Managing Behavioral Issues in Children Without Escalating Conflict: A Guide for Parents
Children sometimes argue, are aggressive, or act angry or defiant around adults. As they get older, they often learn healthier ways to express themselves and learn to pick their battles through experience, but the in-between phase can feel disruptive to the family dynamic. For pre-teens who struggle with behavioral issues, it doesn’t matter what the topic or scenario is, they can become easily irritated and willing to pick a fight with anyone, often parents or other authority figures. The key to helping children with behavior problems is teaching them how to respond to stressful situations, rather than reacting in the moment.
The guide is meant to be comprehensive, but as such, not every section will be applicable to everyone. Instead, we invite you to click on the links in the table of contents to jump to the sections that most interest you.
What Are Behavioral Issues?
It can be difficult to differentiate between whether your daughter is just stubborn or if they are defiant. The main difference is how long their behavior issues persist. For many teens, acting out is one way that they have learned to cope with stress or perceived lack of attention. While it may seem like your child enjoys making other people frustrated or stressed out, they are often struggling with their own stress and frustration, even if it may come out “sideways.”
Some questions that parents might ask when trying to decide if their child is struggle with behavioral issues are:
What Degree of Behavior Problems are Normal?
There is a developmentally appropriate learning curve for behavior problems. Throwing a tantrum may be inevitable for toddlers who are beginning to expand their vocabulary, but don’t know how to express themselves in others ways. As a middle schooler, throwing a tantrum is a less effective way of getting what one wants. However, it becomes more normal for pre-teens to push boundaries and to want to make their own rules.
As they fight for their independence from parents, some of that tension may be expressed through slammed doors, cursing, or heated arguments. Sometimes these arguments escalate because they can’t find common ground, but the hormonal changes they may be experiencing can contribute to difficulty managing anger. While parent-child conflict is natural in adolescence, frequent anger outbursts can lead to health problems and conduct problems for teens who struggle with self-regulation and responding appropriately to situations that trigger them.
What Are Anger Issues?
Intense feelings of anger may trigger the body’s fight or flight response that lead to anger outbursts. Anger outbursts are a form of communicating one’s needs and once someone de-escalates, they may admit overwhelming feelings make them feel like they lose control of their anger. When children struggle with anger management issues and emotion regulation, their anger may be expressed through tantrums, verbal fights, or physical aggression, or internalized as self destructive behavior.
Anger issues may arise from:
- Situational Conflict: Anger outbursts are often brief and may feel out of nowhere. They may be in response to negative situations or relational conflict, but often feel inappropriate for a situation.
- Reliving the Past: Past experiences being bullied or history of physical abuse and trauma may trigger anger outbursts. Exposure to other people’s anger outbursts may influence similar responses.
- Struggling to Connect with the Present: It is possible that children who struggle with anger outbursts have underdeveloped or weaker connections between regions of the brain associated with sensory input, language processing, and social interactions. If children do not understand their emotions, it is harder for them to know how to react appropriately in situations that trigger anger.
What is Oppositional Defiance Disorder?
Signs of Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD) vary depending on what is developmentally appropriate. Oppositional Defiant Disorder is characterized by patterns of hostile, defiant behavior towards parents and other authority figures. It sometimes co-occurs with or is misdiagnosed as ADHD or depression. If your teen’s defiance is unpredictable, explosive, or regularly becomes violent, it may be related to other conduct issues. To fit the diagnosis of Oppositional Defiant Disorder, a person must have exhibited some of the following symptoms for at least six months:
- Easily losing one’s temper
- Refusing to follow rules
- Blaming others
- Being unwilling to compromise or negotiate
- Repeated disobedience
- Difficulty concentrating
- Failure to think before speaking
- Difficulty making friends
Oppositional Defiance is diagnosed to better help providers understand a pattern of resistance towards authority and ways to build trust in relationships with people in power, such as adults. It is not meant to suggest that your child is troubled or disrespectful, but rather, encourages providers to focus on relationship dynamics not just behavior issues.
What Causes Behavioral Issues in Middle Schoolers?
Your middle schooler may exhibit behavior issues differently than another child. They may have aggressive outbursts, problems following directions, or a bad attitude in general. No matter the fashion that they exhibit the negative behavior in, you should understand the potential causes of behavior issues. These causes could include any of the following:
- Experiences being bullied
- Peer pressure
- Desire to fit in
- Self-confidence struggles
- Feelings of loneliness
- Family conflict
- Problems with authority figures
You should have a conversation with your child before accusing them of feeling a certain way. Get to the root of the cause before you take action.
The Link Between ADHD and Behavior Issues
Angry outbursts and defiance are not necessarily symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), but they may result from problems with impulsivity and attention that children with ADHD struggle with. As many of 40% of children with ADHD are identified due to behavior issues and are also diagnosed with oppositional defiance disorder. It is possible that this number is higher than it should be, as behavioral issues decrease once symptoms of ADHD are managed.
When Does Your Teen Need Treatment for Behavior Issues?
