You know that feeling when something’s off, has crossed a line and needs attention? Or maybe it’s yelling in your face while towering over you and feel like you stepped into a Marvel movie in Dr. Banner’s lab.
You have rough days and get frustrated too so you don’t expect your teen to be perfect. You’ve even caught yourself projecting your frustration and had to reign it in or apologize after. You’re human so it’s going to happen at some point.
That makes it harder to understand why your teen’s anger is escalating.
Their outbursts have increased, they’re using physical intimidation and have broken things thrown in a moment of rage. This side of your teen feels totally foreign, and your heart is breaking wondering who they’re becoming.
You’re not raising the hulk.
Anger is a normal human emotion that creates an adrenaline rush to prepare for fight or flight often accompanied by the need for physical movement. It also increases heartrate and body temperature as the emotional brain takes over and the executive function of the prefrontal cortex goes offline.
“Anger gives you great power” – Batman begins
Anger is a covering emotion, the bodyguard for sadness and friend of fear. Expressing anger feels safer because it’s powerful and aggressive, requiring little emotional awareness or vulnerability. Your teen’s brain is still developing emotional regulation and impulse control so they’re more likely to be hijacked by anger.
The adrenaline wave if anger lasts for 60-90 seconds unless your teen’s brain finds that feeling of power and aggression intoxicating enough, they can keep it going and escalate further. The anger rush is also extended when you try to shut them down in a pissing match, or they feel unheard or invalidated.
Anger is a physical outlet for an inner emotion.
Suppressing anger with shame or discipline creates a boiling pot and your teen learns to abandon their emotions while feeling a lack emotional safety, expression, and vocabulary.
The sadness and fear under the anger are what matter but those are scary and vulnerable to express. Your teen is looking to you to model vulnerability first. Are you making it safe to ask what’s under the anger? Do you let down your guard and share your sadness and fear?
This is particularly important for boys to see this modelled by their fathers and other male figures in their life to end the legacy of male domination and lack of healthy emotional expression.
Here’s 6 steps to help your teen out of hulk mode.
1. Talk about anger before it happens – Let your teen know about the 60-90 sec adrenaline wave related to anger so they’re empowered to wait it out and without reacting to it. Normalize the need for a healthy physical outlet in that time to avoid relational or collateral damage and brainstorm some that work for your teen.
i.e., loud clapping, running on the spot, saying a constructive phrase loudly (I’m angry and I can do this!), slapping their legs, jumping jacks, going for a walk/run, dancing, etc.
2. Notice the physical cues – What happens in your teen’s body BEFORE the anger outburst to build awareness? Help your teen to gain physical awareness of rising frustration like warm flushes, hot cheeks, sweaty palms, dry mouth, waves of nausea, chest tightness, etc.
3. Notice the patterns – Are there patterns that trigger the anger outburst, like siblings, homework, gaming, etc? Help your teen break down those patterns to see what other outcomes are possible by making slight changes in behaviour choices.
4. Help your teen co-regulate – By remaining calm in your teen’s anger you become their anchor in a stormy moment. It’s important to validate their anger and empathize so they feel seen and heard until the adrenaline wave passes.
“I hear that you’re really angry. It’s ok to be angry, I would be too.”
“I see how angry and upset you are. It’s ok and normal, even if it feels hard.”
“I’m sorry this is so frustrating for you. I know you’re trying your best and it’s just not working the way you want it to.”
5. Practice breathing – Although this may be difficult during the adrenaline wave, the sooner your teen can regulate their nervous system the sooner their prefrontal cortex comes back online. Telling your teen to breath during their adrenaline wave can be very invalidating and condescending so wait until they’re ready.
6. Get to the source – Creating change happens by talking about what was under the anger as soon as possible. Be open and curious while creating a safe place for your teen to explore vulnerable emotions, without attachment to their answers or trying to fix or solve anything. Awareness is empowerment.
“Tell me about feeling angry.”
“What did you want to happen?
“What was your fear in that moment?”
Creating a space for regular emotional expression is key to decreasing your teen’s angry outbursts. Here’s a tool I share with parents in my programs.
Use The Feeling Wheel during dinner time to help teens build an emotional vocabulary and create safety to share. Put The Feeling Wheel on the table and ask each person to identify and share one feeling they had that day. They can share a brief story about what was happening when they had that feeling but don’t force or expect that step, just model it.
After each person share’s, the only response is, ‘Thank you for sharing’. Diving in with loads of questions can lower emotional safety even if you’re attempting to connect and be curious.
Start diffusing anger and building emotional expression today by downloading your FREE copy of The Feeling Wheel below.
Emotions don’t need to be complicated. Let’s do this together.