If you are the parent of a teenager, I’m willing to bet you’ve experienced some anger. I’m also willing to bet that you were unsure how to diffuse the anger when it happened, and unsure how to get through to your teen.
In his new book, Helping Your Angry Teen: How To Reduce Anger and Build Connection Using Mindfulness and Positive Psychology, Mitch Ablett Ph.D. reassures parents that there is a way to not only restore peace in the household, but better understand the psychological conditions that contribute to a teenager’s anger. With mindfulness, Ablett says, it’s possible to find calm even in the most heated moments.
According to Ablett, when teens express anger, they are sending their parents one of four messages: they are feeling disrespected; they want space; they want validation; or they want provisions.
Ablett distinguishes between “clean” emotions, which are primary, basic reactions to stimulation from the environment, and “dirty” emotions, which arise from our thoughts about a situation. It’s important to also note that teenage anger can also mask depression, trauma, relationship distress, and anxiety.
Even if the parent-teen relationship has been toxic, Ablett promises that a connected relationship is possible by altering communication patterns in a way that conveys what Ablett calls “healing messages” to the teen.
The first step to altering patterns of communication is changing the destructive dance that parents and teens often engage in, escalating each other’s behavior and unintentionally teaching the brain to overreact.
“What’s happening here is a process of mutual triggering. The teen’s anger increases, punishing the parent. This continues until the parent’s demand, which is aversive and punishing for the teen, is either removed or the parent gives the teen what the teen wants. If the parent drops the subject, this reinforces and thereby increases the teen’s angry behavior. If the parent gives the teen what the teen wants, this reinforces the parent’s giving in behavior, making it more likely in the future,” writes Ablett.
On the other hand, with mindfulness, parents can learn to stay in the present moment, gain insight into their own thought patterns, and become less judgmental.
“Most people, most of the time – especially when angry – focus on the stressful events from the past or future stressors on the horizon. This is particularly true for parents with regard to their children. Such mental time travel away from the present is a big part of what causes us to suffer,” writes Ablett.
One technique Ablett offers to help parents stay in the moment is the PURE technique, which stands for presence, understanding, responsive leadership, and empowerment.
By infusing mindfulness into their daily lives with PURE and other techniques, parents can learn to shift their attention away from their own angry reactions and their teens’ provocations that trigger them, and instead become more aware of what is actually happening in the moment.
“Mindful presence makes things less red-hot urgent, though the situation may be extremely challenging. Presence creates a strong yet adaptable foundation for parenting in the heat of the moment,” writes Ablett.
Ablett warns, though, that mindfulness does take practice. One interesting exercise he offers, called “Fresh Eyes,” asks parents are to re-examine their teen with observational curiosity, letting go of the urge to judge, criticize, and assume anything about them. Instead, parents are asked to see their teen through fresh eyes.
Values also play an important role in parenting teenagers.
“Knowing your values gives you an emotional nudge toward what matters most, even in the heat of the moment with your kid. Your values show you your highest self as a parent,” writes Ablett.
To help parents identify their values, he suggests they draw upon their own greatest teachers, allowing what they’ve learned to guide their actions with their teen.
Through understanding their own parenting, distancing themselves from distorted thinking about their teen, and seeing behind behavior, parents can learn to sidestep power struggles, respond to anger effectively, build their resilience, and maintain composure and compassion, even when facing a crisis.
If this sounds like too tall of an order, Ablett reassures readers that the values parents most need – such as authenticity, perseverance, generosity, and compassion – are already inside of them. Parents simply need to allow them the space and time to arise.
While victory with teens is not assured, Ablett offers parents a path toward empowerment – one that chooses mindfulness, compassion, and attunement over anger. Packed with relatable research, insightful tips, helpful exercises, and even short “Ask Ablett” sections, this book is one that every parent – whether they have a teenager or not – should read.
Helping Your Angry Teen: How To Reduce Anger and Build Connection Using Mindfulness and Positive Psychology
Mitch R. Abblett PhD
Softcover, 154 pages