While teen angst is relatively normal, it can be difficult for a parent to discern between regular angst and signs of mental health issues, like anger issues or oppositional defiant disorder. Many parents focus on their teen’s behavior as the problems, but the bigger issue is their child’s relationship to problem behaviors and the purpose they serve in their lives. Often, defiance may start off as a way for teens to claim or reclaim control in their lives, but their behavior can quickly become out of control if they feel unheard or misunderstood. If your teen’s behavior issues are leading to school suspension, losing friends, or frequent family fights, they may benefit from treatment for behavior issues to help them work on managing their emotions in healthier ways.
What Doesn’t Work When Talking to Defiant Teens?
- Getting into a power struggle. There’s nothing a child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder likes more than to get the parent down to their level. By engaging in fights with your child, you give them exactly what they want. In this scenario, taking the high road is necessary to maintaining authority.
- Delaying consequences. While it is important for your child to feel like they deserve a “second chance,” giving multiple warnings can make your daughter think she can get away with her behavior. If you decide that there may be consequences for her behavior, follow through with things that you’ve decided together may be reasonable enough to motivate behavioral change.
- Giving time-outs. Time-outs teach youth to separate themselves from others and from the problem, rather than communicating to work it out. Instead of teaching children to isolate themselves or others when conflict occurs, which often leads to shame and feelings of rejection, we need to teach them how to communicate about their emotions. Disciplining youth involves re-directing a child in an effort to teach them an appropriate response to what they feel.
How To Talk To Your Daughter When She Becomes Angry
- Bring up your concerns carefully without it sounding like a confrontation or an attack.
- Focus on how her anger outbursts affect her, not the people around her. She may notice that her relationships have been impacted, but pointing out how much it hurts your relationships may influence her to claim she doesn’t care about the relationship or to turn it back on you. Ask about her health. Ask about her mood.
- Consider how you respond to her anger outbursts and what role that might have in escalating or diffusing situations. Do you take it? Do you fight back? Do you criticize her?
- Choose praise over criticism. Point out situations where she has been able to manage her anger as they arise. Take her anger outbursts out of the equation and focus on her other positive qualities. This may look like reframing anger outbursts to compliment her determination, her passion, and or her goal-oriented mindset.
- Ask what triggers her anger and why she thinks it affects her the way it does. Anger is a secondary emotion that often masks deep feelings of sadness and fear.
- Validate the root causes of her anger rather than the ways she expresses it. Tell her you understand how overwhelming it must feel and that it is confusing to feel like you’ve lost control over a situation.
Treatment Options for Behavioral Issues
- Outpatient Therapy may be useful for families to talk about conflict arising from their teen’s behavior issues with a neutral third-party adult. A therapist can help mediate between family members or make suggestions about setting boundaries, but the process of developing mutual respect may feel slow and difficult.
- Residential Treatment Centers are effective for teens who need more support with other mental health struggles, which are very common in people struggling with behavioral issues. The focus of these programs is on how their behavior has affected their ability to maintain friendships, earn trust from others, and cope with stressors in a healthy way.
- Wilderness Therapy is a good fit for individuals who are struggling to follow rules and would benefit from a change in their environment to focus on themselves. Group outdoor activities may feel outside of your teen’s comfort zone, but may help them learn the power of collaboration and communication.
- Therapeutic Boarding Schools are recommended for teens who have fallen behind in school or are struggling socially as they balance group therapy with academic support in smaller classrooms. While they offer individual and group therapy for mental health issues, their focus is addressing how defiance has affected their academic performance and future goals. Therapeutic boarding schools help teens make lasting changes in their behavior in the least restrictive environment while staying on track academically.
How Do Therapeutic Boarding Schools, Like Asheville Academy, Help Teens Struggling with Behavior Issues?
Asheville Academy for Girls helps students with deal with anger outbursts learn how to identify root causes of anger and practice self regulation. Anger is a normal emotion and it is generally healthy to be able to express anger, but it can be associated with behavioral issues, aggression, or defiance if it is not well understood or controlled. Our treatment team works with students to learn how to recognize underlying issues that affect impulsive anger outbursts and to communicate their anger in healthy ways. Rather than using behavioral modification techniques, our empathetic approach is designed to empower young girls to:
- Learn Healthier Coping Skills. The primary form of treatment for anger outbursts is learning anger management techniques and healthy coping skills to use in the moment. We integrate the core DBT principles of mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotion regulation, and interpersonal effectiveness into our programming to help students recognize that they are in control of their anger and what they do with it. Students at Asheville Academy are encouraged to participate in recreation activities, mindfulness, and creative arts in order to help manage their emotions.
- Find an Internal Locus of Control. As a relationship-based program, we encourage students to consider the effect anger has on relationships with others. AAG operates from a perspective that “choice is always offered in relationships.” Students make choices and staff respond to those choices. Students have the freedom to choose, and the staff has a specific protocol they will use to respond to all choices a student can make.
- Strengthen Their Social Support. As a residential program with a high staff to student ratio, staff can help students calm down by giving them the individualized attention they need. Staff serve as positive empathetic role models and set clear expectations with students to minimize power struggles.
- Resolve Family Conflict. Our ultimate goal is to help young girls apply the changes they’ve made once they transition back home. Family programming involves weekly family therapy, parent support calls, family workshops, and flexible visitation to help family members learn and practice healthier communication strategies.