We all want to have good relationships with our children, but their outbursts have an uncanny way of reaching down and illuminating our deepest insecurities as parents. Our reactions to having our insecurities unearthed are not always productive. If we try to defend ourselves or exert authority with a strong hand, we will usually make the situation worse. Fortunately, I’ve found there are a few strategies that can help us lovingly and productively work through a teenage tantrum:
1) Change Your Mindset
A word we often use interchangeably with tantrum is over-reaction, but the truth is most over-reactions are not over-reactions at all. They are simply the emotional build up of many smaller events. For a variety of reasons, some children try to convince themselves it doesn’t matter when something hurts their feelings, but it does. Most of those little “it doesn’t matters” get filed away and slowly build up until eventually the dam breaks. Taken in isolation, an outburst might seem completely uncalled for, but if we could see all the other events that led up to that moment, most of us would understand or at least appreciate the strength of the reaction.
For example, if your teenager asks if he can sleepover at his friend’s house after a party and you say no and he starts screaming about how unfair you are and how everyone will be there except for him, it’s possible that there have been multiple other little events at school leading him to believe he’s not really a part of the inner circle. He may consider this sleepover a chance to either work his way back in or get squeezed farther out.
2) Listen Empathically
Resist the temptation to interrupt or attempt fix the problem right away. One of the best ways to let the steam out of a tantrum is to prove to your child they have been heard and understood. When teens are really upset, they might speak with extreme language full of “always” and “nevers” and “everyone”; statements which you may feel are unfair and untrue. That’s okay. Stop what you’re doing and listen anyway. When they are done, summarize what you have heard them say and how you think the situation makes them feel. Show you’ve been listening. If they haven’t directly said, you may have to guess how the circumstances are making them feel. That’s okay too. If you guess wrong, they can correct you.
For example,”You’re angry that I won’t let you sleep over at your friend’s house after the party because most of your other friends are going to be sleeping there. That must make you worry that you’re going to be left out of something important. It probably seems like I don’t understand how important this is to you. Is that right? Did I miss anything?”
3) Find the Truth
In any tantrum, there is a kernel of truth. Find it and say it out loud. Show your child they are not crazy and be sincere. Just like dogs can sense fear, teenagers can sense insincerity a mile away.
If you are a pro at defending yourself or trying to minimize your child’s problems, this is going to feel very unnatural at first. Try starting with the phrase, “You’re right.”
For example, “You’re right, you will probably be missing out on some fun things that will happen after the party.”
4) Stand Your Ground
The year after I quit teaching, my former students pulled the new teacher aside and said, “Look, if you don’t start being meaner like Mrs. Walker was, we are never going to learn anything.” Teenagers are supposed to want to try new things and stretch their wings, but they rely on you to draw the boundaries that will keep them safe. They may not always like it when rules are inconvenient, but they do appreciate them.
For example, “I know lots of fun things happen at sleep overs, but there are also lots of bad decisions that get made at sleepovers. Keeping you safe is higher on my priority list than keeping you entertained.”
5) Apologize and Offer to Change What You Can
If something you did contributed to the tantrum, apologize. Your teenager accepted your imperfection long ago. Being willing to recognize, admit and apologize for mistakes will actually help you maintain their respect.
If there’s something you can change to make the situation better, offer to do it.
For example, “I’m sorry my rules make you feel like I don’t care about you. Would it help if we extended your curfew by 30 minutes so you can stay with your friends for a little while after the party before you come home?” NOTE: Having rules isn’t a mistake, but letting your child feel your rules are more important than their feelings is.
If your child’s tantrum is about a multi-faceted problem, you may have to repeat steps 1-4 a few times until your teenager feels fully understood. You can tell you’re done when they visibly relax and can comfortably make eye contact with you again.
6) Thank Them
Being vulnerable and showing your deepest emotions, even in anger, is draining for both boys and girls. Let your child know you appreciate the courage it took to share their feelings with you. The best thing you can do for your teenager is keep a connection open for them to find support for their feelings. The teen years are an emotionally brutal and vulnerable time of life.
For example, “That must have been difficult to tell me that it seems like I don’t care about your feelings. Maybe you worried you would hurt my feelings by saying that, but I’m so glad you told me so we could talk about it. I always care about your feelings. I hope in the future we can talk about them before you get this upset. I hate the thought of you hurting this much. It makes me sad.”
7) Show Love
Even if you can’t give in and give your child everything they want, these steps will let them know you care and that they weren’t crazy for feeling the way they did. This is generally enough to calm them down and begin the healing process, but it doesn’t take the pain away. A little love can go a long way in helping to ease their pain.
This is when knowing your individual child helps. What makes them feel loved? Would they appreciate being made a special snack, having a foot rub, playing a video game against you, a reiteration of some of the things you love and appreciate most about them, or maybe a little gift of some kind (be judicious with this one because it can feel like you’re trying to buy them off).
Find a way to show your child they are still loved and valued despite their emotional outburst and your relationship will strengthen and deepen. Tantrums don’t have to tear us apart. If handled with love and understanding, they can actually bring us closer together.