Dousing the Flame: Dealing with Teenager Anger

Dousing the Flame: Dealing with Teenager AngerFor Lucas, it started in high school.  “I guess I have a face and personality that invites bullies,” he told me.  Kids in class would ridicule Lucas’ clothes, mock his behavior, laugh at where he came from, and deride him constantly.  But in teen culture, you can’t show weakness.  Teens know that if you let on to bullies that they’re affecting you, you’re giving them an open invitation to continue the abuse.  So Lucas put on his impervious face each day, and endured the barrage of mistreatment at school.  But that kind of ill-treatment wears you down.  “When I would finally come home,” explained this young man, “the littlest thing would set me off.  I mean, my mom would ask me to take out the trash and I could feel the anger building.  At first I wouldn’t talk, but that made my mom mad, so eventually all this anger would just, kinda, explode.  I would yell, throw things, break things.  My mom didn’t know what to do.

Lucas’ story is not unique.  Many of the teens who walk through the doors of Heartlight have trouble dealing with anger.  And that leaves parents at a loss, as well.  Seeing your teen seethe quietly with rage, or spew anger in violent outbursts can be overwhelming, and perhaps frightening.  Unfortunately, anger perpetuates anger.  If your child is stomping around the house mad, chances are mom and dad will start being a little miffed as well.  Then it becomes a cycle of anger that is difficult to break.

Let me offer some suggestions to deal with an angry teen and bring a level of peace and calm to your family.

Step Back

Engaged in a heated argument with your teen, you may feel that as a parent, your job is to stand up for your authority and take charge.  But when tempers flare and anger starts to rise, the best thing you can do as a mom or dad is to take a step back, either emotionally, or even physically.  There’s nothing wrong with saying, “This conversation is becoming too heated.  Can I respond later?”  It is healthy to excuse yourself from the situation, and invite your teen to do the same.  “I think we’re both pretty angry right now.  Let’s take a break and cool off, and talk about this later.”  Proverbs 15:1 says, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”  It’s very possible your son or daughter will try to draw you back into an angry dialogue and continue the fight.  But don’t let them pull you down into that mess.  Pull them up by instituting breaks, pauses and necessary breathers.  In that way, you’re nipping the anger in the bud before it has a chance to catch fire and do some real damage.

Find the Heart

You’ve probably heard me say this before, but anger is a response to an unmet need.  Whether your child blows up, or clams up, it’s a sign that they are not getting something they want.  We see this happen when a toddler throws a fit in the store because you put the sugary cereal back on the shelf, or stomps his little feet when you don’t buy him the toy he wants.  With teens, the unmet need may be something much more substantial.  They might be longing for a meaningful connection with a friend.  Or maybe they’re looking for acceptance from a parent or a peer.  In Lucas’ case, he would express his anger when he needed to feel safe and valued for a change.  Mom and Dad; there is always a reason behind your teen’s frustration.  So get to the heart of the issue.  Start asking questions to expose the need in your teen’s life.  What’s happening at school?  What’s going on at home?  What’s happening with friends?  Does your daughter feel clumsy and ugly?  Does your son feel untalented or non-gifted?  Is there a habit your teen can’t break, or a relationship they want fixed?  Do a little investigation in your son or daughter’s life, and find the root of the anger.  If you address the need, you’re well on your way to stopping the anger.

Get Active

This is a tool I use extensively with the teens I counsel.  When voices start rising, and fists start clenching, I abruptly interrupt and say, “Let’s go take a walk.”  Standing still, it’s likely that anger will build and build until something gives.  But Joe Shrand, M.D., an instructor at Harvard Medical School, points to studies that have shown activity actually helping to diffuse anger.  It’s an outlet for all those pent up emotions that are quivering for a release.  So go for a run, work on an art project, replace the oil in the car.  Channel those feelings of frustration into a worthwhile activity.  Many times, taking a walk around the neighborhood releases the steam that has been building in your child all day.  Releasing endorphins through physical exercise or switching on a different part of the brain by starting a new activity helps displace those angry feelings.  I find it interesting that some of the most inspirational works of art, including music, poetry and paintings, have been created from a place of anger.  So when frustration starts to take hold, get moving!  Activity is often the best prescription for teen anger.

Get Outside Help

Anger is a volatile emotion, and so it’s difficult to control at times.  Even when you’re doing the best you can, and employing all the tools at your disposal, your teen may still struggle with anger.  When what you’re doing is not working—it’s time to get outside help.  That may mean calling in a counselor or therapist to help you and your teen work through these emotions.  Maybe it means giving me a call, and having your son or daughter spend some time at Heartlight, away from home, working with our caring and compassionate team to help solve the anger issues.

