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Aggressive Teens
Posted by:Lloyd Woodward--Sunday, June 10, 2012

Please do not use this image without our permission (PSST).
We talked about aggressive teenagers at the Wexford meeting on June 9. It's not that aggressive teens always assault, but that they intimidate by presenting a threat that they will be "out-of-control" and, moreover, that it will be their parent's fault that they are "out-of-control."

They let it be known that you have upset them so much they might not be able to contain themselves. Usually there is a history of throwing objects, breaking things, punching holes in the wall, and/or assaulting parents. We came up with a do's and don'ts list.

Of course this is a serious problem for which professional help is always a good idea. Getting an assessment through a professional therapist or psychiatrist may be a good first step.

Also, as a parent you know your child best. If anything on our list of Do's and Don'ts seems like it would be unsafe and might provoke your teenager to assault you, then use these ideas cautiously or ask for support from a trusted source before you implement any of these ideas.

Still, there are times when it is not possible to utilize professionals, or when professionals have been consulted and the problem persists. In these cases Parents need to know what is effective to decrease this angry behavior. We believe that used "over time" these ideas will decrease this threatening behavior.

First, once the teenager elevates his interaction with intimidation, do stop talking about whatever it was that brought you into this situation. Don't continue to discuss his curfew violation, suspected drug abuse, plans for the evening of which you have not and will not approve, or whatever. These are no longer the important issues. It's no longer about the 20 bucks he was trying to squeeze out of you. Instead, do pay attention and do speak to the real issue at hand, vis-à-vis, he is attempting to intimidate you.

Secondly, Your teen may have learned that he can sometimes get what he wants when he intimidates you. Don't give in to him because if you give in to him when he is in this state you reinforce "the monster" in him. That means you will see that monster again soon. Once you see the monster come out you can not afford to reinforce it.

Thirdly, Do use good strong, but not loud, voice and body language. Lean into his space a "wee bit." Half an inch should do it. You are not trying to promote a temper tantrum, you are attempting to short-circuit one, but it is important especially in light of his assumed threats to show that you will hold your ground and no better way to show that than by taking a wee bit of space.

Fourth, Do tell him you can't stop him from flipping out. Or tell him that you can see that he is about to flip out, that he is working himself into a temper tantrum. Now we are trying to trigger the oppositional side of him, but in a good way. We want him to prove us wrong, i.e., he won't flip out.

Fifth, Don't try obvious means by which to stop him from flipping out. Saying things like, "you need to take a deep breath," or "you need to calm down right now or I'm calling your PO" are obvious attempts to short-circuit his temper tantrum and that usually triggers the "oppositional response." Instead, saying "I can't stop you from flipping out, can I" while leaning in to take the wee bit of space might trigger the oppositional response in a more favorable manner. In other words, he thinks that you have assumed that he is going to be out-of-control and now he might choose to prove you wrong by maintaining control. Instead, if he continues to escalate, tell him that if he has to have a temper tantrum, then let's get it out of the way right now. If this is said, calmly, purposely, and with conviction, it may surprise him and he may surprise you by "proving you wrong" and not having an outburst.

Sixth, What if he does "flip out?" Have a plan. Know what you will do. How bad does it have to be before you call 911? If you have to call, tell the police that "I need an officer to keep the peace as soon as possible." Whether or not you use any of these tips so far, you still need a plan for when he does flip out.

Seventh, Don't keep it secret. Don't give the impression that you will keep it secret. This comes up more in the contrite side than the intimidation side but it could come up in either. Both drug and alcohol issues and abuse issues (yes, your teenager is abusing you) thrive in secrecy. Once the light is shed on the behavior and the PO, the teacher, the police, the close relatives, even sometimes the teenagers friends parents, know what is going on and your teenager learns over time that you refuse to keep such behaviors secret, he begins to think twice before acting out in this manner.

Eighth, Don't use a threat to address a threat. This may sound like a contradiction to number six where we discuss how important it is to not keep secrets. The difference is you tell the PO, you don't threaten to tell the PO "if you don't calm down." By threatening to call the PO you do two things that we don't want to do. One, we trigger the oppositional nature and not in a good way. Two, we IMPLY that if he calms down we will keep a secret. That is the slippery slope we are trying to avoid.

