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How Parents Can Learn To Tame A Testy Teenager

NPR icon by Patti Neighmond
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If you're the parent of a teenager this may sound familiar: "Leave me alone! Get out of my face!" Maybe you've had a door slammed on you. And maybe you feel like all your interactions are arguments.

Kim Abraham, is a therapist in private practice in Michigan and specializes in helping teens and parents cope with anger. She also contributes regularly to the online newsletter, Empowering Parents. Abraham says, for starters, don't take it personally.

Teens just can't explode at their teachers or with friends, but parents are safe. And safe harbors are crucial for teenagers during these years. For them, everything is different than it was in childhood. Academics are tough. Friends behave differently. Expectations are high. Their brains are changing and their hormones are raging.

According to Abraham, anxiety from all these stresses often comes out as anger. "There's always another emotion that precedes anger like hurt, disappointment, embarrassment." So, it's important, she says, to "help your kids learn how to uncover what that trigger feeling is, you can help them learn how to move through that feeling and then move into resolution."

Take late-night texting, for example, the root of many arguments for Brad McDonald and his 14-year-old daughter, Madalyn. Madalyn feels it's important to stay socially connected with her friends even if that means texting late at night on a school day. Her dad thinks otherwise. He says "on one level I don't want it to become an addiction and she does need her sleep and I want her to learn to communicate without texting, I think that's important."

Not long ago, the argument got so heated, Brad felt he had to physically grab the phone from his daughter. He wasn't happy about doing it but he felt he had no choice.

According to Abraham, parents should try to resist getting physical with their teens by grabbing the phone or un-plugging the Xbox, for example. Yelling back doesn't help either, she says. "If you're getting in your child's face, that's a confrontation and anger plus anger equals what? Bigger anger."

What you should do, says Abraham, is take a breath. Walk away. Let your child know there will be consequences later. And stick to them. Equally important, she adds, always remember there's a reason for the anger. In the case of Madalyn's texting, she didn't want to disappoint her friends.

Another typical argument for parents and teens: music and movies. Recently, Madalyn and her friends wanted to watch Little Miss Sunshine. But it's rated R and Dad said "no." Madalyn was embarrassed, "because my friends' parents let them watch those types of movies."

In this case, Abraham suggests "Brad can say 'OK, I understand you get embarrassed. How can you move through that? You're still not going to watch it.' So, where can you find resolution?" Then, Madalyn can problem solve. A solution could be Madalyn doesn't even ask to watch movies when her friends come over because the answer might be no.

Or, Abraham says, she could "ask Dad ahead of time to list the ten movies he's OK with so she doesn't get embarrassed in front of her friends."

In the case of texting, the resolution was a 15-minute warning. Now, says Brad, "there's no more excuses, no more pushing boundaries, 9:30PM is the time and she's much better at it now."

The key in all these disputes, says Abraham is not to argue with your teen about being angry. Help them understand why they're angry. That way you help them build skills they can rely on for a lifetime. "That's something parents can remind themselves about when they see their children struggling with these things. The teenagers are building problem-solving skills and coping skills" they can rely on for a lifetime. They're becoming stronger people.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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