When their screaming starts, you brace yourself. You armor your gut to protect it from the verbal pummeling. Their cruel words pierce your heart. When it’s over, you want to strangle them or abandon them in a wilderness. In his play, King Lear, William Shakespeare wrote, “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!” That was 500 years ago and little has changed.
BUT THIS WILL PASS. Your teen will quiet down and apologize someday… it may take a few years, but someday. Until that bright day, remember that you’re tough enough to take it, and tough enough to persevere in the face of high drama and lots of noise. You are not failing as a parent, but proving you care enough to be a good parent. Paradoxically, your screamer appreciates your engagement because it’s reassuring to them. Screaming teens are horribly insecure, and need you to prove you care for them. This isn’t rational, or fair, but don’t take the screaming personally. And don’t take it seriously unless the behavior is new or out-of-character, or unless your screamer makes threats of harm.
Difficult teenagers are inconsistent, irrational, insensitive to others, self-centered, childish and… should I go on? It may have nothing to do with a disorder per se. Screaming teens are as normal as screaming babies. Regard their screaming as you would a toddler temper tantrum. It is a phase that most teens grow out of unless something else is holding them back.
The way to handle a screaming teenager is to handle yourself first, because you are the king or queen, holder of all power in the parent-child relationship, and you must use your power wisely. Don’t scream back. Don’t reward screaming by losing your cool. Don’t get hooked.
When the screaming starts, do a personal check-in on your thoughts and feelings
How am I doing?
I am handling it. This isn’t as serious as it seems. It’ll be over in less than 10 minutes.
How am I feeling?
I choose how to feel and I won’t let this bother me. I will rise to the occasion and come out stronger.
What are my options?
I will be persistent until I regain power over our household. I will live within my values. I will take care of myself when it becomes stressful.
Keep your expectations realistic
- You don’t need to be in total control, just one step ahead of your teen.
- Be prepared for screaming to worsen before it gets better.
- If you get an apology, accept it, even a weak apology.
- Don’t expect to hear that they love you, or that they appreciate what you’ve done for them.
- They will not give you credit for being the good parent you are, yet.
Two simple demands:
1. lower the volume,
2. clean up the language.
Set the boundary on the loudness of screaming and the use of mean-spirited, foul language. Remind your teen that it’s OK to be angry; it’s not OK to assault with screaming and ugliness. Give them an example of what you’d rather hear, for example: “You are not being fair to me;” or “Don’t say that about my friends…”
If they can’t communicate themselves in a straightforward non-screaming manner, then restate what you think they mean, using different words so they know you got their message: “You think I’m being unfair to you,” “You don’t like me criticizing your friends.” Ask them if you are correct. Make it clear you got the message even if you disagree with them. It becomes awkward to scream once you’ve shown you heard them. It will take them off guard as they think of some other thing to be upset at you about.
Until a teen can manage basic communication with you, they are not ready to discuss the substance of their complaint. Make a sincere effort to look deeper and try to understand what’s bothering them. You will often get this horribly wrong and upset your teen immeasurably, but they will realize on some level that you are aware of their deep pain and seething rage… and feel more secure.
Use technology and avoid screaming altogether. Get on your cell phone and text your child, or use email. This works surprisingly well because you’ve entered their virtual world where they feel safe from your presence, and have time to contemplate and cool off. Writing/texting is slower, and that’s the point. Therapists often direct feuding parents and children to communicate only by email for a while.
Listen to what they need and feel, not to what they say.
Most teens have similar needs: to feel heard, to be loved, to make one’s own choices. Take these away and you have an angry screaming teenager. But teens also struggle with emotional distress: family instability, problem with a love interest, or something else they don’t want to share with you because they’re afraid of how you’ll react. Teenage years are emotional hell, remember? Ugly rumors on social sites, bullying, grade worries, frets over appearances… would you want to go through your teens again? Does the thought make you want to scream?
A teenager may be a screamer because of genuine physical discomforts. Physical things make people irritable, and teens more so: lack of sleep, dehydration, lack of exercise; excessive sugar and fat; constipation; the monthly period. A change in the length of daylight affects mood, whether going into the spring or into the fall. Don’t forget to assess the home environment. Has there been a significant change in family life? a traumatic event? Always consider drug and alcohol use. If their behavior is unusually or uncharacteristically aggressive or violent, or if it’s changed for the worst recently, get a urinalysis and look for methamphetamine or marijuana. UA kits are available at drug stores or online. Go through a medical diagnostic checklist when the misbehavior starts. Sometimes a few glasses of water is all your teen needs to become human again. Have a glass yourself.
What if you, the screamee, are the problem? Are you too strict? lenient? picky? Do you nag without realizing it? You might be the one who needs to change. If so, admit when you’re wrong and be the first to apologize and set the good example. My first apology to a recalcitrant child was awkward and defensive, but I had to swallow my pride and apologize for something I said. Over time, it got easier, and apologies happened normally and easily in the family.
Self care, find a way to let yourself down easy
Leave people and chores behind for a while, go scream in a pillow, and pull yourself together. Talk to someone who can listen or provide a point of view that’s helpful. Set aside a dollar after every screaming fit, and treat yourself to something special later. Let your screamer know that you’re looking forward to their next screaming episode so you can save more and get something nice.
Don’t forget to laugh. Any parent who’s survived the teenage years will understand that we all need a sense of humor. It may be a little twisted, but I find these bumper stickers funny.
“Mothers of teenagers know why some animals eat their young.”
“Grandchildren are God’s reward for not killing your own children.”
“Few things are more satisfying than seeing your children have teenagers of their own.”
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