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How to Handle Anger with Your Teen

by Mark Gregston

James 1:19 says “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.” You know, I don’t think there’s anybody that hasn’t been angry at their kids or had a time where their kids weren’t angry at them. Anger is an emotional response to not getting what you want. When you see your teen get angry, it’s because they are not getting what they want, whether they need it or not. 

You and I both know that what they think they want is not always what they really want, but what they think they want. Either way, if they perceive that their wants are not being met or that someone is blocking them from getting what they feel that they need, then anger comes out. And anger can be kind of explosive at times.

You want them to talk it out because if they don’t talk it out, then they’re going to act it out in some way. If they act it out, that’s where they’re going to become disrespectful and dishonest and disobedient and yell and scream and throw things. You’d rather have communication with them. Sometimes they have to figure this one out by themselves with some encouragement and participation from mom and dad. There is a game that’s going on here. Your child wants certain things, and you want certain things. When you both don’t get what you want, then you both become angry.

What happens in that anger when that emotional part of you starts to flare up? You don’t get anywhere. What happens is you damage relationships. Example: if your son is angry that his curfew isn’t later, you have to ask yourself the question, what’s the real reason for his anger? Or if your daughter doesn’t like that you’re not letting her wear certain things when she goes off to school, what’s the real reason for her anger? Because if all you do is say, no, this is what your time is going to be for curfew, and this is what you will wear and what you won’t wear, then what you’re doing is just dealing with behavior. You’re not dealing with the heart of the issue. Your child needs to learn how to handle anger and how to learn to respond when they don’t get what they want.

Scripture says be angry, but do not sin. It’s okay for kids to be angry, but not sin. Don’t hurt relationships in the process. There are common, underlying reasons for a teen’s anger. One of those is that they have no control over their own life. Parents want to protect their children but keeping control in order to protect their teens will have a bad outcome. When a child gets mad that they do not have control, they fight more for control. They want to live their own life and make their own decisions. 

When there is a struggle between a parent and teen for control, anger will surface somewhere. It is what’s going to happen. A child will get angry and a parent will get angry because the parent’s not getting what they want, because what they really want is a peaceful home where a child just listens to what they say and says, okay, that’s what I’ll do. But a child is getting angry because they’re not getting what they want at the same time. As stated previously, when you have those two anger storms starting to collide, it’s going to create almost the perfect storm that could damage relationships and keep a relationship from deepening the way you would like for it to. 

We are training our children how to control their anger, use their anger, and maybe get their anger to subside because it will affect them later in life in different relationships. One of the first things I would tell you is to stop controlling all the time and start trusting. Every kid wants to take control of their life. They may feel shamed or judged whenever there is constant correction, and it can communicate to your teen that they are not living up to your expectations. It may make them feel somewhat judged or that you are dismissing their opinions or shaming them for thoughts, which may cause them to shut down or lash out in anger.

A child thinks out loud and the reason they think out loud is so they can throw things out there. I do it. I write something, then I go through, and I read it out loud to see what it sounds like. When I read it out loud, I begin to process it differently. That is what a child does a lot around his parents. The difference between me reading something that I write and reading it to somebody else is this: if I start reading it and my wife comes in and says, “Well, that’s a bad idea. That’s a bad thought. I wouldn’t think that way. These are the words that I would use. I would say something different.” You know what I do? Not read it out loud in front of her again. I’d find somebody else to help me process my thoughts. Are you following me? 

There is something about the way that we correct our kids and why we do. We feel that if we do it enough, they will come to a place where they’ll get it right. What our teens are trying to do is to embrace what we believe in, what we’ve taught them, bring it into their world and process it through the culture that they live in. If they speak out loud, then let them talk and maybe come back and just ask them questions. Is that what you think? I always ask kids. Are you asking for an answer or do you want my opinion? Sometimes they just say no. And I go, okay, then we’ll leave it at that. There has to be an understanding of what’s going on in their life. You have to allow your teen to have their own opinions and try to engage them in discussion in some way. 

Another reason for anger is that teens are angry when they’re just not getting what they want. And as I said earlier, anger, is an outward sign that someone’s not getting what they want. Your teen may put up a fight simply because their desires are frustrated in some way. This could be about big things or small things. It could be about not having food in the pantry, that somebody put jelly in the peanut butter, that they want something clean or they forgot to do something. You know, anger is an amazing motivator, but I’ve got to tell you this: Anger most of the time, when it is jumped to immediately, does more damage to relationships than it does help them.

Nobody cares more about their teen than a mom. But even moms can get discouraged and distracted when watching their teen go through those difficult adolescent years. You can feel alone and helpless, unable to know how to encourage your team. It can get hard to trust God’s goodness in the midst of such hard times.

