by Melanie Allan, ESMS School Counsellor
All of us can feel angry at times and our children are no exception, but how should we respond when it occurs and what is behind it? In this article Melanie Allan, our ESMS school counsellor, offers some advice to help parents navigate these choppy waters and inspire long term behaviour change:
A useful way of thinking about anger is that it is actually a secondary emotion. Before we get angry we generally feel one or more of the following: 1) frustration 2) hurt 3) fear, or what some teenagers may be more likely to describe as slightly anxious. So, when your teenager is displaying anger, it is important to remember that what they are really feeling may be something else.
It is so easy to become overly focused on tackling immediate and more visible displays of anger, slamming doors, shouting, and putting this down to teenage behaviour. However, if you only focus on their anger, it will be difficult to establish the underlying problem behind it and resolve the situation.
Getting behind the problem is important because when emotions are really strong, they are unlikely to go away on their own. They are either internalised which can lead to low self-esteem or externalised by being mean to others.
How to react when anger strikes
When your teenager becomes angry, unless someone is at risk, it’s a good idea to avoid responding immediately. The best thing you can do initially is ignore it and walk away. If the onslaught doesn’t provoke a reaction, they are less likely to do this in the future. It will also give you time to manage your own feelings which will help to deescalate the situation. Walking away is not ignoring the problem, it just allows you to deal with it at the appropriate time.
Trying to get behind the problem
After you have given your teenager some time to calm down you can then start to try and find out what emotions they are really feeling and why. Try phrases like “You sounded angry, but I wonder if what you are actually feeling is frustrated/hurt/frightened/anxious?”
Remember that listening is the important bit. You don't have to fix their problem. You only have to show that you understand. Learning how to solve problems by themselves is an important life skill, but what you can do is help them start to understand what is really going on. Try asking them about their day, what happened, when the feelings started, ask them to help you understand what they are feeling. Remember that validating their feelings doesn’t mean you are condoning them. “I know you find it hard not having the same freedoms as your older sister” shows them you understand. I often suggest to parents to try repeating the statements they are hearing and ask their teenager to do the same. This allows everyone to feel heard.
Once emotions are calmer and you have talked the problem over, you can now talk about the consequences of the behaviour.
It can be tempting to let the consequence slide if your child apologises but giving them a chance to reflect on their behaviour and reminding them that they have made a choice and there is now a consequence to that choice is another important life lesson. An apology can be a part of this process, but staying firm on your terms will help ensure that apologies don’t become a ‘free pass’ in the future.
As always, remember that your teenager can get in touch with me directly if they have any worries and our guidance teachers are also there to offer help and support at any time.