Sometimes when anger turns violent, getting outside help may even mean getting the authorities involved.  I know that’s a drastic step.  But your teen cannot be allowed to hurt someone else, or themselves, because they are angry.  And when your teenage son is not only bigger than you, but has the strength and energy of raging bull, mom and dad can be out of their league when they try to control the situation.  That’s when you need to call in the police, and protect your family and your child.  Look, it’s better for your son to spend a short time in jail now, than to end up in prison later.  The consequences of violent behavior only increase as a child gets older.  If your teen is abusing others, the best thing you can do is call the police.  When the boys in blue come knocking on your door, they may provide the wake-up call your teen needs to cool down and realize that you are serious about the issue.

In case you were wondering, Lucas (the young man struggling with bullies and being angry at home) spent some time at Heartlight, and is making vast improvements in the way he is handling his frustrations.  I think he is special, but Lucas is not that much different than your teen.  If he can learn to get a handle on anger, so can your son or daughter.  All it takes is a mom and dad ready to step in and help.


Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a counseling facility for struggling teens located in Longview, Texas. Check out our website, www.ParentingTodaysTeens.org. It’s filled with effective parenting ideas, helpful articles, and practical tools and resources for moms and dads. Visit our website, where you can download the Parenting Today’s Teens podcast, or find a radio station near you to listen to our broadcasts. You can also call us directly at 1-866-700-3264 to find out about any upcoming events.

Finding the Hidden Messages In Your Teen’s Inappropriate Behavior

Finding the Hidden Messages In Your Teen’s Inappropriate BehaviorDon’t judge; but I’m a fan of the National Treasure movies.  Remember those films?  They starred Nicholas Cage as Benjamin Gates, a historian and modern fortune hunter who believed that America’s national monuments and historical artifacts contained a secret treasure map from the founding fathers.  While other researchers and academics laughed at his conspiracy theories, Benjamin Gates eventually proved that underneath the common symbols and landmarks we see in America was a trail of messages pointing to new discoveries.

What does the National Treasure have to do with parenting teens?  Just this:  Our child’s inappropriate behaviors, whether it’s blatant disrespect, substance abuse, continuous lying, sexual activity, stealing, out-of-control anger, or spiraling depression, are visible landmarks that stick out in our teen’s life.  But if we take the time to look underneath these monuments, we will find the true message our teens are trying to convey, but cannot find the words to do so.

All behavior, good or bad, is goal-oriented.  A teen doesn’t act up without a reason.  There is always a purpose and motivation behind a child’s actions.  That means that inappropriate behavior is a visible indicator of an invisible problem.  It’s the smoke that signals a hidden fire.  It’s the warning light on the dashboard telling us to check our engine.  Inappropriate behavior is a teen trying desperately to get help!

Heart Transformation Versus Behavior Modification

I get it.  When our precious son or daughter is spinning out of control, our natural impulse is to correct their behavior.  We want them to switch from doing wrong to doing right.  We want to stop the lying, halt the cheating, curb the anger, and put an end to whatever harmful habit our teen is engaged in.

But if we only address the behavior and not the motivation behind it, we’re not truly helping our kids.  It’s like the guy who went to see the doctor, because no matter what he touched on his body, it hurt.  “Doc, when I touch my arm, I get this shooting pain.  When I touch my leg, same thing.  Even when I touch my face, I almost pass out, it hurts so bad.  What’s the matter with me?” The doctor took one look and said, “You have a broken finger.”

When something is broken in your child’s life, it will affect everything else.  And unless we address a teen’s heart, we’re not addressing the real cause of the problem.  Focusing solely on the inappropriate actions is a form of behavior modification, but it is only a temporary Band-Aid.  Aim for heart transformation instead.  Investigate the reasons why your child is acting out, and address those concerns.

Becky is a funny, compassionate, and well-spoken student in the Heartlight program.  Born with a blood disorder that made many activities dangerous, Becky always had to work harder than most kids to stay connected to friends.  And as she got older, it seemed to become more and more difficult.  Becky told us that it wasn’t easy to fit in among her school friends, who liked to party, because that just wasn’t her scene.  Yet, at the same time, Becky was finding it hard to relate to her church friends, who seemed to have perfect, sin-free lives, while she did not.  As the gap widened between real connections, the lonelier Becky became.  So in order to be close with anyone, and to feel accepted, Becky would often sneak out of her house at night to meet up with boys and engage in risky sexual activity. “I knew it was wrong,” Becky confessed. “But those guys made me feel special, wanted, needed.  I so badly wanted friends I could relate to, that I settled for boys who really just took advantage of me.

