Tips for Dealing With Violent Adolescents

Amy Guertin
Angry teen boy; © Ptasha | Dreamstime.com

Frustration is an inevitable part of life. What many parents forget is that you have had a lot more time to learn different skills to deal with frustration. Adolescents haven't had as much time to learn. To an adolescent, frustration may seem intolerable and overwhelming, leading to negative behavior, including aggression. Aggression isn't just physical; it can be verbal as well. As a parent, there are many things you can do to assist your child both to help prevent aggressive behavior and cease his behavior once the aggression starts.

Preventing Aggression

If your child has been showing escalating negative behavior, you may suspect that he will become aggressive in the future. There are some things that you can do to help your child choose alternatives to aggression.

Understand the Risk Factors for Adolescent Violence

There are several things that can increase the likelihood that adolescents will be aggressive. Although these things don't ensure aggression, they can make it more probable that adolescents will choose aggressive responses to frustration. Understanding the risk factors for violence can give you a place to start thinking about making changes. According to the surgeon general's report on youth violence, these factors include:

  • Single-parent families
  • Aggression between parents (in two-parent homes)
  • Parent having been a victim of abuse as a child
  • Very overprotective parents
  • Parents who are "best friends" with their child
  • Drug and/or alcohol use in the child
  • Culture where it is believed that men are supposed to control the family
  • Teens who don't take responsibility for their behavior
  • Parents who don't hold teens responsible for their own behavior

Model Appropriate Behavior

According to Empowering Parents, one of the most important things you can do for your child is to model appropriate behavior. There are many things that your teen needs to learn.

  • Take a break during an argument.
    • When you and your teen get into an argument, for example, it's ok to turn and walk away. You are showing your teen that it's okay to walk away from a situation that is overly frustrating.
  • Come back and resolve the situation.
    • Later, you need to come back when both of you are calm and talk about and resolve, the situation. This is very important. Your teen needs to learn that situations need to be resolved.
  • Explain your feelings and talk about how you cope.
    • Talk to your teen when you feel frustrated and explain how you are handling your frustration. What do you do when you feel angry? How do you deal with your anger? What do you think would happen if you were to act on your anger? Talking about these things during calm moments is the only way that your teen is going to learn. Trying to talk about these things when you are both angry is not the time to try to teach anger management skills.
  • Be consistent.
    • If you repeat yourself enough times, in enough situations, your coping skills will start to "sink in" with your teen. The goal is that your teen will begin thinking about these things when she is frustrated, rather than immediately resorting to an aggressive response.

Get Your Teen Evaluated

Although aggression can occur outside of any other issue, aggression can be a sign of a more serious problem. Aggression is a symptom of many adolescent psychological disorders, according to Valley Behavioral Health Systems. Getting an evaluation by a psychologist or psychiatrist will give you a definitive answer of the potential cause of your teen's aggressive behavior, as well as possible treatment options. Adolescent psychological disorders that may increase the possibility of aggression include:

  • Depressive Disorders
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Anxiety Disorders
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
  • Autistic Spectrum Disorders
  • Sensory Processing Disorder
  • Intermittent Explosive Disorder
  • Oppositional Defiant Disorder
  • Conduct Disorder
  • Substance Abuse Disorder

Set Guidelines

According to TeenTherapy, a counseling service for teens, setting guidelines and rules doesn't ensure that your teen will hate you; it lets your teen know that you care. You know your teen best so you know the limits that he needs. Some basic points for setting guidelines with teens include:

  • Develop rules and consequences with your teen.

    • If you enlist your teen's help in creating a list of guidelines, as well as consequences, he will be more likely to follow them. If he refuses to help in this task, you can let him know that the rules are going to be set with or without him; most teens will elect to participate, wanting to have a say in their lives.

  • Write everything down.

    • Your rules and consequences should be written down and in a very visible place (on the wall in the kitchen, for example). Having the rules and consequences written down and visible allows for no ambiguity when it comes to expectations.

  • Include both positive and negative consequences.

    • If you only include the negative consequences for negative behavior, your teen has nothing to strive for. Make sure to include rewards for positive behavior as well. For example, if your teen calls you a name, you may not drive him to social activities for two days. However, if your teen treats you respectfully for a week, he may be able to borrow the car for a night.

  • Don't set rules that you can't enforce.

    • There are some behaviors that you can't control. You can't make a rule, for example, forbidding your teen to hang around a certain friend that you don't approve of since you have no control over who he talks to at school. When setting guidelines, make sure to think about only the rules that you can enforce.

  • Follow through with the consequences.

    • This is the most important part. If your teen breaks a rule, you must follow through with the consequences. There should be no discussion and no bargaining. If the consequence is that he loses his phone for 24 hours, take his phone immediately for 24 hours. The same is true for rewards. If you promised him the car on a certain night, he should get it. If you find that you need it, you should try to make other arrangements for yourself. If you don't follow through with the consequences, he won't trust you. If he doesn't trust you, he won't respect you.

During Aggression

Despite your preventive measures, there may come a time when your teen becomes aggressive, verbally or physically, with you or someone else. Because aggression may cause a safety issue for you, your teen, and the person his aggression is aimed at, your response needs to be very different that your preventive behavior.

