How to Deal with an Acting-Out Teenager

Being a parent is one of the most rewarding and challenging tasks in life. It endows us with the privilege and responsibility of helping our youngster evolve into the best being he/she can become by consistently providing the most effective parenting without a parenting manual.

In a family of two parents with two personalities, different upbringing, histories, and lifetime experiences, varied ideas, beliefs and preferences that impacted their lives, one may expect that effective joint parenting would have a very poor chance of success. Yet, many parents ably facilitate their children’s’ maturation with very good results. How do they do it?

As technology and scientific research methods have evolved, we have learned more about children and adolescents’ brain development that contributes to their behavior and emotional responsiveness. Dr. Jay Giedd, Chief of brain imaging child psychiatry branch at NIMH documented that “the brain undergoes two major developments one in the womb and the second through the teen years.” And, “From age 11 for girls and 121/2 for boys their brains form thousands of new connections which get gradually pruned to their adult dimensions. The last part to develop during adolescence is the executive functions of planning, setting priorities, suppressing impulses and weighing the consequences of one’s actions.” Dr. Ronald Dahl, a psychiatrist at the University of Pittsburgh adds, “These hormonal changes contribute to adolescents’ appetite for thrills, strong sensations and excitement.”

Educators, teachers, child psychologists and researchers have offered parents insights about unproductive child-rearing practices such as scolding, demanding, shaming, name-calling or controlling behaviors, and offered sensible, moderate, attentive and supportive approaches to raising healthy and happy children. Yet, when a parent encounters a child in the midst of a temper tantrum, or being hostile, uncooperative, resistant, spiteful or even violent, it is the parent’s resourcefulness that is called to action. The parent has to protect the adolescent from self-harm or injuring others and modulate his/her emotional reactivity, which conflicts with the teenager’s natural hormonal programming.

It is no wonder that parents of adolescents find themselves, at times, thwarted and bewildered about how to best reach out to their offspring and guide him/her toward more measured and less reactive conduct.

Parents who elect to use an emotionally charged state of irrational conduct as an opportunity to teach the child less reactive ways of behaving or how to use reason to quell intense emotions are doomed to fail. Instead, parents should secure the youngster’s safety, validate his/her frustration and wait out the outburst. At a later date, a more measured discussion may be fruitful.

Manage your distressed teen:

  • Start with a “Yes”. Affirm your teen’s frustration.
  • Protect him/her, yourself and others from injury.
  • Avoid questions, inquiries or reprimand during the teen’s intense emotional state.
  • Revisit the incident the next day. Ask the teenager how he/she feels about his/her conduct. If possible, ask for an apology and inquire about his/her plan of action at the next frustrating event. A lesson may have been learned.















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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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