. Mark, a 14-year-old student in the Alternative Education program (designed for students with behavioral difficulties), jumps out of his chair and throws his desk at his teacher after he is verbally reprimanded for flicking a lighter in class.
. Jordan is a 15-year-old who is in juvenile court today because his mother filed a Beyond Parental Control charge against him. Last night he hit her and gave her two black eyes.
. Christi is an 8-year-old foster child given to temper tantrums in the classroom. She throws herself on the floor, kicks, screams, and bites at the teachers when they try to help.
. Rob is a 16-year-old who was sent to a residential treatment facility for punching a teacher and threatening to shoot his classmates and the principal. Today he had an eruption in the cafeteria, and seven staff members rushed to stabilize him.
. Nelson is a 17-year-old on trial for murder after stabbing his father. He is being tried as an adult.
Violent children seem to be exploding around us–from school shootings, to hazing, to gang violence, to self-injury and injury to others, and family violence at home.
Why are they so angry? There are no easy answers, and sometimes parents don’t know what to do when their child or teenager acts out at home, school, or elsewhere. In some cases a parent can unintentionally contribute to a child’s anger without realizing it or understanding why. Sometimes the contributing factors come from outside of the home. Parental alienation, neglect, abuse, drugs, alcohol, poverty, divorce, homelessness, domestic violence, sexual abuse…all of these factors can play a part.
Has your child or teen ever screamed at you in anger, thrown objects, cursed at you, pulled your hair, assaulted you, or destroyed property inside or outside of your home?
Prevention is the ideal answer, of course. We hope to one day live in a family and society where every problem can be avoided. And many people, schools, parents, and agencies are working toward that goal. But until then…
What to do with our angry children? Why are they so angry? And how do we defuse a time bomb?
We may not be able to erase all of the contributing factors like divorce, abuse, and poverty, but we can use safe, calm interventions when dealing with our aggressive children.
Numbers can be dry and boring, but they should be sobering and alarming too, because each number represents an angry child, and that child could be yours:
. A study conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice reports that almost one third of all victims of violent crime are ages 12 to 19, and almost half of all victims of violence are under age 25.
. Every day, 6250 U.S. school teachers are threatened with physical harm by a student. (National Education Association)
.According to childtrends.org, a 2015 study concluded that 1 out of 4 high school boys carried a weapon of some sort, be it club, knife, or gun, at least one time during the 30 days prior to the report.
. Court dockets are full of parents alleging abuse by their adolescent children.
Anger is normal and healthy. It’s when anger is acted out in a harmful way that it can become lethal.
It is unrealistic to expect others, even ourselves, to suppress anger, but we all must find healthy, safe ways to release it.
Although anger has many colors, there are 3 types that are more recognizable; and recognizing the types of anger is the first step in defusing it.
Passive anger: Children who have passive anger tend to hold their anger in or deny that they even feel it, but it is displayed nevertheless. A “Passive” may be the one who cuts the tires on his neighbor’s car when no one is looking, shoplifts, or who gets his friends to trash someone’s house and stands back to watch. Passives don’t usually admit that they’re angry, so helping them to identify this emotion is the first step in defusing it.
Explosive anger: We know it when we see it. These youths are the ones who throw chairs, break windows, punch, and yell. Unlike the Passives, “Explosives” have no trouble admitting that they’re angry, and they don’t care about the consequences. Although an Explosive appears to be the most volatile, they can be the easiest to defuse. The key to dealing with an Explosive is helping them to recognize the underlying cause of their anger, express why they’re angry, and offer more appropriate ways of expressing it.
Implosive anger: This is anger turned inward. “Implosives” are children and teenagers who have learned to take deep and painful emotions out on themselves instead of dealing with it. Implosive anger manifests itself in alcohol and drug abuse, cutting and other forms of physical self-injury, anorexia, binging and purging, promiscuity, suicide attempts, and sometimes injury to others. This self-destructive anger should be addressed by a professional, but there are methods parents and daily caregivers can use when interacting with an “Implosive”.
Anger is an emotion that is expressed through learned behavior.
Children and teens often follow in the footsteps of their parents. Passives learn to express their anger in indirect ways. Explosives learn to display anger by stomping, throwing, even hitting. Implosives learn to turn anger inward.
What kind of angry are you?
The good thing is that what is learned can be re-learned. The thing to remember is that when we take one behavior away, we must replace it with another. If we’re trying to get a boy to stop punching walls when he is angry, we must give him a replacement behavior that is positive, like taking a walk, verbalizing his anger, or using a punching bag.
Children and teenagers face many challenges today, and not all are equipped to handle their emotions. Those that have been abused or neglected carry deep anger, pain, and fear that stems from their family‘s circumstances. They feel like pariahs, are confused about their future, and often have emotions that they can’t understand or control.
The mechanisms for the time bomb are in place.
The fuse has been lit.