Ninth, If your teenager changes course and he steps back with his body posture in some manner, don't continue to take a wee bit of his space. You've made your point now it's important to remember that you only use as much force as you need to get his behavior back in line. When power is overused it causes resentment. Yes, taking a wee bit of his space is power. It is a very forceful technique. If your teenager says he doesn't want to talk about it now and he wants to be left alone, then agree that this is not the right time and "we'll talk about it later." Do not pursue him into his bedroom to "talk it out." That might be what he wants you to do really, but that will almost always backfire. Just give him his space. It's the respectful thing to do anyhow.

Tenth, Be aware that for some of our abusive teens, there will be a contrite side where they are sorry and they want forgiveness and with that secrecy. This is a cycle. Abuse, feel sorry, beg forgiveness, and over time abuse again. Try not to provide a lot of attention during this phase either. Attention is the most powerful reinforcement and reinforcing the contrite behavior in some way also reinforces the aggressive side of the teenager. The teenager has perhaps learned that he might receive intimacy and attention by employing intimidating, threatening behavior followed by remorse, tears, being sorry, and begging forgiveness and perhaps secrecy. Just say it isn't a good time for you to talk about it or say that you forgive him and leave it at that. This is a bit redundant, but don't promise secrecy. It might be best if you have already notified whomever he wants you to keep the secret from. Use email or voice mail to get that done so that it is clearly no longer up for discussion.

Eleven, When our teenagers are "sorry sorry sorry" sometimes there is also an implied threat. Be aware of that and be ready to address that. Things can switch from Contrite Phase to Abuse Phase really fast.

Teen: Mom, it's going to make me really angry if you can't even forgive one broken chair! That chair sucked! That chair is so old your mom even thought it was an old chair. Don't blow this out of proportion Mom cause I don't think I could handle that. Oh, what you are still going to tell my PO? Oh then I might just as well kill myself cause my life is over if he takes me to Shuman. Is that what you want? You want me to be taken away? That's what you wanted all along isn't it? What's more important Mom? Me or the chair? Do you want a kid on drugs or a kid breaking chairs, cause your bull$hit makes me want to get high!

At this point, switch back to talking calmly, take a wee bit of their space, and say things like, "I'm not sure I can stop you if you are going to get worked up again" or for the suicidal threat, "I'm glad you are talking about this, are you feeling like hurting yourself now?" and follow that up with a trip to the ER of a hospital if necessary. The trip to the ER shows your son that you take his safety seriously and that you aren't afraid to make a call that is going to further upset him. If he is manipulating for power he may find out that doesn't lead to the kind of pay off he is looking for and those threats of suicide may stop. Even if you believe that he is just manipulating, take all threats of suicide, especially if your teen has a thought of a way that he might do the job. If he has thought about using a gun or taking pills, then he needs to go talk to a doctor at the ER and if he won't go with you voluntarily then calling the police in for help is exactly the right thing to do. (Also, make sure that anything that your teenager might use to hurt himself, like knives, guns, or pills are not accessible. For example, with a teen mentioning that he feels like hurting himself you might put all the kitchen cutlery away and leave it hidden for a whole month. Sure, the family will complain. How are they going to cut their bread? But it continues to make the point that you take your teenager's safety seriously and you aren't afraid to act.)

In class, we used this analogy. It looks like rain. The sky is darkening and the wind is picking up and smells like rain. The clouds have moved in in a big way. At this point we all hope it is going to blow over. That's the way we sometimes try to handle our teenagers when they escalate and threaten temper tantrums. Maybe if we just don't say the wrong thing, don't do the wrong thing, the whole nasty affair will just blow over. That's not only a description of the situation, it's a description of the problem. At this point the teen has us trained to not say certain words, not take certain actions, not say things in certain ways, and the amount of power we have given our teenager at that point is corrupting and addictive. He can't handle that much power. We have to short-circuit that pattern, interrupt that behavior by taking action on our own. Over time, this behavior will decrease if we consistently act in a away designed to short-circuit this behavior. Let's look at the analogy again.

