Note: Even though I share information on teens and anger, the information below can be applied to any age.
Teenage anger is a thing of legend. The stereotype of the eye-rolling, door-slamming rebellious adolescent is often played for laughs, but parents deal 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 hangouts, no parties, no dating. Endless time spent on screens and cooped up with family.
What is important to remember is that anger isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Anger is an integral part of our emotional lives, but anger gets a bad rap because the urges that many times come with it — yelling, fighting, being unkind to others — can be destructive and upsetting.”
We need to see teenage anger, or anger at any age, not as something to be dispelled or overcome but as a normal part of being a person. It is okay to feel angry. It can even be beneficial in many cases, like when it drives us to strive for social change; anger can be motivating. What I tell my clients (or parents of my clients) is that we need to find a way to deal with anger. The objective should not stop someone from feeling angry but from helping 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 seem like (and insist they are) grownups, their brains and bodies are still growing. We use to believe that the brain is fully developed by age 18. Through advancement in science and technology, we now know that 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. Adolescents are also flush with hormones like testosterone and estrogen, which can significantly impact mood. When kids make impulsive decisions or seem like they’re overreacting to minor 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.
If you notice your teenager, or another loved one, 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.
Always take the person’s feelings seriously. The best thing a person can do is validate the other person’s feelings. Emotion is a way of communication. Teenage problems can seem silly or overdramatic to adults, but the feelings they cause are real and painful to teenagers. When someone expresses anger about something, be careful not to minimize or dismiss it. Instead, acknowledge how they’re feeling and do your best to ask questions and listen without passing judgment or trying to “solve” the problem.
It can also be hard not to feel frustrated when the person’s anger is directed at you. This is so often the case with teenagers. But even when kids are challenging, they’re still relying on you to be the calmer influence and let them know that how they’re feeling matters to you. Taking a moment to acknowledge their emotional experience can also help defuse the situation. It’s hard to stay mad when someone sincerely says, ‘I understand how you’re feeling. I’m here to help.”
All this being said, we all need 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 benefit from practicing a little acceptance and finding ways to give a little space and a little grace, and intentional about acknowledging and enjoying good moments with others.
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