Make Sure Everyone Is Safe

The most important thing you can do is make sure that everyone that is present is safe. This includes you, your teen, and anyone else that is present -- your spouse, other children, your teen's friends, etc. If you feel that anyone in the situation is not safe, you need to call for help. If you can't call for help, ask someone else to call. If it is just you and your teen and you can't get to a phone, you'll have to deal with the situation on your own. The best thing that you can do is to not engage your teen in a way that will escalate him further. You can do this by:

  • Stay calm.
  • Watch your body language and the tone of your voice.
    • You don't want to show anger or anxiety, both of which can increase his anger.
  • Don't bring up past behavior.
    • Making statements such as "You always do this" will only escalate him further.
  • Don't make threats.
    • This is not the time to talk about potential consequences for his behavior.
  • Offer him a way out.
    • Once your teen gets into this situation, it's very difficult for him to find a way to stop. He knows he's in trouble and has nothing else to lose. Why not continue? You need to show him that there is a way out. Offer him choices. Tell him that if he can stop and go take a walk, then the two of you can talk about what is making him so angry. Tell him that if he can take a break and listen to some music that you will listen to what he has to say in a little while. Remember that the goal is to teach him to manage his anger, not to punish him.

Control Yourself

It can be difficult to control yourself when someone is yelling at you, threatening you, and calling you names. However, it is necessary in this situation. Reacting and engaging will just make the situation worse. Empowering Parents offers some things to remind yourself of, both when things are calm and in the midst of an aggressive incident.

  • Don't take it personally.
    • You teen isn't behaving like this because he hates you. He's behaving like this because he has emotions that he doesn't know how to handle. We all have a tendency to take out our frustrations on the people that we perceive to be the "safest," the people we know will always be there, no matter what. To a child, parents are those people.
  • Take a look at yourself.
    • Are you contributing to the situation in any manner? After years of escalating aggression and disrespect, it's understandable that you are frustrated and defensive. However, defense can easily turn to offense. Is your body language, voice tone, or interaction with your teen in any way adding to the conflict? Be honest with yourself. There may be some things about yourself that you need to change.
  • Pick your battles.
    • Your teen comes home with a blue mohawk. You're devastated. However, you need to decide if this is really worth fighting over. He's trying to figure out who he is; this is a phase. It's hair, it will grow out. Besides, if you react, he'll just keep it longer. Think of it this way - it's not a tattoo of his girlfriend's name.

Talk It Out After

The one mistake that many parents make is not sitting down and talking about the incident afterward. This is a very important step. Talking it out helps to reduce the tension in the house and helps to prevent further aggression. When you sit down to talk to your teen, there are a few things you should do.

  • Don't try to talk right away.
    • Both of you have some pretty strong feelings. You need to give yourself and your teen some time to calm down. Although the tension is uncomfortable, it's not as uncomfortable as another fight would be if you try to force the issue too soon. Wait several hours or even until the next day. If, while you're talking, one or both of you start to become angry again, take a short break and try again.
  • Talk about your feelings.
    • Your teen may still be frustrated because he didn't get what he wanted. However, he may be in a better frame of mind to listen to your reasoning. He also may be in a better frame of mind to problem-solve with you and come up with a compromise. Whatever you do, don't ignore your teen's feelings. They were, and still may be, very strong to have resulted in an outburst that involved aggression. You, too, need to express your feelings to your teen. He needs to understand how his behavior affected you.
  • Don't hold grudges.
    • This one is difficult. It's hard not to hold onto the hurt that your teen caused you. However, you have to keep reminding yourself that it's not personal. You also have to remind yourself that you are your teen's role model. If you hold a grudge, so will he.

You Can Only Control Yourself

As much as you may want to, you can't control your teen. You can only control yourself. You have to be what you want your teen to be. You have to work to keep everyone safe. You have to try different things to help your teen manage his anger. If you find that, despite, all of your efforts, you aren't able to help him, you may want to consider different options.

  • Books
  • Videos

  • In-person

    • The easiest place to find a therapist for your teen is through your insurance carrier. You can find a list of providers that are in your network.

    • If you don't have insurance, things can be much more difficult. Contact your county's health department and inquire about counseling services for children with no insurance benefits. If they don't offer it, they generally are a great place to get referrals for someone who does.

    • If your county health department can't give you the referrals you need, try your family physician, local hospitals, and local charity groups (e.g. Salvation Army, Catholic Charities). It may take a little work and several phone calls, but finding a good therapist for your child will be worth it in the end.

You Are Your Teen's Best Resource

When all is said and done, you are the one who has the most influence over your child. You will often be present when he escalates, so you will be the best one to help him de-escalate the situation. You will have the most opportunities to teach him better anger management and problem-solving skills. You are the only one who can get him professional help if needed. Outside of his friends, whom you can't control, he will look to you for guidance.

It's up to you to educate yourself on the best ways to help your teen prevent aggressive behavior and learn to stop aggressive behavior once it starts. Do this as early as possible and you will help to create a productive, respectful young adult, ready to take on the world.

Tips for Dealing With Violent Adolescents