It's getting dark out, the wind is picking up and it looks like it's going to be a heck of a storm. This is a good time to take down the beach umbrella, pack up the picnic stuff and head for shelter. But wait, we don't do that. We stand there frozen because if we start to move towards shelter, we will offend the Rain God and it will be a nasty storm for sure. No, if just sit here on the beach and act as though nothing is wrong, show the Rain God that we have faith that he won't send the nasty storm our way, then maybe it will blow over?

I admit that the analogy doesn't fit perfectly. That's OK. I'm looking for a VIVID analogy, not a perfect one. When you see the first signs of rain, start to review your plans for getting to safety. Look up at that big ole Rain God and calmly without yelling say, "OK, Rain God, make my day, do your worst, I bet we can pack this stuff up and get to the S.U.V. before we even get wet. And you know what, if we get wet it won't be the first time we got wet, and it won't be the last." And then matter-of-factly, in a business voice, "OK, everyone, the Rain God is mad or something, you know the drill."

One good question that came up was this: What if your teen tells you that he can see that you are saying something like this just to get him to stop this nasty behavior? Just agree with him. We always like to find things to agree with and so far we haven't even talked about that. "You're RIGHT! That is what I'm trying to do because of course I'd rather not see you go through all that and put us through all that, but you know, you can see right though me and I'm not surprised, you know why? (still leaning in a wee bit) "Why?" the teen replies. "Because you can always read me the best. I can't think of anyone else who can read me like you can. That's why I know you know I'm serious about what I'm saying. Your move. What's it going to be?"

A post that is related to this one, but looks at the darker side of the aggressive teen can be found here: Warning: this linked post has some obscene language: When Teens Harass Parents.

When Teens Harass Parents


Lloyd Woodward said...

I played around with this post too much. In the end, I lost the "read more" thing. Blogger has changed in the last year. Like so many things that change, it didn't get easier for me- just harder. I still grieve for the old blogger, the one that I understood.

Please, if any other editors can fix my post. I can't bring myself to keep trying to fix it nor can I rip it down right now. So, for tonight I leave it with no "read more." I'm sorry :-(

Jenn said...


You did the hard part (getting all this good info down in text), so I did the easy part (getting the Read More in there). It was just a case of premature-HTML-span-termination. Ha ha.

This was a lot of good information at our meeting on Saturday, so I am glad that you wrote it all up for us, especially for those who could not be there.


Wilma said...

Thanks for this great post. We have had so many incidents with Bam Bam in the past where he is agressive and abusive (verbally). So many times we just didn't know what to do and several times we had to call the cops for help. He has been to the hospital for suicide threats and even though I think he mainly says it to get attention we take them very seriously. As many of you know the last time this happened he was really ticked off and spit on a police officer and was verbally abusive to the EMT'S AND THE COPS! I couldn't belive it.
Bam is in placement now but before you know it he will be released. They start planning the discharge from day one. However, if he does revert to the aggressive teen again I'll have some more tools in my toolbox.


Jessica said...

As a mother of five children born within a 5 year span, I was painfully aware of the need to "control those darn kids ". Thinking back, I guess we were somewhat of a flash mob or crazy carnival, that only a special type could find enjoyable. Back then I quickly realized , that I was outnumbered, and often times outwitted, but not being a "quitter", I did my best. We actually got very adept and extricating and exiting.

Flash forward 13 years, the other 4 had grown up and were "flying straight", but I was still trying to control Herman's behavior. It has taken me quite a long time to realize that I am not responsible for controlling his behavior. Plus, contrary to popular opinion, it does not work. It seems like I keep finding a missing piece, to explain a lot of the chaos during our interactions. In hindsight I had all of the "pieces", but did not seem to see their usefullness, or how to effectively implement them. I saw myself at the helm, maintaining the emotional tranquility and peace in my home, while Herman was Moby Dick. Somehow, despite numerous role plays at PSST, I played 1 of 2 roles at home with Herman. I was either the pandering placater, or the tough and ready to dominate "Barbarella" (Actually I think I was more a Barney Fife).

I do not know precisely when it happened, but I finally learned how to own the power we all have as parents. (Thank you, Thank you Lloyd, Kathy, Jocelyn and Cathy).This post is an excellent example, and teaching tool.

