Teens and Anger
How parents can model healthy coping skills
Teenage anger is a thing of legend. The stereotype of the eye-rolling, door slamming rebellious adolescent is often played for laughs, but for parents dealing with the real thing, it’s anything but funny. Bitter outbursts, unpredictable mood swings, and frequent battles about everything from school to friends to clothes to who’s going to set the table can leave parents feeling like they’re walking on eggshells.
And teenage anger is having a moment. Because, if we’re honest, there’s a lot for teenagers to feel angry about right now. The pandemic has caused a year of frustration and disruption. No school (well sure, the work part but none of the socializing), no hang outs, no parties, no dating. Endless time spent on screens and cooped up with family. Stress about getting into college. Add to that the greater issues adolescents are facing: The ongoing fight against racial injustice, fears about climate change, and uncertainty about what the future holds.
It’s okay to be angry
Anger, says Lauren Allerhand, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “Anger is an important part of our emotional lives,” she says. “But anger gets a bad rap because the urges that come with it — yelling, fighting, being unkind to others — can be destructive and upsetting.”
Parents should strive to see teenage anger not as something to be dispelled or overcome but as a normal part of being a person. “Our job is to help kids understand that it’s okay to feel angry,” she says. In the right circumstances, like when it drives us to strive for social change, anger can be motivating. “Being angry doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you, it just means you have to find a way to deal with those feelings.” The goal, she says, shouldn’t be to stop teens from feeling anger, but to help them find safer, less harmful, and even productive ways of expressing it.
Finding healthy ways to process anger can be a challenge even for the most mature of adults, but for teenagers biology creates an extra layer of difficulty.Though on the outside teens may basically seem like (and insist they are) grownups, their brains and bodies are still growing. “The prefrontal cortex, which is the part of our brains involved in problem solving and impulse control, isn’t fully developed until your mid-to-late twenties,” says Dr. Allerhand. Adolescents are also flush with hormones like testosterone and estrogen, which can have a significant impact on mood. When kids make impulsive decisions or seem like they’re overreacting to small provocations it can be helpful to remember that they’re biologically less equipped to manage overwhelming feelings — like anger — than adults.
Helping kids learn to talk about what’s causing their anger can be hugely important. True, some teenage snippiness can be chalked up to the developmentally appropriate (if annoying for parents) task of separating from parents (You like that? I hate it!).
But anger can also belie serious problems. Irritability, mood swings, or outbursts may be symptoms of disorders like anxiety and depression. Reactions to trauma or negative experiences with which kids feel unable to cope can also surface as bursts of temper. Even less significant struggles, like trouble at school, or problems with friends or relationships can masquerade as anger, especially if kids lack the tools to investigate and articulate their feelings.
So what should parents do?
If you notice your teenager has been angrier or more irritable than usual, don’t skirt the issue. Instead, let them know you’ve noticed something is wrong and invite them to talk when they’re ready. “I can tell you’re feeling upset. I’d really like to help. Can we make time to talk?” If your child seems resistant, take a step back and wait, says Colin De Miranda, ACSW, a clinical social worker at the Child Mind Institute. “Leave the door open but don’t force it. Instead I’d recommend saying something like, “I can see you’re really angry right now and it doesn’t look like you want to talk. I’ll be in the other room when you’re ready.”
Validate and show respect
When your child is ready to talk let them know you take their feelings seriously. “The absolute number one thing is validation,” says Dr. Allerhand. “Our emotions are a communication tool. They let the other people know how we feel and help us get our needs met.” Teenage problems can seem silly or overdramatic to adults, but to your child, the feelings they cause are real and painful. When your child expresses anger about something, be careful not to minimize or dismiss it. Instead, acknowledge how they’re feeling — “That sounds so upsetting”— and do your best to ask questions and listen without passing judgement or trying to “solve” the problem.