Now, to help Becky and get her back on the right track, it would be easy to set up strict boundaries and rules, and point out the mistakes of sexual experimentation.  But after listening to this sweet, young lady speak, I realized it wasn’t behavior modification that she really needed.  She was desperate for connection, and in her immaturity, she was looking for it in all the wrong places.  So if we take time to affirm her, set up friends who care about her, involve her in social circles with people she can relate to, those inappropriate behaviors will no longer have the same pull on her life.  By addressing her heart, we’ve solved the problems with her behavior.

How to Find the Hidden Message

Now the question on the floor is, “Okay Mark, I need to look past the behavior to see what my son or daughter is really trying to say.  But how can I possibly decode those hidden messages?

First, to hear a teen’s heart, we need to actively listen.  That might mean withholding advice, judgment or comments for a while.  I have found that most teens know when their actions are out of line.  They don’t need mom and dad pointing that out.  So instead of rehashing the mistakes, ask questions and sit back and listen.  “What got you so angry?” or “How did that drug make you feel?” or “What made you go to that website?”  These types of probing questions can peel back the layers of inappropriate behavior and give you insight into your child’s heart.  Of course, in the moment, your teen may reply with the customary “I don’t know.”  But don’t let their first answer stop you.  In a gentle, loving and firm way, keep asking the questions that help you find the reason behind the behavior.

Second, don’t wait to address the behavior itself.  You can search for the motive behind the actions at the same time that you are dealing with the action itself.  While you’re taking away the car keys, you can say, “I don’t want to take the car privileges away from you again.  So let’s talk about why this happened and how we can keep it from happening in the future.”  The longer you wait to speak to the behavior, the harder it will be to deal with it correctly.  By confronting the behavior, you’re also letting your teen know that, while you do care about the reasons behind those actions, you love them enough not to sweep the inappropriate behavior under the rug.

Lastly, be open to what God wants to teach you through your child’s behavior.  Often, it’s the times of struggle, or hardships, or conflict that strengthen our relationships and deepen our character.  I Peter 1:6 says, “Though for a little while you may have to suffer grief in all kinds of trials … these have come so that the genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold—may result in the praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.”

Look behind the trials of parenting a teen to see the faith, grace and hope God is building into your life.  Underneath all that inappropriate behavior you may find a map to the eternal treasures of peace, grace, and hope God has in store for both you and your teen.


Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a counseling facility for struggling teens located in Longview, Texas. Check out our website, www.ParentingTodaysTeens.org. It’s filled with effective parenting ideas, helpful articles, and practical tools and resources for moms and dads. Visit our website, where you can download the Parenting Today’s Teens podcast, or find a radio station near you to listen to our broadcasts. You can also call us directly at 1-866-700-3264 to find out about any upcoming events.


When Parenting Styles Collide

When Parenting Styles CollideParenting teens is hard enough when parents agree on how a child should be parented; and even tougher when parenting styles collide.  And the one place that parents should be especially concerned about not allowing confusion is in their own home.  Confusion flourishes and relationships flounder when parents can’t get their parenting styles to compliment one another, during a time when a teen needs the cohesive and focused team approach by Mom and Dad, whether living in the same house or not.

Parenting types have more to do with personalities of parents.  Some are authoritative, some uninvolved, some militaristic, and others permissive.   Of more importance is the parenting style, which has more to do with the focus of one’s parenting personality.   I call it the “4 P’s of Parenting” that reflect four different styles that should shift to accommodate the aging of your child.   Pleasing is a focus of the first six years.  The elementary school years, parents should focus on protecting their child.  During Middle School and Jr. High, the intent should be providing.  And during the high school years, a parent’s focus should be preparing their child for the next chapter of life.  I see more conflict when parenting styles collide than I do when parenting types are different.

I parent different than my wife.  My wife’s personality is different than mine.  The two combined provide a varied approach to our kids who have different personalities.  There are times in a particular child’s life that my type of parenting works best, and there are times when hers does.  But make no mistake, when it comes to our focus, we’re at the top of our game when we are utilizing our parenting styles to come together for same purpose.