Here’s what I would encourage you to do: look behind your teen’s anger and find out what’s really driving them. The way you do that is this: observe. Pay attention to when your teen gets angry and the surrounding circumstances. Try to figure out what’s really going on in their life. The whole issue about wanting a later curfew may be because they want to hang out with friends. They want to be with a girlfriend. They want to be with a boyfriend, because everybody’s socialized and everybody’s getting together and it’s because they want to be a part. The reason they want to be a part is because God created them to be relational.

I know that kids aren’t as relational as they used to be because they spend so much time on a phone. And even when they do get together like dating, what happens is they sit around, talk about what they posted on Snapchat or Facebook or TikTok. So, a child that wants a later curfew may be because they want to relate more with the people they’re hanging out with. And that’s a God-given desire to want to relate with other people. You have to come to some conclusion when you begin to understand there’s a motive behind that and hopefully it changes the way you approach your child in dealing with it.

I would encourage you to become a student of your teen. Before you get sucked into this angry conflict, step back and observe when your daughter’s wearing something that you think is inappropriate. It doesn’t mean that she’s trying to be sexual. It may mean that she wants some attention because she doesn’t feel like she’s getting any attention from anybody or it may mean she just wants to fit in because kids are having a tough time fitting in, in this appearance and performance world.

There is a motive behind the behavior. All behavior is goal-oriented, but there is something driving it and that’s what I want to touch on. That’s what I want to get to in the life of a child. I just don’t want to deal with the surface issues. I want to deal with the heart issues that take me a little bit deeper in the relationship.

The second thing I’m going to do is ask: Why are you so angry? What is it you’re not getting that you want? Why are you kind of bent out of shape? Why are you destroying relationships around you? Why are you so frustrated? How can I help you? How can I help you get what you want? Is that what you really want? When they answer, I don’t question them. I don’t tell them they’re wrong. I don’t tell them something is a stupid idea, a stupid thought. No, you don’t really need that. I just go, Here, let me help. I’m happy to help think it through. I just engage with them. 

The next thing I do is listen to a child’s heart. You listen to your child’s heart without trying to defend yourself. We get this idea that if our kid says something wrong, then we need to correct it. And if we can’t correct it, then we’re mad that they’re not thinking the way they ought to be thinking. So now we’re getting mad. Now we’re angry on top of their anger because they feel like you’re more concerned about the thinking process they’re going through rather than, the fact that they’re trying to figure it out. Most kids I deal with are always trying to figure it out. They say, How do I do this? How do I make things happen? How do I get on the other side of this anger? I do not know one child really that wants to be angry. 

Once you start to observe and ask and listen, and you’re finding out what’s behind your child’s anger then there are different ways to approach them to deal with that. One of those is with a calm spirit. You don’t try to escalate the situation with your own anger. If your child is making you angry, take a break. If you’re in the middle of a discussion and it gets heated. Stop and just say, Hey, why don’t we take a break for 30 minutes and cool down? You do not want to accidentally say somethings that you don’t want to say. If you break, what you’ll find is that a child comes back, and they’ve cooled down as well. You can have a good productive discussion as opposed to a screaming match that sometimes ensues.

Another tip is to always approach kids with reminders of love. I’m pretty strong with kids. I’m pretty strong with the ways that I approach the 60 high school kids that I live with. You have to be strict on some things, but that’s not what I want to be known for. I want to be known for how I love kids and every kid that lives with us says, you know, Mark loves us. He loves us. But what they also would tell you is that Mark tolerated nothing. So, this loving side, I want that to be the primary characteristic that kids see. I want the fact that I don’t tolerate anything from kids to be a secondary issue only because love is standing out so much more.

I communicate to kids that I only want the best for them. They know that I only want the best for them. I’m only thinking of them. You have to approach them with a listening ear. When you approach a child that is angry, you have got to move toward them in a way that says, you know what? This is about you. It’s not about me. And I’m going to help you get to a better place. I’m going to help you get to a better place. Not me get to a better place. 

Moms and dads, helping your teen deal with anger is one of the greatest resources you can build into their life. You can be the greatest example of temper management or the worst model of explosive anger. Either of those two will be mimicked by your teen. So be careful how you respond to things, don’t go your way because you’re being watched. You’re setting an example. Their anger is a light on the dashboard that flashes a warning that they’re not getting what they want or desire from life or in relationships. That is your opportunity as a parent to determine what is fueling the anger and get to the heart of the issue by asking questions that go beneath behavior, which is the visible expression of the invisible issues. It’s okay to have anger. As long as it doesn’t control your teen, disappoint them about life or cause them to act inappropriately towards relationships.

You hold the key here, mom and dad. You hold the key to help dispelling the very thing that can sidetrack your child and you have the opportunity to engage with them in such a way that you offer them something more than anybody else will around them. So, remember this, everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.

Author: Mark Gregston

Mark Gregston began working with teens more than 40 years ago as a youth minister and Young Life director. He has authored nearly two dozen books, has written hundreds of articles, and is host of the nationally-acclaimed Parenting Today’s Teens podcast and radio broadcast.