All that is needed to set it off is a stressful situation.
Though parents, caregivers and even professionals who work with youth vary on methods of intervention, control, and restraint, these are some strategies almost any parent or caregiver can use when trying to defuse a time bomb:
. Don’t take an explosion personally: If you do, you will be sucked into the cycle yourself. Don’t intensify the child’s behavior by behaving childishly yourself. Show empathy. Try to remember that you aren’t the real target of a teenager’s anger; you’re the stand-in or scapegoat. It’s more helpful to an angry child if you model the behavior that you wish to see, or that they need to emulate. Following an altercation, try briefly to talk to the child, and if the child shuts you out, allow them a cooling off period. Then go back and try to talk to them again. Sometimes both of you need some space. Above all, never lose control. Even in the height of a temper tantrum, a child needs to be surrounded by stability and safety.
. Recognize the signs of a blowup: A blowout occurs when a child’s pent-up emotions have nowhere else to go. You can be an instrument in helping them to safely manage their anger. Here are some signs that an explosion is imminent:
—–A child avoids their problems.
—–A child blames others for their problems and feelings.
—–A child feels persecuted or paranoid.
—–Restless body language.
—–A child is distracted, sullen, moody, or depressed.
—–A child exhibits attention-seeking behavior.
—–A child is impatient or demanding.
. Use backup: If you see your child or teenager’s temper escalating to the point of violence, call for backup if you can, or even the authorities if necessary, but remain confident and controlled. A backup should be a calm, supportive presence for both of you, such as a relative or trusted neighbor, and should be ready to act at your request, including calling for law enforcement if necessary.
. Create a non-threatening environment: A volatile youth will feed off of a parent’s emotion. If you remain calm, your child is more likely to remain calm. When a child acts out, his or her body chemistry goes into “fight or flight” mode. Adrenalin is pumping, emotions are high, and they need relaxed surroundings. Structure, continuity, and alternative outlets are crucial. No parent wants to call the authorities about their child or teenager, but if you feel threatened or their behavior becomes uncontrollable due to substance abuse or other anger issues, be prepared to do this.
. Listen: Most angry children feel that no one is listening to their concerns, hopes, and fears. Try to find out why your child is angry at this point in time. Make eye contact without being intimidating. Don’t do all the talking. Don’t interrupt. Ask questions when necessary. Allow a child to look away. Allow for silences. Don’t assume that your child is always angry at YOU. It could be due to a bad day at school, a confrontation with a bully, unwanted advances. Try to listen.
. Provide an escape hatch: It’s a delicate tightrope to walk–giving yuor teenager a sense of control without giving him or her too much power. Make sure yourchild knows he doesn’t have to explode, remind him or her of the alternatives he has, and avoid creating a scenario in which he feels he must blow up. Offer supportive statements like, “I know we can get through this”, “You can handle this”, or “Take a minute to think about what else you can do right now”. Always allow a child to save face, and have your own escape hatch in mind should you have to quickly leave a confrontation.
. Be consistent: Don’t make promises you can’t keep just to de-escalate a situation. Don’t break your own parental rules. Don’t do something that is out of character for you. These can often add fuel to the fire.
. Be mindful of your body language: Speak in a low, calm voice. Take deep breaths. Fold your arms across your chest instead of putting your hands on your hips, as the latter can come across as aggressive body language. Don’t point at the child. Don’t show fear or panic. Keep a safe distance between you and the youth, to allow personal space for both of you. This approach may be new to you. The case may be that you’re accustomed to heated confrontations with your child. Try a new way of dealing with it.
. Be mindful of your verbal language: Avoid “you” statements such as “You’re losing control” or “You always do this” or “You never do that”. Replace them with “I” statements that state how you’re feeling about the situations and his or her actions: “I feel uncomfortable with all this yelling, so let’s sit down and talk calmly.”
. Recognize physical signs of an escalation:
—–Prominent, pulsing veins.
—–Dilated or dilating pupils.
—–Tight, tense crouch.
—–Slurry speech that can include muttering or mumbling.
. Know your limitations: The best of parents have them. While cuddling your newborn in your arms, you never dreamed there would be a day he or she would be slamming doors in your face, calling you names, or fighting over dating, substance use, or behavior. Know what you can deal with and what you can’t. For some it’s a particular swear word. For someone else it’s the middle finger. For someone else it may mean sneaking out the window or back-talking. Be ready with a backup plan should you reach your limit. That backup plan can be a spouse, a good friend, a pastor, a co-worker you’ve confided in, a parent or other family member, or even a professional such a counselor or caseworker who may be working with the family.
