If you're teen has ever said to you, "You're trying to ruin my life!" you're not alone. Because adolescence is a time when children seek greater personal control - an impulse that is appropriate and good, it can also be a time when parents and children disagree.
These disagreements can be distressing for parents. Dr. Glenn I. Latham states, "In an effort to wrest control from their parents, adolescents frequently resort to reactive behaviors which can leave parents in a quandary as to how to respond" (147).
There are solid answers, however, about how to deal positively with reactive adolescent behaviors.
Researchers from BYU assert that good discipline comes down to good teaching (Young et al. 13). Their proactive teaching approach to discipline can be applied to handling tantrums with children of all ages.
The first step is to assess risks (10). What are your personal "risks" when you deal with a reactive teenager? It is certainly tempting to react to a teenager who failed to fill the car up with gas, lost his driving privileges for the next weekend, and is now angry and yelling at you.
The second step in dealing with a teen's reactive behavior is to consider ways to create a safe environment. "If the home is rich in love, praise, and support, occasional use of reasonable punishment can help parents teach and direct a child" (Young et al. 11).
The third step in dealing with teen tantrums is to recognize yourself as a teacher (Young et al. 12). It is said that respect begets respect.
Dr. Latham suggests that in order to respond proactively and calmly to a teen tantrum, we should actually "put down in writing a description of the behaviors [we] anticipate will happen, script a proactive response, then practice that response with a spouse, family member, or a trusted friend" (153).
As with a toddler who is having a tantrum, one important element in dealing with adolescent reactive behavior is this: "Do not allow your children to intimidate you. Do not cave in to their anger and/or their wrath" (Latham 155). Preparation can help you stick to your course.
Dr. Latham says that when consequences do need to be put into action, parents should avoid using terms like, "I'm doing this for your own good," and "I'm doing this because I love you." Rather, say... "I'm doing this because it's my responsibility to do it. It brings me no great pleasure, but it must be done" (156). These statements give the child a clear sense of where you stand, and less to push against.
Some behavior in adolescents, even tantrum behavior, is best ignored. However, "If the behavior becomes intolerable because of its effects on other children, then restate your expectations, outline the consequences, and let the consequences do the talking for you" (Latham 155). Remember that the more consequences are decided on ahead of time, the less reactive we tend to be. Getting tangled up in lectures or arguments often makes a reactive episode worse. Picture it like taking off the band-aid: the less drawn out, the better. Administer the consequences, and be done.
After the episode is over (probably a good amount of time after) you have the opportunity to teach correct behavior (Young et al. 12), which is more powerful than simply focusing on eliminating negative behavior. Tell your child what it is you expect in clear, non-emotional terms. "I expect you to be able to do chores when I ask, and I'll make sure I try to ask at times when you're not busy."
Teaching involves modeling the positive (Young, et al.). With older children that can be handled verbally--with a heart-to-heart, calm conversation, where you describe what your expectations are, why these are important to you, and how these can best be realized the next time around. "Sean, I know how much you want the car on weekends. You need to know it makes things harder for me when you are demanding. I feel less like working with you. I want you to have access to the car. Can we talk about how to make that happen for next time you need it?"
When Sean comes through, don't forget specific positive feedback (Young et al. 14) "Thanks, Sean. Your being calm about this and asking me beforehand helped me feel calm about it, too."
Dr. Latham suggests that we should "Expect children to be reactive. They are not yet fully civilized or adequately experienced" (156).
However, this doesn't mean we need to sit back and allow teen tantrums to run the show in our homes. We can respond proactively, and remember that the best kind of discipline we offer as parents is teaching.
Latham, Glenn I. The Power of Positive Parenting: A Wonderful Way to Raise Children. Logan, UT: P&T Ink, 1994.
Young, Richard K., Sharon Black, Michelle Marchant, Katherine J. Mitchem, and Richard P. West. "A Teaching Approach to Discipline: An Alternative to Punishment." Marriage & Families, August (2000): 9-15.