‘Mama Llama’ Asked:
My 12-year-old male middle child gets very angry. He is belligerent and moody and verbally unkind to his immediate family. What are some ways to handle this aggressive behavior?
Dr. Zoe Answered:
Hi Mama Llama,
I have been a mama of a 12-year-old three times so far, and I know how very difficult they can sometimes be. Occasionally, their wonderful, beautiful, brilliant self shines through, and you’re like, “Yes! There you are! I missed you.” But then they disappear again.
Clearly, your son is angry. Let’s assume that he has good reason to be angry. Let him know that you feel his anger makes sense (validate his anger) and watch how it dissipates. When we don’t feel validated, we feel we have to argue and be loud and difficult in order to make sure the other person sees our pain. He may not have big pain. It might only be the painful angst of his developmental stage, but pain is pain.
Once you have established that his anger makes sense and is okay, your job is to teach him how to express it and re-direct it in healthy ways. He needs to know that you will never punish him for being angry (or even having a bad attitude). Although a sullen pre-teen is no fun, it’s not really grounds for punishment. Let him know that all of his emotions are good. It is okay to be angry, but it is never okay to make bad choices when he is angry.
Here is a good set of healthy rules for pre-teens and their anger:
1. Talk it out!
Sometimes with boys especially, you have to give them the words for their anger. It is okay to say, “I’m guessing you might be angry because your dad and I made a decision about your life without even consulting you.” This gives him an opportunity to correct you and tell you what’s really going on or to nod and feel understood.
2. Write it out.
Suggest that he write down any thoughts, words (yes, even “bad” ones), or feelings he has on a piece of paper and then rip it up or shred it. The cool thing with this exercise is that he releases all that negativity that he shouldn’t be holding onto, and the even better thing is he gets to destroy the evidence, which is both symbolic and it keeps his thoughts confidential. When he knows that no one is going to read them, he will be much more blunt and honest, and it can be a very cathartic experience.
3. Punch a pillow.
You may not like the idea of teaching your son to punch anything, but trust me that hitting a pillow or a punching bag will not lead to punching people or self-harm—quite the opposite. Moderate physical activity, especially when you verbalize at the same time, releases chemicals that calm you down. Punching soft things can create this calming experience in a healthy way.
4. Scream into a pillow.
Screaming is a wonderful stress reliever. If no one is around, I encourage screaming out loud. Because this can be annoying at best and traumatizing to others at worst, you could teach your son to scream loudly into a pillow if people are within hearing distance.
Make sure your son also knows that there are clear, unacceptable behaviors when he is angry.
Unacceptable ways to behave when you’re angry:
1. Being disrespectful with words or behavior.
2. Becoming physical with another person or yourself in any potentially harmful way.
3. Breaking the rules.
Ultimately, anger is just an emotion that tells us that something doesn’t feel right. Don’t fear your child’s anger and don’t assume that it is necessarily a warning sign of anything bad. Talk openly with him about his anger (when he’s not angry) and give him some tools to deal with it in a healthy way.
Your job is to stay constant and not move up and down with his moods. He needs you to be the rock to center him. You’ve got this! It just takes a little grit and grace.
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