It is truly amazing what holding a person accountable can do. Many steps and occasionally some (many)missteps, but you eventually get the hang of it.

Herman has finally decided to "fly straight", and continues to surprise us, this time in a good way. He currently pays for all of his auto, clothing, and entertainment expenses, and is clean by all of our strict Rabbit family standards. He also attends a comunity college, and recently achieved a 3.25 QPA. I do not think if you added all of his QPAs over the 2 1/2 years he attended high school would equal that.

We also have a plan in place if he decides to "deviate" his flight course (ie use), that being, he will be asked to leave.

So thank you for this post Lloyd, maybe you can offer this as part of a pre-natal class.

I guess Clint Eastwood said it best in "Magnum Force", "A good man has got to know his limitations".

Jenn said...

There was a story written by a veterinarian in the May issue of Reader’s Digest that reminded me so much of this post, especially the second point - Your teen may have learned that he can sometimes get what he wants when he intimidates you. Below is the story:

A woman warned her vet that her poodle might bite, telling him that the dog would often corner her in a room at home, snarling and sometimes biting. Asked how she responded to the dog when it acted that way, she said, “Well, I started throwing food to get him away from me, and it worked. So now I keep snacks in very room just in case.” Her vet asked incredulously, “So, whenever he tries to attack you, you give him a treat?” “Yes,” she answered, “and it works every time!”

Lloyd Woodward said...

Jenn, thanks for cleaning up this post. You'll have to teach that editing trick to me.

Also, I loved the story from the vet. Very funny. None of us would be that unaware to train our dog to attack us, but with our own kids it's much harder to "see" what's going on. A story like that can get us thinking. There is a reason that dog attacks.

There is a reason that our kids are aggressive. While we know that there is often a genetic contribution, and when the teenager is involved in drugs their behavior is also affected, but let's stop and make sure we are not missing the obvious. Let's stop and ask ourselves what our teen is getting out of all this aggression.

Most teens in placement give up aggressive behavior. When I ask them why they are able to control themselves once they are in placement, they usually say something to the effect of "well,that really wouldn't work here."

Then, it's complicated by the "therapy" thing. I'm NOT against therapy and I believe that it is invaluable at times; however, when parents are looking exclusively to therapy to change their teen's aggressive behavior they may miss the more obvious reason: teens sometimes do it because they can do it, because they can do it and get away with it, and because sometimes they get more power to control situations by doing it.

When we reverse that reinforcement we can help to create an environment where therapy has a chance to be more effective. Instead of acting out his issues the teenager can begin to talk about his issues.

Wilma said...

Bam Bam admitted to his counselor at his current placement that he used aggressive behavior because it got him what he wanted. I was surprised that he admitted this to ANYBODY! In clearer thinking moments I always suspected this was true but when you are in the heat of the battle it is easy to cave in. In coming to PSST meetings I started learning strategies to deal with this. We have a long way to go before Bam is discharged from placement and even then he may not be coming home. For sure if he comes home and starts up again with this behavior for sure we will know more how to deal with him. Also, he turned 18 a few weeks ago and we will have a plan for him if he chooses not to follow the rules at home he will have to move out.


Lloyd Woodward said...

Ultimately, having boundaries that you set are more powerful than using probation boundaries, especially for 18 year olds. "Greetings from the other side" by Jessica Rabbit is a great example.

As long as Probation was involved, it became sort of a game where Herman would push the envelope as far as he could push it and almost dare us to do something about it. He was betting that we didn't really have enough to take action.

When Probation backed out of the picture and it was just between he and his parents the game wasn't fun anymore. In fact, it seemed to sober Herman up to know that now he would be out on the street with all the freedom in the world but with no headquarters, indeed without a pot to you know what in. The Rabbit family basically said, it's not a game anymore. Placement time is over. This is what you have to do to live here. It's your choice.

Don't get me wrong, Bam Bam isn't there yet and a period of probation following placement is appropriate. Let's hope he does great on Probation as some youth do. Still, we all know that probation has to be temporary and I'm just saying that I like the boundaries you've set. Hopefully, both you and your husband will be on the same page.


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