helping teens handle frustration

FourteenPart of being a teenager is that sometimes (often??) you don’t agree with your parents’ choices. At our house, when parents make a request, kids can politely state an objection or share added information, but only after they’ve said OK politely, and made it obvious they plan to obey. After a single appeal,  if we stick with our request, we expect obedience. If needed, they can come back to talk again after they’ve done what we requested.  But we’re not OK with multiple arguments from kids who just don’t wanna go clean the bathroom. Or whatever.

High standards?  Yup.  But we believe that respect and polite negotiation skills smooth family life now, and are valuable skills in adulthood.

So how’s it working?  Well,  our teens intellectually understand our rules– they’ve heard them over and over.  But in the heat of frustration, sometimes good sense goes out the window.   My growing understanding of brain function has made me realize that kids who’ve experienced trauma sometimes need extra help navigating emotional flare-ups. So I’ve been thinking a lot about how to defuse ‘hot’ moments and help kids face their feelings and interact successfully.

Scavenger huntWhen a teen flares up, we always give a chance for a re-do.  This sounds something like, “Try that again with respect,” or, “Hm, I can tell you’re frustrated.  But what would be a better answer?”

Sometimes kids are too darned mad to come up with a respectful answer.  At times I give them a time-out and try again for a successful interaction a few minutes later.  But sometimes they just stew around and waste time, which derails the day.  And to be honest, with four teens at home right now, even I get sick of the sound of my own voice reminding them of the rules AGAIN.

They know this stuff.

SleddingSo the other day I had a little brainstorm. I decided to enlist siblings. They all know what they should be doing, after all.  Let them remind each other.

So — for example– say a kid launches into a big-ol argument when I ask for a redo of a job that isn’t done completely.  When I see they’ve lost their cool and can’t pull together a respectful OK, I ask the nearest sibling to come give us a hand.

I give a quick recap of the other child’s problem:  “_____ is feeling frustrated because he thinks he cleaned the bathroom well enough, but I see a few things he missed.  He says _______ came and made more mess after he cleaned.  But I told him he still needs to finish what he missed.  Can you show him a really awesome way to answer?”

The helper  (glad she’s not the one in trouble) happily complies: “You say, ‘Sure mom’ and go do it.”

I tell her great job and thank her for the help.  She moves on.

I return to the angry kid  (who by now has had a minute to chill) and ask him if he can to try his sibling’s idea.  He does. I praise him. We move on.

He’s still not thrilled about cleaning the bathroom.  After he comes back, I may need to listen to his frustration again, acknowledge it, reassure him that I get frustrated too when cleaning up after someone else,  and thank him for helping.  But at this point he’s already answered respectfully and obeyed, so it’s just a matter of blowing off steam, not one of obedience, which makes it much easier for me to listen compassionately.

We’ve only been doing this around here for a few days, but I think the idea has potential for several reasons:

  • It gives the ticked-off teen a temporary break from the conflict.  For a moment or two I’m talking with someone else, someone who’s actively helping problem-solve the situation.
  • When I bring the second kid in to help, under the guise of briefing the helper I have the chance to recap the conflict evenhandedly so the teen knows I understand why he’s frustrated, which lets him feel heard.
  • The helper has the chance to practice a great response at a time when they are emotionally regulated.  In fact, I sometimes deliberately choose a helper who’s struggled recently with the same type of interaction, so they can have some mental reinforcement for future success.
  • It gives me a chance to *praise* the second kid for coming up with a good response.
  • The ticked-off kid can hear the correction from the sibling instead of from mom, which makes him more inclined to listen and get the conflict over with.
  • Hearing the disregulated kid give a right response satisfies me;  he’s just ‘redone’ the interaction correctly.  WIN. Now I can praise him, drop the conversation and we can all move on.

I do understand that some families are able to be more chill about kids’ arguments, and frankly, if we only had a kid or two, I’d probably be more laid back too.  But with 6 kids at home, I feel like standards need to be there for my sanity.  I don’t want to argue with kids all day long.  And this technique is helping me step back and remove myself from the center of the conflict just a bit.  It’s not the be-all, end-all answer, but it seems to be working for us.

