Q: My Teenage Son’s Anger Is Frightening Me — Help!
Changing hormone levels and weak working memory can lead teenagers with ADHD to erupt with anger, and parents often bear the brunt of it. Knowing this may not make dealing with your teen’s aggressive rages any easier — but this six-step plan can help restore the peace.
Q: My 15-year-old son is dealing with anger at home, and I am frightened by his aggression. He was diagnosed with ADHD a couple of years ago and takes Focalin XR. He gets angry about a lot of things, especially when we disagree about his social life. He has kicked a hole in his bedroom door, and he is verbally abusive when we argue, calling me X-rated names. I can’t address this alone.
Dealing with anger can be challenging for teens with ADHD. Something goes wrong or someone says something that sets them off, and anger flares. Later, kids often regret their words and actions but don’t know how to prevent their overreaction the next time.
Many parents have told me that they don’t know how to help their child deal with anger. Like you, they’re tired of living with the fear of the next outburst. How can you tone down the anger?
Dealing with Anger and the ADHD Brain
Teens with ADHD feel emotions intensely. Changing hormone levels add to the intensity of their feelings. When the amygdala — the emotional control center of the brain—senses real or imagined danger, it triggers a fight-or-flight response. Within seconds, your teen’s thinking brain (prefrontal cortex) is temporarily offline, and feelings rule the day.
Working memory plays an important role in managing feelings. Research has linked weaker working memory to increased reactivity and reduced capacity to accurately assess emotional situations.
Teens tell me that this flood of emotion feels like a tidal wave, and they can’t keep their heads above water. Many teens with ADHD who hold themselves together in school release their frustration by attacking family members. Frequently, low self-esteem and disappointment in their school performance are the causes of angry outbursts.
Expert Help for Dealing with Anger
Physical violence and name-calling are not acceptable. An experienced family psychotherapist well versed in ADHD can help. A clinician will address everybody’s concerns, conduct family therapy to change negative patterns, and teach anger management skills. He or she can assess your son for mood disorders too, since many teens mask low self-worth and hopelessness with anger.
Family therapy will also be a good place for you to share your own feelings of fear in a safe, supportive environment. I’d also suggest that you speak to your son’s prescriber. Some prescribers are helping teens with ADHD manage their emotions by combining stimulant and non-stimulant medication.
The Six-Step Plan for Dealing with Anger
Both you and your son will benefit from new tools. He needs to learn how to identify his triggers and use strategies for dealing with anger. You should determine the boundaries of appropriate involvement in his social life.
Work collaboratively, start with compassion, and you can achieve your goals. Here’s how to join forces to find mutually satisfying solutions:
- Examine the cycle of anger during calmer times. Is there a pattern to his angry outbursts? Look for particular times of day and triggers that seem to set him off. Additionally, note how does your son reacts after one of these incidents: Does he own his actions or blame you for his behaviors? What happens when he manages his reactions appropriately? Write down your responses.
- Are you contributing to his outbursts? Which of your words or actions seem to annoy him most? What are your motivations to get involved in his social behaviors? Write down these answers, too.
- People can change only one thing at a time. Reflect on the most important thing your son could improve and what you would like to change about yourself. Remember to practice patience with yourself and your son.
- Chat with your teen about working together, doing things differently, and ask him some questions from list items #1 and #2. Write his responses down. Be sure to talk for less than 20 minutes — longer family meetings turn into arguments. Choose a calm moment in the day for this conversation; talking after dinner, before bed, or during the weekend works best with teens.
- Create a plan of action that includes changes in behavior for both of you. Discuss the consequences of not following your agreed-upon plan. Name some ways for each of you to show your remorse appropriately. For example, if you agree not to lose your temper and you do, maybe your consequence is to fold and put away his laundry. If he curses at you, he helps you with the dishes or takes out the trash. Make a list of consequences for each of you, and post it in the kitchen.
- Check in about this agreement weekly. Make any adjustments if necessary. Practice reflective listening by acknowledging what he says, and ask him to do the same. Remember your shared goal: less conflict.
Learning is a process of trying, having a setback, and trying again. Your son’s working memory challenges mean that encoding and recalling new behaviors will take longer than they would for a neurotypical boy, but with time and patience, you and your son can become pros at dealing with anger, together.
Sharon Saline, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice, is a top expert in how ADHD, learning disabilities, and mental health issues affect children, teens, and families. She is the author of the award-winning book, What Your ADHD Child Wishes You Knew (#CommissionsEarned), and a member of ADDitude’s Medical Review Panel.
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