How do I cope with teenage tantrums?

Your problem

My teenage daughter is an emotional tripwire. The slightest little thing sets her off. I hate seeing her so upset but she won’t take any advice. When she throws a wobbly she says hateful things to me and then we both end up upset. I’m finding it hard to cope with her moods at home and perform at my best at work. 

Our answer

Dealing with teenagers’ emotions isn’t always easy, especially when you’re juggling work pressures too. Teenagers can go from nought to ten out of the blue, sometimes over quite trivial triggers. And they often express those emotions forcefully – not very comfortable when you’re the one in the firing line! It’s not surprising things can get messy.

When someone shouts at us, our hackles rise and our emotional temperature shoots up. Often, our volume goes up too and we find ourselves shouting back. Similarly, when we see someone we love distressed (sad, hurt, upset) our first instinct is to want to solve the problem, to make whatever is causing their distress go away.

Unfortunately, both of these instinctive responses can lead you into deep water when dealing with an emotional teen.

To override these unhelpful instincts, you need a plan (and you need to stick to the plan). Every time your teenager gets emotional, remember the plan and do the same thing: first deal with the emotion then, afterwards, deal with the problem.

Step 1. Stop what you are doing and pay attention. Don’t say anything, just listen to what they are saying. Stay completely calm. When there is a pause in the flow, check that you have understood how your teenager is feeling and why. “So you are angry because you can’t go to the sleepover on Saturday and all your friends are going?

It’s important that you give a name to the emotion that they are expressing. This will help your teen find a way to talk about their feeling. And keep your volume low. It’s much harder to shout at someone who is speaking softly and validating how you feel.

If your teenager calms down, it’s time to move to Step 2, problem-solving. This is where you sit down and talk about the problem that triggered the emotion and work out what to do about it. Remember, it’s not your job to solve the problem for them, just to coach them through their options and help them make a decision. “So, if you can’t go to the sleepover, what are your options?

If your teenager shows no signs of calming down (which is quite likely), don’t try to move on to problem-solving. They will not want or accept your help until their emotion is waning. Just repeat Step 1. Listen, then acknowledge the emotion again. No matter what they say, even if they deliberately needle you, stay calm and quiet (just hang on in there, it’s nearly over).

If they don’t start to calm down after two attempts at Step 1 then it’s time for a cooling off period. Tell them gently that they need some time to calm down. Arrange to get back together in 15-30 minutes and take yourself off somewhere. “You seem very angry. I think you need to calm down a bit before we talk about this. I’m going to go and put the kettle on/take the dog out. I’ll meet you back here in half and hour and we can talk about it then.” You’ve done a great job of staying calm now get yourself out of the firing line as soon as possible before it all goes pear-shaped!

It won’t do your teen any harm if you remove yourself. In fact, it will help them learn how to self-regulate and manage their emotions. And, more importantly, it will keep your relationship intact and loving and demonstrate, gently, that you are not to be used as an emotional punchbag. After the cooling off period, once they’ve calmed down, you can help them with their problem.

So the next time you are faced with a torrential teen, keep calm and reach for the plan. If nothing else, it will give you something to think about other than the raging teen in front of you.

Answered by Anita Cleare from Positive Parenting Project.