I’d love to hear ideas you have to help kids cool down when they’re losing it.


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  1. Lee Ann says:

    Some friend shared some great advice with me on arguing that I love to use. If you don’t agree with my decision, you can only approach me to argue your side if you have new information. They are not allowed to keep pestering me with the same information. However, if things have changed (i.e. arrangements with friends, someone else left the toothpaste on the counter after the bathroom was cleaned) then I will discuss the situation again if, and only if, the child is respectful while presenting the added information.

  2. We have a similar standard of obedienc/appeal, but I think this method of defusing frustration would probably create extra friction in my own house. I guess the success of this method may depend on the relationships the teens have with one another. I sadly suspect my kids would take this as an excuse to show one another up or feel self-righteous as compared to one another, sparking a snarking at one another. For now I don’t really have a solution for my teen who will comply with the outward form of respect, but with angry resentment, other than talking with him in a different, more peaceful time about the spiritual battle evident in his attitudes, and praying that the word of God planted in those times bears fruit sooner rather than later.

    • Dani, I’m right there with ya. I think your point about resentment is really valid. I suspect one or two of mine may be LESS likely to argue just to avoid siblings being involved– hard on the pride, ya know? If it ends up dissuading argument in that way, I’m ok with it.

      And I’m trying to give the ‘helper’ role to kids who struggle most with this. They’re less likely to lord it over their siblings, since they understand the struggle themselves.

      And yes, your last sentence is SO true. It’s our job to be faithful, but the fruit of that effort is up to God. That is actually a great comfort to me.

      Thanks for writing,

      • I forgot to say– of course YOU are the expert on the dynamics in your home. Also, since I have 6 kids at home, I’ve got a lot of ‘helper’ options. I could see how this idea would be non-workable with only two kids, depending on the sibling dynamics. I didn’t mean to sound like a know-it-all. It takes such finesse and thought to parent wisely, doesn’t it??

  3. Kristen says:

    My policy has always been that I will not discuss anything with a child (I have four, three are teenagers.) who is upset because nothing good comes of it. I simply will not engage. I tell the child that I will be happy to listen and discuss the situation when they calm down and until then, they need to remove themselves and find a way to “cool their jets”. It may have helped that I taught Montessori school for years and as part of our training we had to read a book by Dreikurs called “Children: The Challenge”. It wrote a chapter on disengaging which is not only helpful for preschoolers but teens as well.

  4. Mary, can you talk a little about how you ESTABLISHED these rules in the first place? Our guys are littles and we’re at the beginning end of this. I really like the approach you’re suggesting for handling arguments.

    • Ali, To be honest, we allow very little argument in the preschool and early elementary years–at least that’s our standard. 🙂 Of course kids are going to argue, but when they are young, we pretty much just say, ‘sorry you’re unhappy, but you need to obey mom and dad.’
      When possible we’ll give a conditional ‘yes’– for example: “Yes, you may have a cookie, after dinner.” But sometimes we just have to say no, and they need to accept it. If young kiddos persist and continue to argue, I’ll sometimes say, “You need to put your hand over your mouth until the arguing stops coming out.” And occasionally I give chores to kids who won’t accept and respect what we say.

      It is definitely an ongoing issue, but we feel it is important in the early childhood years to set the standard of mom and dad being in charge, and we feel like allowing lots of negotiating undermines that authority. As kids mature and there are more things in their lives that potentially we don’t know about, it feels like more discussion — if respectfully done — is appropriate.

  5. Amy Mac says:

    This was well timed. The last few days I have seen more answering back & less respect. I knew I was part of that problem.
    I am also glad that I am not the only one who still has to check her teens’ chore completion. I had one that just earned the privilege of cleaning the boys’ (6 of them) bathroom for a month, due to the last several times he did not do it completely. We usually rotate weekly.