WHEN a parent, exasperated, phones the national helpline, Parentline, the call is most likely to be about ‘teenage issues’ or, secondly, ‘ anger and aggression’.
Teenage anger is “a big issue and growing”, says Parentline CEO, Rita O’Reilly.
“It can be anything from roughly banging doors, roaring and shouting to violence and broken bones. It’s a problem if parents feel uncomfortable, nervous or threatened.”
The highest number of ‘teen anger’-related calls are about 14-year-olds, followed by 17-year-olds. “Calls start when children hit 13 and taper off when they reach 19,” says O’Reilly.
By the time parents ring Parentline, emotions have often been running high and mum or dad has snapped, and they’re not happy about their reaction. “They say, ‘This has been going on, but I reacted this way last night’. They’re full of remorse. They fear the situation may further deteriorate, that the relationship they had with their child may be gone.”
Of all the emotions, anger can seem to have larger-than-life qualities. But research by Indiana-based neuro-anatomist, Jill Bolte-Taylor, shows emotions last 90 seconds in terms of physiological sensation.
“So, in one way, anger is no more special than any other emotion,” says counselling psychologist, Aisling Curtin.
Curtin says that pre-teens (10 to 12-year-olds) and teenagers are at an important transitional stage.
“Around any transitional stage, you’re going to see more intense and often unwanted emotions and acting out from these emotions.”
Anger is often a secondary emotion, masking sadness, anxiety or disappointment, she says.
“Often, we think a feeling is one way — when we really check in, we find it’s something else.”
Dr Patrick Ryan, head of psychology at UL, and author of You Can’t Make Me, How to Get the Best out of Your Teenager, says parents often expect their teen to be angry and this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. “In early teen years, there’s more emotionality, as young people struggle with leaving childhood dependence and moving into more independence of thinking and behaviour. Yet, they haven’t fully developed the subtle communication and negotiation skills required to express themselves.
“Parents can interpret it as teenagers being obstinate, difficult, and moody. Sometimes, this is accurate, sometimes it’s not — often the teen is being misunderstood, not being assisted to communicate more effectively whatever their particular needs are.”
Teen anger becomes a problem, says Dr Ryan, if it’s sustained over a long time, or if it becomes the core pattern of relating. In a minority of cases, teens use violence, or their parents live in fear of a threat.
Declan Coogan, psychotherapist and lecturer in social work at NUI, Galway, cites Canadian research, which finds that among 15- to 16-year-olds, 12.3% of males and 9.5% of females use physical violence against their fathers, across all socio-economic backgrounds. While there are no figures for the problem in Ireland, Coogan says social workers and psychologists here observe that when children are violent towards parents, mothers are more frequently targeted.
Coogan is part of an EU-funded Responding to Child-to-Parent Violence Project, which involves five countries, including Ireland. He, and other practitioners here, have adapted the Non-Violent Resistance (NVR) Programme, a research-based initiative that helps parents deal with child-to-parent violence.
“Parents often feel ashamed, embarrassed and hopeless. A useful first step is for them to begin seeking support from others — to tell others about it,” Coogan says.
Using NVR, parents commit to no violence against their child, whether physical or psychological/ emotional. They develop skills to deal with the child’s violence, including:
¦ De-escalation: teen falls in door at 2am, knowing he has broken a rule; parent has been worried for hours — both are ready for a fight. Parent says: ‘I’m not happy with this — I’ll talk to you later’.
“When parents are calm, it’s important they take the initiative to talk about it,” says Coogan.
¦ Withstanding provocation. Parents stay calm and refuse to be provoked. Knowing they have a strategy to deal with the issue helps.
¦ Involve the support network chosen by parent.
¦ Speak openly with child, and with siblings, about fact that violence has been used and state this is no longer acceptable in the house.
¦ Parents are encouraged to look at how they can rebuild a positive relationship with child. NVR helps them remember what’s good about their child, what they love about him. Coogan says parents often feel hopeless, alone and to blame. “But there is hope and parents do not have to be alone.”
¦ Parentline has trained facilitators in the Non-Violent Resistance Programme. Parentline helpline: 1890 927277.
¦ An international conference on child-to-parent violence takes place at NUI Galway on Jun 12 and 13. Details: www.cpvireland.ie. Also visit www.actnowireland.com
¦ Find ways to limit arguments. Not every rule is important. Decide on short list of rules you’ll insist upon.
¦ Decide on consequences for breaking these rules. Apply consistently.
¦ “Avoid getting into spiral of accusation and counter-argument,” says Dr Patrick Ryan. “
¦ Avoid over-talking during a dispute. “When people are emotionally aroused, listening can be switched off,” says Declan Coogan.
¦ Ensure you return to it when things have settled, perhaps saying: ‘You seemed very upset last night. What was that about? Is there anything I can help you with?’
¦ One task of adolescence is to learn negotiating skills. Parents should model negotiation for the child.
¦ Acknowledge: transitions are difficult for all. Teens are going through a major life change but parents are also grappling with the new relationship with their child. “Whether it’s their first or fourth teenager, parents are still going through this change,” says Aisling Curtin.
¦ Avoid getting stressed by messages portraying teens as ‘antisocial’, ‘all about themselves’ or ‘angry and very difficult’.
¦ Find out what’s upsetting your teen. Ask him/her; perhaps pay a discreet visit to their school; keep a diary to see if you can identify a trigger.
¦ Foster a positive relationship with your child. Spend time with teen in ‘no pressure’ situations, for example, watching TV together.
¦ Validate emotion and person behind the anger. “Also make clear that angry behaviour, whether hitting a sibling or throwing the play station control out the window, is not accept-able,” says Curtin.