyed, hopeless, despairing, and -- yes -- angry express all of those emotions as movie tough-guy anger. Like, their pencil breaks halfway through a stressful math assignment and suddenly they're punching walls and talking like they're in Die Hard, because they only know how to express "frustrated and stressed" as "ENRAGED."

Identifying emotions and talking about them in appropriate ways is absolutely a skill that can be learned, but your son has basically zero cultural models for doing so, and probably basically zero peer models either. If you want, it's something that a therapist/social worker can help with, and a bright, sensitive kid will probably pick up the skill fairly quickly -- although apply it unevenly, because social pressure is a hell of a drug. (As are hormones!) Sometimes those are easier lessons from an outside person than a parent.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:48 PM on February 14, 2018 [16 favorites]

Next time, when your child asks to be left alone, leave them alone and let them know that you'll be there when they are ready to talk. Solitude is a perfectly legitimate coping mechanism for anger, and respecting someone's boundaries about it is a good idea whether or no they're your kid.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:36 AM on February 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

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