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A Counterintuitive Approach to Your Irritable Teen

Effective limit setting: timing, state of mind and delivery

Parents’ state of mind and delivery are key in determining the impact of limit setting. A posture that can anchor teens who are feeling out of control is to match their intensity (but not tone or attitude), by using a strong voice, having conviction, and sustaining eye contact. To pull this off, parents must be anchored themselves, and not in the throes feeling rejected, intimidated, or mad. If parents feel triggered, it’s best to say as little as possible.

Respect and collaboration

Parents can facilitate a mindset conducive to a collaborative conversation (at a later, calm time) by recognizing that teens are already on the same side since it feels bad to teens to be disrespectful and out of control. Having a more accurate perspective on teens’ inner experience positions parents to be an ally and leverage teens’ disappointment in their own behavior — rather than hijack their feelings and incite rebellion and struggle.

For example, “You already know I don’t like it when you talk to me that way, but it’s not really about me. I’m realizing it feels bad to you to be disrespectful. I don’t think you want to act that way, but in the moment it’s hard to have control and you fly off the handle. Are you open to thinking through how we can handle this better together?” This approach shows teens that parents recognize their positive intentions and reinforces this side of them. Asking “permission” to have a discussion demonstrates respect for teens’ autonomy which, though it seems paradoxical, establishes buy-in and makes authentic collaboration more likely.


In order to help teens, we must accurately diagnose why a particular teen in a particular context is irritable or reactive — rather than respond in a reflexive way. Anger and irritability in teens can mean many different things, including depression. Taking this attitude too personally or being thin-skinned complicates what’s really going on, changes the subject, as well as forfeits an opportunity to resolve the actual issue.

Normal adolescents can instinctively act prickly with parents to reinforce a boundary around themselves and create space to establish their own mind and identity. This reflex becomes an exaggerated when teens feel crowded or negatively impacted by parents’ emotions, Empathy for teens is not about selectively focusing on their emotional distress and mirroring it. Rather, it’s about having perspective on their behalf and being responsive to their needs as a whole, including the need for parents to have a boundary as well as tolerate theirs. By being anchored, parents can offer teens a different experience instead of blending with their teens’ state of mind.

When teens sense that they’ve hurt parents by being irritable and pulling away, they internalize the message that it’s mean or wrong to separate — creating a bind between self-preservation and loyalty to parents. This dynamic not only creates more irritability, but interferes with identity formation and the development of an autonomous sense of self — the internal compass teens need to successfully navigate the transition into adulthood.

A Counterintuitive Approach to Your Irritable Teen

Lynn Margolies, PhD

Dr. Lynn Margolies is a psychologist and former Harvard Medical School faculty and fellow, and has completed her internship and post-doc at McLean Hospital. She has helped people from all walks of life with relationship, family, life problems, trauma, and psychological symptoms including depression, anxiety, and chronic conditions. Dr. Margolies has worked in inpatient, outpatient, residential and private practice settings. She has supervised others, and consulted to clinics, hospitals, universities, newspapers. Dr. Margolies has appeared in media -- on news and talk shows, and written columns for various publications. Dr. Margolies is currently in private practice in Newton Centre, MA. Visit her website at

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APA Reference
Margolies, L. (2018). A Counterintuitive Approach to Your Irritable Teen. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 23, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 28 Feb 2018)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.