Calming the Explosive Teen

A natural alternative to sedatives that calms the agitated teen—and kids think it's "cool" too.

By Jeff Grossman, published on July 7, 2006 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Nancy Fowler knows how to manage kids who have a hard time controlling their tempers. A registered nurse with a master's degree in psychology, she has been working with children and teens for 26 years. She is now the health services director at Jefferson School, a school and mental health treatment center in Jefferson, Maryland, which is also home for 50 teens. Years ago she introduced aromatherapy as a tool the kids could use to help calm themselves, and the school has been offering it ever since.

Traditionally, Fowler says, the response to explosive, aggressive behavior has been medication, restraint or seclusion. "As people are faced with what else can we use, I'm always searching and trying to figure out what could be effective that's less restrictive and that could have a beneficial outcome." Along with aromatherapy, she and the school staff have introduced yoga, tai chi and walking. They have also eliminated soda at meal times and instead provide water in every classroom.

Aromatherapy was a new concept that needed to be explained to both the students and the nurses. Fowler brought essential oils to each homeroom and let the students take a sniff, then encouraged them to write signs like "bergamot smelled like watermelon." She explained the concept to the staff and taught them how to do a specific type of hand massage to apply the oil.

In a 2004 study, Fowler found that 28 of 43 students asked for aromatherapy at least once when they felt frustrated or agitated. Of the group that used it, 21 of them later said that they felt calmer or more relaxed afterward. Fowler's results were published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing, a journal of the International Society of Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurses in Madison, Wisconsin. The study originally began as part of Fowler's aromatherapy training.

During the three months before aromatherapy was introduced, the school's nurses administered 631 oral doses of as needed sedatives—used as a supplement to regular prescriptions when students feel agitated. The nurses administered another 43 doses by injection during the same three months. In the first three months of aromatherapy use, the numbers fell to 397 oral doses and 31 injections. While Fowler cautions that the results are not statistically significant, they are encouraging, she says.

The students who requested aromatherapy chose between oils put on a cotton pad for them to smell, or a "calming blend" massaged onto their hands. The blend, which took weeks of planning to perfect, was a mix of ylang ylang, sweet marjoram and bergamot in a base of jojoba. For the pad method, the kids were offered sweet marjoram or bergamot, but the ylang ylang was left out because it can increase libido. In the massage blend, ylang ylang was too diluted for that potential side effect to be a concern.

Anyone can use the same basic concept to soothe themselves or their children as long as they have good quality oils, Fowler says, but which oils will be most effective depends on the person. Also, she says, it may be necessary to switch oils periodically, as their usefulness can decline over time.

"Adolescents are eager to do new, different, fun things. I think I was able to make it that," Fowler says. "There were some who didn't want it, turned up their nose and said 'forget it,' but more thought it was a cool thing."