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What’s Underneath my Teen’s Anger?

Anger can be a valuable source of information about what's bothering teens, or it can be covering up other emotions. Read how parents can help teens deal with this complex emotion.



Why is my Teen so Angry?

This is a common question that parents ask. In a 2022 survey of 1,000 parents of teens, two-thirds cited anger as a warning sign that would cause them to seek treatment for their teen. It’s not unusual for a teen to be angry, sometimes really angry. Because adolescents are changing so much—physically, mentally, and socially—and face many big decisions, their emotions can be especially volatile. And parents often bear the brunt of teen anger.


However, teen anger doesn’t always come from the same place. Sometimes teen anger is an appropriate expression of emotion, while at other times, it may be catalyzed by a mental health disorder. Sometimes, explosive, violent, or even typical outbursts of anger are due to an anger problem that might need to be treated with anger management.


Is Anger Bad?

Anger is not necessarily a problem in itself. In fact, it can be a valuable source of information that helps us understand who we are, what we care about, and what’s not working in our lives. It can alert us to an injustice or make us more aware of a situation or relationship that isn’t supporting our well-being. In this way, anger can be useful in helping us identify problems that need to be addressed.


But in other cases, anger is a default emotion that’s covering up something else. For many people, it’s easier to feel anger than more vulnerable emotions like sadness, shame, or fear. Research shows this is particularly true of men. Men are socialized to show strength rather than vulnerability, which is often seen as weakness. Despite how far we’ve come in dismantling male gender norms over recent decades, men are still expected to act tough and aggressive, and to avoid talking about their emotions or mental health struggles.


For example, in a Pew Research Center survey, respondents were asked which traits society values most in men. They ranked strength, toughness, leadership, and ambition among the top qualities. Traits like respectfulness, kindness, and empathy were much farther down the list. The same survey found that most young men feel they need to be ready to physically attack other men if they are harassed or taunted.

 

What Is Healthy Anger in Teens?

Using “healthy” and “anger” together may seem like an oxymoron. However, anger is a natural emotion and can be expressed in healthy ways when teens have the tools to do so. When something is unjust, unfair, upsetting, or threatening, healthy anger can be an appropriate response. For example, if a teen comes home from school expressing anger because a teacher punished them for something they did not do, that anger is healthy and natural.


Parents may need to help teens find ways to express and process that healthy anger. While teens may raise their voices or show emotion in another way, like crying, expressing anger should not be harmful or violent to anyone or anything. Talking about what happened, including validating the teen’s point of view, is essential. Good ways to process the anger include vigorous exercise, like going for a run, or doing something creative to release the energy and emotions behind anger.


When Should You Worry About an Angry Teenager?

Sometimes anger is not a natural response to a situation, but rather a sign that a teen needs anger management tools. Unhealthy anger is when the level of emotion does not match the cause or gets out of control or violent. When a teen gets angry often, that is also unhealthy. The physiological changes in heart rate and chemistry associated with teen anger are not meant to be sustained for long periods of time or with that level of frequency. When a teen explodes at any little thing, that is likely to be unhealthy anger. Research shows that higher levels and frequency of teen anger are associated with teen depression.


There are times when teens may be experiencing something emotionally troubling that they are not sharing with their parents, which causes them to be irritable and get angry more easily. Taking the time to find out what may be troubling them can help resolve a situation like this. Likewise, there may be times when hormones are impacting their mood. Hormone-induced anger is typically not a long-term situation, however.


What Causes Teen Anger?

A big part of addressing the question “Why is my teen so angry?” is taking time to investigate what might be causing this teen anger and whether it is normal, healthy anger or unhealthy anger. There are many different reasons why teens get angry. However, if teens feel this way all the time, anger may be a symptom indicating that there is a more severe problem that needs to be addressed, such as:


  • An underlying mental health condition

  • Substance abuse

  • Unprocessed trauma

  • Learned behaviors due to family dysfunction

  • Unprocessed emotions.

All of these issues should be addressed with professional help. A mental health or substance abuse diagnosis requires appropriate medical and therapeutic care. A teen who has learned negative behaviors from others may need anger management classes or therapy. Likewise, someone who is using anger to express all of their other emotions will need therapy to learn to manage their emotions more appropriately.


Why Is Anger in Boys More Common?

Teen boys are much more likely to be irritable or angry when they have an underlying mental health condition such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or another condition. According to the Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care, males exhibit symptoms of depression through anger, aggression, irritability, and violence rather than expressions of sadness or hopelessness.


Moreover, teen boys are less likely to seek help and more likely to complete a suicide attempt than their peers. Therefore, parents must be aware and understand that behaviors that may seem disruptive or dangerous to the family could be signs of a serious underlying mental health disorder.


How Can I Help My Teen Manage Their Anger?

How can parents help angry teens? Parents sometimes struggle with how to manage teenage anger. These tips for anger management can help:


  • Pick your battles—let go of minor problems and complaints whenever possible.

  • Always start with praise rather than criticism, and find ways to frame criticism so it won’t feel like a judgment.

  • When parents feel themselves getting angry, too, they need to take a timeout. Confronting anger with anger won’t be productive.

  • If a teen wants to take a break to calm down, give them the space and time to do so, rather than pushing them to continue interacting.

  • Set limits around behavior, and make sure both you and your teen are clear about the consequences of overstepping those limits.

Anger management for teens can start in the home, with simple relaxation skills. When you recognize that your teen has been triggered and is getting angry, use techniques to help them stay calm and focused. Encourage them to close their eyes and focus on tensing and releasing specific muscle groups, beginning at the head and working down to the toes. Or, ask them to think of a safe place in which they feel happy and calm, and then bring up images from that safe place whenever they feel angry. These visualization practices may also be used as part of professional anger management for teens.


Help for Teenagers with Anger Issues?

Teens with mild anger management issues may benefit from attending a few sessions with a counselor. In these sessions, they’ll learn the fundamentals of staying calm when under fire. Therapists might ask them to count to 10, walk around the block, or chew gum when they’re starting to feel angry. They might practice expressing their emotions in ways that aren’t negative or violent.


A therapist will also guide a teen to focus on the source of the anger, learning more about why they get so angry and what they can do when they feel anger coming on. Some therapists use teenage anger management worksheets to help adolescents identify their triggers and figure out what works best to help them calm down.


Anger management can take some time to implement successfully, but it is also essential to know if there is a deeper issue, such as a mental health disorder. If a teen is irritable, short-tempered, or getting angry often because they are depressed or anxious, have bipolar disorder, or are struggling with untreated trauma, parents need to get them the professional help they need.


Courtesy of Newport Healthcare


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