Keys to Understanding Teenage Anger

Angry disaffected youth. It is an image or stereotype that has become so commonly associated with teenagers that it has become unhelpful.  While not wanting to perpetuate unhelpful and inaccurate perceptions of adolescence, anger is a genuine experience of being a teenager.

Many people associate anger as something to be avoided or feared.  Extreme expressions of anger can lead to harmful and scary actions. For those who have been traumatised by the anger of others, or even their own, such fear is understandable.

However fear of anger can lead to suppressing, avoiding, or punishing all expressions of anger.  When dealing with teens this approach is not helpful or healthy.  Teens will get angry, sometimes appropriately other times not.  When fear or disapproval govern our response to teenage anger we do not serve or help young people grow and develop and ultimately will just produce more anger.

Rather than trying to avoid teenage anger, adults will help themselves and teens by seeking to understand why teenagers get angry.

Anger is usually a response to a perceived violation of our values or well being.  This can be focused at ourselves, others, or the circumstances of life. Anger can also get mixed up with a lot of other emotions. It can be confusing to understand our own anger, even more so to comprehend the anger of adolescence.

In the rest of this post I will address some of the basic factors that contribute to teenage anger.

They Are Growing Up

It should not be surprising that teenagers get angry. Firstly because they are human and it is a normal human emotion.

Secondly the key task of adolescence is to develop their own sense of autonomy, or self management.  As they strive to establish this self governing identity it is not uncommon for them to feel aggrieved, or angry, at adults who they perceive to be undermining their desire for independence.

The wrestle with parents and other adult authority figures over control often sparks strong feelings of resentment and injustice which can manifest as anger in young teens. This is a common context for anger to occur in parent teen relationships.

When teenage anger sparks parental or adult anger conflict can very quickly become unproductive. Adults need to take responsibility for being adults in these contexts and either control their own anger or choose to delay the encounter until both parties have calmed down.

Anger is the Tip of the Iceberg

Its important to remember anger is commonly not about anger.  Rather anger is the outward expression that gives voice to other more vulnerable emotions.  Just as the visible  tip of the iceberg above the water belies the extensive mass of ice beneath, so too anger is the visible demonstration of other emotions such as helplessness, fear, sadness, or worthlessness.

Teenagers can find the assertive expression of anger to be safer than exposing other vulnerable feelings.  Similarly adolescence can be a swirling mix of strong emotion which can be hard for the teen to sort through. Often angry outbursts are a release of general emotional frustration.

Asking teenagers what else they are feeling can often help move a conversation in a more helpful direction. Helping the teen process and express the hurt or disappointment that is beneath their anger will take a lot of the power away from the force of the anger and create space to find constructive ways forward.

It’s The Meaning That Matters

Incidents and events in and of themselves don’t make people angry, it’s the meaning people attach to incidents that matter.  Two people may witness the same event, but each interpret its meaning differently, with only one person becoming angry.  Others cannot make us angry, it is only as we attach meaning to the acts and words of others that we become angry.

This commonly occurs with teenagers as their ability to correctly interpret the actions or intentions of others is hampered by their still developing brain. The part of their brain that responds instinctively develops ahead of the more rational frontal cortex.  Hence teens will often respond to incidents with raw instinct rather than a more considered evaluation of events.

Helping teenagers to choose how they think about and interpret a situation can reduce anger levels significantly.  By helping teens to understand that certain acts may have been unintentional, or well intentioned but badly thought through, anger can be diffused and attention given to constructive resolution.

Expressing What They Know

The old saying “monkey, see monkey do” also has some bearing on teenage anger. Children and teens learn about expressing emotion from observing the adults who care for them. For many young people the range of emotional expression that they see displayed by significant adults in their lives is limited.

When teens have grown up seeing all negative emotion expressed as anger then whenever they feel any negative or unpleasant emotion they will express it as anger. For boys particularly emotional vulnerability is not validated by peers or adults, but anger is seen as acceptable and even preferable.

Adults who model that it is okay to be sad or hurt as well as angry serve young people well. Encouraging young people to identify and suitably express negative emotions beyond just anger gives permission and validation for teens to be more than angry.

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