How to address violent behaviour in teens

Anger management ...
Anger management ... Photo: Getty

Angry outbursts are not uncommon for teenagers. There are teens who manage these big emotions well and there are teens that do not. Figures from the Australian Institute of Criminology suggest that the 15-19 age group is the most common for violent crimes, pointing to a sub-section of teens with low self-control, a lack of mediating figures in their life and a society which inadvertently promotes such behaviour.

However, experts say that all this can be managed and reversed given that the right environment at home and school is fostered and relationships with important people like parents and teachers are nurtured. Here are some ideas to help parents identify, understand and ultimately help their teen regulate their violent tendencies.

Anger management

Teenage boys and girls are both capable of violent behaviour and angry outbursts, says Annie Gurton, a Psychological Therapist and Counsellor based in Sydney.

Without the ability to fully consider the consequences of their actions and the surge of hormones both genders experience contributes greatly to violent and angry behaviour in the process of achieving their goals.

While all teens are prone to angry outbursts, it is thought that more teens than ever are now displaying signs of aggressive outbursts called Intermittent Explosive Disorder. Diagnosis can only be made by medical professionals, but Gurton says there are some tell-tale signs that show teenagers are building up anger:

  • increased frequency of irritability, bad temper and risk-taking behaviour
  • physical fighting;
  • starting to/increased use of alcohol and/or drugs;
  • withdrawing from previously enjoyable activities;
  • a change in friendship group/avoidance of old friends;
  • declining school performance;
  • unusual announcements of bizarre plans or behaviour;
  • increased secrecy;
  • avoiding eye-contact;
  • suspicious behaviour.

Handling such behaviour can be tricky as over-reaction to any of these tendencies displayed can lead to alienation, says Gurton.

“They are not the pliant children that they used to be, they lack the skills to express themselves properly, and neither are they going to respond to the same pressures that used to get them to comply. Authoritarian parenting is not going to work. Adults need to be authoritative and compassionate, and to connect with their child,” she says.

Listening to them and reflecting their feelings by saying this like ‘I don’t know exactly how you are feeling but I imagine you are feeling pretty angry/frustrated’ can make them feel respected and valued. Follow this up with, ‘When you swear at me and slam the door, it makes me feel that I have not been a good parent,’ and then ‘What would be good is if you could talk to me like an adult’ advises Gurton.

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Professional programs at school and in the community can also help.

Relationship and environment nurturing 

Promoting a calm and nurturing environment at home and school can help children learn and improve on an important skill – self regulation. The skill – to decide what response is needed in a particular situation – violent or not, can be cultivated with the help of parents.

Sibling relationships and rivalries that ensue can often be a good learning experience for handling violent tendencies. “Often violence breaks out when one child’s frustration reaches boiling point,” says Gurton. Applying a time out strategy also works with teenagers and Gurton says this helps them calm down significantly.

Encouraging calming activities like mindfulness or meditation through family oriented activities not only helps build rapport with parents but also serves as an outlet to release frustration and an opportunity for them to air out problems.

Such techniques are also increasingly being implemented in schools to help students pay attention to their thoughts and respond to them after careful consideration.

Cultural diversity and respect

In a country as multicultural as Australia, differing beliefs, attitudes, values, perceptions and behaviours are evident and can contribute to the formation of unconscious rules, says Gurton.

“Many teenagers are too unworldly and inexperienced to anything else than look at the world through the lens of their own cultural influences, which is frequently a dogmatic one. They will hold rigidly to the view that their upbringing is the right and only one, because it gives them a sense of security to believe this.”

It is therefore imperative to develop an open and liberal mindset, exposing them to different cultures and developing respect for all members of the community.

Some schools are already actively implementing cultural diversity programs and there are plenty of resources for both parents and teachers. “Such investment in education can be an important step in contributing towards harmony, eliminating prejudice, halting hatred, preventing violence and exposing bullying,” says Gurton.

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