If we don’t, there’s going to trouble.  Here’s an example.  If one parent is focused on pleasing a teen and “making them happy” all the time, and the other is focused on preparing them for the next stage of life, you’ll end up with a teen who remains immature, and tends to favor the one parent who is taking them along the path of least resistance.  The other parent becomes the “bad guy” and the teen isn’t prepared to handle the challenges that will soon be before him.

If, during their child’s adolescent years, one parent chooses to protect their teen, and the other takes on a style of providing for their teen, that teen will have “a lot of toys but no one to play with” and might not have too much success when they leave home for the first job, or when they go off to college.

Additionally, a collision will happen in the life of a child if parents don’t “shift gears” in parenting and adapt their style to the needs of their teen.   Wise parents change their styles when needed so they can focus on helping their teen grow and mature, become independent, and be ready for the next stage in life.  The best practice is for mom and dad to be on the same page when it comes to parenting styles.  And during the teen years, that focus should be on preparation.  Remember that verse in Scripture that says, “Train up a child….”  This is where it applies.

This is usually what happens when parenting styles collide.  A teen learns a coping mechanism that gives them what they want, and doesn’t necessarily allow them to receive what they need.  That coping skill is manipulation.  It’s where they play one parent against the other.  It’s called triangulating. Eventually, somewhere along the teen-timeline, their way of engaging fails, relationships are damaged, spouses are hurt, and lessons lost will now have to be made up at a later time when the price of failure has greater consequences.

Here’s an easy way to remember how to unite in your parenting styles.

Easy as A-B-C.

Agree.  Agree that your styles must be the same.  Come to an agreement that you will work together and speak from one voice with one message.  Agree to talk through disagreements about what is important for your child.  When there is disagreement in parenting styles and what the focus should be within your home, a little bit of sacrifice on both parts to come to a conclusion will move to an agreement that can bring about some big results.  Agree to be united in your approach to your kids.  Agree on which “hills to die on”, what’s major; what’s minor, what’s important; what’s not.  And if you can’t come to an agreement, then seek counsel from someone you both respect.

The lack of agreement between parents usually shows up in negative character traits being developed in the life of a teen.

Belief System.  Develop what you believe should be the focus of your parenting strategy into a system of rules and consequences that would encourage responsibility, promote maturity, and give opportunity for your teen to learn to make choices and develop discernment.  Do this.  Name 10 things that you would like to see changed in your home, i.e. inappropriate behavior, more assumption of responsibility, curbing the unacceptable, encouraging the positive.  Just 10 things mom! And Dad, you’ve got to come up with more than one!  If one of the goals of parenting is to help a child become independent, ask yourself what can you do to help them get to where they want to go, and keep them from ending up in a place where they don’t need to be.   I call it a Belief System.   Take what you believe, and strategize that into an agreed plan of household operation, where your teen knows the goals and understands the consequences for getting off track.

Once a teen understands that a concerted and agreed upon effort is to help them take control of their life, have more freedom, develop more responsibility, and get to make more decisions about their life, they’ll love the idea of having both parents playing by the same rule book.

Communicate.  Let your teen know that you’ve decided to work together as parents and that Mom and Dad have come to some agreements about how they’d like the home to operate.  Ask for your teen’s input, comments, and desires.  This will give you, and them, something to talk about around the dinner table and will move small talk into deeper conversations.

Moms and Dads, communicate with each other about the focus of your strategy and reassess your emphasis every month.   Communicate with each other, then, communicate “the plan” with your kids.  If you’re a single parent family, the process of planning still works.  But before you communicate that plan to your kids, let another set of eyes look it over, just to make sure you’re communicating what you want to say.

If you haven’t been on the same page when it comes to parenting styles, and you haven’t shifted to the gear that will allow your child to mature, back off the throttle for a week.  In other words, quit pushing the old ineffective agenda of collision and usher in an atmosphere of change.  Then push in the clutch and glide for another week.  Your kids will sense that a “shifting of gears” is about to happen in your household.   Then make the shift at a special dinner at your home where you prepare your kids favorite meal.  Communicate the new plan, ask for their agreement, and put the pedal to the metal in helping your teen, and soon to be adult, flourish.

It’s never too late to align your parenting styles.  So do it now, before there’s a collision.


Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a counseling facility for struggling teens located in Longview, Texas. Check out our website, www.ParentingTodaysTeens.org. It’s filled with effective parenting ideas, helpful articles, and practical tools and resources for moms and dads. Visit our website, where you can download the Parenting Today’s Teens podcast, or find a radio station near you to listen to our broadcasts. You can also call us directly at 1-866-700-3264 to find out about any upcoming events.