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‘Our teenage daughter often lashes out at us with bad language’

Ask the Expert: ‘How can we help her control her anxiety and the outbursts?’

Question: Our teenage daughter (15) has had a hard couple of years and suffers from anxiety. However, she often lashes out at us with bad language, shouting and even sometimes breaking things in the house. We think it’s because she is anxious.

This can feel very hurtful and distressing. We try to talk to her about it and explain that it hurts our feelings, but she dismisses that and says all her friends do it, that it’s normal and we are just old and weird. She can get anxious about lots of things like being seen getting out of the car, if we are walking too far away from her in a shop or going in to school. We were recently called in to see the principal who said she can be aggressive with teachers.

How can we help her to control her anxiety and the outbursts?

Answer: With the Covid lockdowns and restrictions, many teenagers have had a difficult couple of years. Many of the normal challenges of the teenage years have been aggravated and social anxiety and low self-esteem are at an all-time high. While it is important to be understanding of how your daughter might be feeling (and it is normal for teenagers to be angry, upset and rebellious at times), it is important not to give her a free pass to take her frustration and upset out on you and others.


One of the most important lessons you have to learn as a young person is how to deal with your upset and distress in a way that does not hurt or damage others. Certainly, if her habit of lashing out remains unchecked, it will also have negative consequences for her and this is already beginning to happen in school as she is starting to get into trouble with her teachers. Below are some ideas on how to help.

Show your daughter how to communicate

It is not what your daughter is saying but how she is saying it that is the problem. It is normal and okay for her to be worried about going to school, to feel self-conscious or awkward in public or to become frustrated and upset – she just needs to learn to talk about her feelings and not take them out on others. In the parenting courses I run, we talk about the “golden rule of respect” as the most important rule to keep in families.

In practical terms this means that when your daughter begins to shout or lash out you politely interrupt this early on before things escalate, for example saying, “Listen sweetheart, I know you are upset, but please tell me calmly what happened”. If the situation escalates and your daughter can’t self manage, often the best thing is take a break: “Look let’s take a break and talk later when you are calmer . . . I can only listen when you speak respectfully’.

Agree the rule of respect with your daughter

It is useful to talk through the respect rule in advance with your daughter. It is interesting that she challenges you saying being respectful is “old fashioned” and that all her friends talk to their parents like this. These are normal teenage objections and it is worth taking time to tease these out with her.

You can ask her to self-challenge: “Is this really true?”, “Are you sure this is the way you want to communicate?” And also share your own views: “I think it is really important to find respectful ways to say how you are feeling”. Even if she does not fully agree, as parents you can say that “being respectful” is an important rule in your home and she needs to keep this.

Consider using consequences

You can also make her “privileges” in the home dependent on her keeping the rule of respect: “You will only get your full pocket money or full access to your phone if you are respectful”. These privileges are not entitlements but earned by being respectful in the home. As a row begins, it can help to warn her of this: “Let’s calm down . . . if you continue to shout, you are only going to lose some of your phone credit” or “If you break anything you will have to pay for it/tidy up later”.

The key to making consequences work is to never make them too severe and to never remove all of the privilege. It is also important to always be calm and respectful yourselves as parents – if you resort to shouting in reaction to her behaviour then you lose your authority and credibility. Instead, make an effort to follow through calmly and to listen and talk through problems later.

Listen to her feelings and help her problem solve

As well as having rules and consequences, it is important to encourage your daughter to talk through her upset and feelings and to start to address any underlying problems. Encourage her to tell you more about her worries of going to school and discuss what might make things easier for her. Discuss what she can do when she is in a conflict with a teacher so she does not come across as aggressive or how she can manage her feelings of anxiety or frustration (perhaps by pausing or taking a break etc).

It is important to try to be empathic as you discuss these issues so she feels understood and then to encourage to think through solutions for herself so she can learn some life lessons that will stand to her in the long term.

– John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charity, an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology and author of, Parenting Teenagers: A Guide Solving Problems, Building Relationships and Creating Harmony. See