. De-escalate one piece at a time: A single “Calm down” rarely works and can often agitate a heated scene. A volatile teenager can defuse more successfully if he does so in smaller, more manageable pieces: Suggest a change in rooms for more privacy. Get the child’s perspective on what’s going on. Remind your child that violence isn’t the only solution and that there will be consequences in one form or another. Let them know what the consequences are, and make them reasonable and age appropriate. Grounding a 12-year old to a bedroom for 6 months has little effect, and is unrealistic on your part. Two weeks might be a better plan, or grounding from special events or electronics they like to use may have a bigger impact. Always be prepared to stand your ground without becoming violent yourself. Of course there is one exception to this, and that is self-defense. If the situation turns physically violent, be prepared to flee, call the authorities, or protect yourself.
Pick your battles: Let the little stuff go. Concentrate on the causes of the anger, and the solutions instead of the symptoms. Remind him of what the rules are. Be clear about the consequences, and don’t present them unless you’re sure of what they will be. Don’t expect apologies or reconciliation right away. Allow the youth to digest what has happened and come to an understanding on his own. Allow them to have a bad mood, but let them know you disapprove of threats and name-calling.
“Regardless of all of our best efforts and intentions, teen violence occasionally occurs,” explains Don Lewis, who is the director of House of Hope, a residential treatment center for adolescent boys located in California and Mexico. “When caught early enough violence can be prevented by helping teens to realize that they are not acting in their own best interest. We help teens to understand that their anger is really about themselves and how they relate to their environment, peers, and parents, more than how others are affecting them.”
We all want to think that a violent child can be defused via non-physical means, but the truth is, it isn’t always possible. Some children and teenagers are going to explode no matter what parents do. Even after all the right words are spoken. Even after all the right body language is displayed.
And we have to be prepared to use gentle but firm physical intervention. The question is, when do we use it, and how do we use it?
We all have the right to remain safe, and have a responsibility to protect ourselves and other family members. Sometimes physical intervention is the best and only option we have.
When to use physical intervention:
. When your child physically attacks you.
. When your child attacks another child.
. When your child actively harms himself or herself in your presence.
How to use it:
Physical intervention doesn’t necessarily mean holding a child down until his anger subsides. It means incorporating a variety of methods–from the de-escalating techniques mentioned in the above paragraphs, to clearing other children from the area, to containing the incident in one place, to restraining your child to prevent injury to himself, yourself, or someone around him.
If a youth attacks you, use your hands, arms, elbows, and knees to deflect blows. If he or she has a gun, try to negotiate the weapon’s release instead of demanding it. Don’t grab the gun or knife, and once it is in your possession, disable it or take it from the area.
For younger children:
Young children can have emotional outbursts too. When helping to defuse an explosive situation involving a younger child, it’s important to remember:
. Use age-appropriate language that is simple and easy.
. Eliminate the child’s “audience”, which often fuels a tantrum or outburst.
. Time-outs should be brief, quiet, and should be used for learning, thinking, and improving, not for punishment.
. Redirection and distraction can be used in conjunction with time-out.
. Remain calm and conserve your energy.
. Be consistent in your expectations and anger management techniques.
Physical intervention with younger children:
. Use physical restraint as a last resort. If it becomes necessary, wrap your body around the child, slowly lower him or her to the floor in your lap, and remain this way until the anger subsides, speaking calmly and positively during the process. This protects both you and the child from injury.
. Be firm and gentle.
. Take threats of violence and suicide seriously.
After the fact:
After a child or teenager has been physically restrained and calms down, it’s important to talk to the child about why restraint was necessary. A physical intervention can create powerful emotions for everyone involved, so it’s best for those involved to talk about their feelings. Debriefing isn’t about blaming or shaming or rehashing the incident. It should be a time to share feelings, exchange views, learn, grow, set guidelines, and plan for improvement.
Anger doesn’t have to be such a negative experience. When expressed in positive, non-threatening ways, it can be part of healthy interaction. But if you or your child have tried all of the anger management techniques known to humankind and you still have issues, there is no shame in picking up the phone and calling a professional to seek guidance. Sometimes it takes an outsider with an objective opinion to see the parenting skills in a family, or the communication patterns that aren’t working, or solutions that are simple once they are implemented.
For help defusing an angry time bomb, whether it’s your child, your partner, or yourself, here are some numbers to call:
–Domestic Violence Hotline 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)
–Safehorizon 1-800-621-HOPE (4673)
Browse the internet for resources close to you. Check with your local mental health agencies, crisis intervention centers, or law enforcement agencies for expert advice.
If your child’s anger stems from substance abuse, find a local treatment center to help you. If your child’s anger is caused by a physiological problem, a thorough evaluation may be called for. Sometimes depression feeds anger, and anger feeds depression. Individual, group, or family therapy may be the appropriate option.
Don’t be afraid to call for assistance. Many families just like yours have learned new coping skills and behavior modification techniques. This can often save a family struggling with anger issues.
We would love to share all the awesome things we’ve learned from Dr. West and Dr. Latham! Sign up for our FREE newsletter to have a hands-on learning experience every week!