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How To Handle A Teenage Temper

08/01/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Q: Can someone act a certain way without realizing why they are doing so?

I have a 17 year old niece, Ellen, who is just plain cruel to her mother, my sister-in-law. Her behavior makes me so angry that sometimes I can't hold my tongue. The other day, when her mother brought her a new dress, my niece just threw it on the floor and started berating her mother. She screamed that her mother had awful taste and had no idea of what she needs or what her life is all about. Ellen said she was embarrassed by her mother and wanted to spend as little time with her as possible. I got so mad that I had to say something. I told Ellen that at least around me she is not allowed to talk in such a hateful way to her own mother. She stopped screaming. Peace was restored.

But that wasn't all of it. My brother, who had witnessed the tantrum, didn't say a word in rebuke. He almost never sets limits for her and never disciplines her. Her older male cousins whom she really likes and admires are hesitating to spend time with her. She can be so difficult. If her mother is around, however, things change dramatically. Then she gets along with everyone -and directs her fury at her mother. Oddly enough -at least to me -- my niece is an excellent student, has a rich social life, and is very well liked by the families of her numerous friends. Go figure.

I do not have any children and my siblings children are like my own. I know that not being a parent certainly does not qualify me to judge how others raise their children. But in this case, I think my sister-in-law is being hurt and I feel bad that she is not being appreciated.

My niece was adopted at age one by my brother and sister-in-law from dire conditions in Africa. They don't ask for any gratitude and in fact all they want to do is to help her in any way they can. My brother says he does not intervene because they both have decided to make sure that Ellen has at least one parent that she can turn to if and when she needs to talk.

But isn't it also important to teach her to control herself? And how can my niece not realize that she looks immature and angry? Is she in any danger?

A: To ask a psychologist if a person can be unaware of what motivates their actions is the answer in and of itself. A psychologist will almost always say that people are not aware of their unconscious intentions or underlying feelings. Otherwise, we're out of a job. Our job in therapy aside from helping someone to make it through a crisis or to live the life they want, is to point out their underlying feelings -the reasons for their behavior. When armed with this information, the patient can make the best choices for themselves.

The simple answer to your question is yes. A parent's role is to prepare their children for adult life. Your niece can be disciplined without it threatening good parenting or her sense of being loved. Her situation, however, has unique characteristics that need to be isolated and understood. Your niece and, incidentally, your sister-in-law, are both dealing with feelings that go beyond the normal -but nonetheless painful -- mother-adolescent daughter conflict. Your niece is angry and has a temper control issue and your sister-in-law has her own guilt to deal with. What do I mean?

In general, we all have sympathy for those whom we assume have led difficult lives. We might want to avert our eyes if we see pain or disability, but we will nevertheless feel a tug in our hearts and a sigh of relief that it is not us or our loved ones who are the ones suffering. So, in order to show our humanity and to keep the disaster as distant as possible, we sometimes act over-generously to those who deserve our pity. Your brother and sister-in-law are probably something like this when it comes to Ellen. Their childhoods were incomparably better. Not only do they feel the guilt because Ellen's biological parent abandoned her, but they are also taking it upon themselves to make-up for all of the deprivations of her infancy and, of course, the lingering fact that someone simply did not want her.

I once had to deal with this sort of situation -psychologically similar but superficially quite different. When my 15 year old child had a spinal tumor, she was in incredible pain. She was out of school and either in the hospital or at home for months. This was my baby girl, my child. It was unbearable to watch her suffer. And when it was over, when she had recovered, it was incredibly difficult to treat her as an ordinary teenager. How could I discipline her? How could I impose limits on her? Every time she left the house I had to remind myself that she still needed parental controls. Hard to do... Very hard to do.

So, I can understand your brother's hesitation to deal firmly with Ellen. But he must. Your niece is still a child. She needs her father to help her see that her behavior is inappropriate. She needs him to get to the bottom of what ails her. If her father doesn't deal with this problem, she will continue to suffer and, in all likelihood, will eventually displace her anger to another person, possibly a man with whom she wants to have a serious relationship. A parent cannot always make life better. But it is the solemn obligation of a parent to try to give a child the emotional tools they need to deal with bumps in the road.

Your niece is no doubt full of anger. We have no idea what her first year was like nor do we have any idea what her genetic make-up is. However, to tip toe around her temper tantrums is to avoid the possibility of helping her have the best quality of life she can.

Now for some perspective. Ellen's not in deep trouble. The first thing we look for in adolescents is if their distress has shown itself in other areas of life. In Ellen's case, she does well in school and you say that she has a healthy social life. She seems to be enjoying herself. Still, she and her mother are clearly engaged in something more intense than the normal mother-adolescent version of warfare. It may be helpful to your brother and sister-in-law to see a professional who specializes in adopted children. It is very difficult to encourage an adolescent to go in for treatment unless it is their choice, but the professional may give the parents some guidelines and directions that they will find useful.

And as for you... Do what you think is right and tell Ellen what you need to. If what you say comes from love, it can't be bad. She may even hear it from you!!!!