It can also be hard not to feel frustrated when your teenager’s anger, as it may often be, is directed at you. But even when kids are being incredibly difficult, they’re still relying on you to be the calmer influence and to let them know that how they’re feeling matters to you. Taking a moment to really acknowledge their emotional experience can also help defuse the situation says Dr. Allerhand. “It’s hard to stay mad when someone really sincerely says, ‘I understand how you’re feeling. I’m here to help.’ ”
Check in with yourself
But let’s be real. It is hard to be your best self under pressure. Nobody likes being yelled at or having a door slammed in their face. Parents are only human and teenagers can be infuriating. It’s normal to feel frustrated, confused or, you know, furious. But kids (yes, even teenagers) look to parents for cues on how to behave. And as with so much of parenting, helping kids learn the skills they need to cope with anger, is more about showing, not telling.
“One thing that’s often really hard for parents to recognize when they’re trying to manage their kids’ anger is the role their own emotions play,” says De Miranda. This doesn’t mean parents can’t, or shouldn’t, get angry, he says. “But it does mean that how you handle it when you do get mad is a huge part of the message you’re sending.”
Checking in with yourself is key to responding effectively, especially when you’re already feeling frustrated.
- Be conscious of your body language and tone. How you say things can matter just as much as what you’re saying. For example, “I’m sorry you’re feeling so frustrated” sounds good on paper, but if you’re saying it through gritted teeth you’re unlikely to get a good response.
- Practice mindfulness skills, like deep breathing, counting to ten, or taking a walk to clear your head. And let your teenager see you doing it.
Take a break
It can be tempting to charge headlong into an argument, but realistically, no one is at their best when they’re angry. If you or your teen are struggling to keep your temper during an exchange, don’t press it. Instead, model healthy coping skills by choosing to take a break until you’ve cooled off. Be open and clear about your reason for pausing the conversation. For example, “You know, I really want to talk this through with you, but I can tell I’m just too frustrated for it to be productive right now. Let’s both take some time to cool down and we’ll come back to it when we’re feeling calmer.”
Come back to the conversation when you’re both feeling less upset. You’ll not only be giving yourself, and your teenager, a better chance at saying what you really mean, you’ll also be demonstrating the value of learning how to deescalate.
When to seek help
Anger, frustration, irritation, even rage are all a normal part of being a person. And teenagers are prone to intense feelings, but if your teen’s anger is having an outsized, negative impact on their life, it may be time to seek some help.
“Anytime that there’s consistent violence or consistent aggression that just can’t be stifled or doesn’t really necessarily correlate with the stimulus — for example if the explosions are really out of proportion for what’s going on — those are red flags,” says De Miranda. Likewise, anger that seems to come out of nowhere or is persistent, regardless of what’s going on may be a sign of something more serious.
“Everyone’s threshold is going to be different,” says Dr. Allerhand. “But if a child’s anger is impacting their ability to function, or having a serious impact on the family at large, or there’s concern about physical harm, like getting into fights or hurting themselves or others, that’s when it’s time to seek outside help.”
Remember the good
That said, our clinicians caution parents to remember that this past year has been unusually difficult for teenagers (and everyone else) and that our collective ability to cope with stress has been taxed to breaking point.
“We could all benefit from practicing a little acceptance,” says De Miranda. “This has been such a hard time, especially for teenagers. I think it is really important that parents recognize that even though it may not look like it, their kids are trying. And that while they may blow up, it has more to do with their brain development and their ability to control chemical signals and the extraordinary amount of stress we’ve all been facing than anything else.”
It can be easy, he says, for parents to become over-focused on the bad and the mad, and forget to honor the good moments. Dr. Allerhand agrees. “Something simple we can do is to remember that we’re all doing the best we can given the current situation and our skillset.”
Finding ways to give a little space and a little grace, and being intentional about acknowledging and enjoying good moments with your teenager will help you both feel more connected and give you both something to come back to when blowups inevitably do happen.