Written by Michael Richardson
Teenage anger is bewildering. Parents often approach it like a Stonehenge of human behavior: We aren’t sure why or how, but it’s there.
While parenting teenagers will never be easy, much of a teenager’s anger issues can be explained, understood and resolved in a productive way.
Sources of Anger
One of the first things parents must understand is that the teenage experience today in the digital world is starkly different than the teenage world of decades past, according to Clair Mellenthin, psychotherapist at Wasatch Family Therapy.
Communication is one of the central differences. Teen-talk today is much faster and often more direct than in decades past, which can cause conflict, or at least a disconnect.
For example, if a parent calls their teen, the teen might not pick up the phone; instead, they may respond with a text. The parent may feel rejected or dismissed because they weren’t able to speak directly, but the teen views this communication differently and actually does the same thing to close friends all the time. It is just the way teens communicate.
“They live in such a fast paced world,” Mellenthin says. “They’re used to everything being instantaneous.”
Whether it’s a TV show, the latest news or an address, teens of today, also called Millenials, can find it within seconds. So when things aren’t instantaneous, they get frustrated, notes Mellenthin.
But this isn’t to say evolving forms of communication are simply different. In some very critical ways, they are worse. With the digital age came decreased emphasis on interpersonal skills like assertiveness and eye-contact, meaning that teens are often ill-equipped to deal with conflict when it does arise. Parents need to be aware of this and do all they can to demonstrate the correct ways to deal with conflict.
Media, in general, presents messages and enticements that greatly affect teens as well. Kathleen Hofer, LPC, of Wasatch Family Therapy explained that media has vastly different motives than parents and is often much more effective at reaching the teenage mind.
“The mass media has the goal of making money from teenagers, while parents have the goal of producing happy well-adjusted adults from teenagers,” she says. “These two goals are not compatible.”
Furthermore, there are other factors that parents must be aware of, Hofer explains. Some sources of teen-parent anger have been around forever and have more to do with the natural priorities of each side than with generational changes.
“The adult’s job is to protect children,” Hofer says. “The adolescent’s job is to explore identity and values. These different tasks have always created tension in the parent-adolescent relationship.”
The problem is compounded further when considering the timing and the changing role of authority, she says. While parents are important models for their kids, teens of all ages often don’t reverence authority figures, making them eerily similar to virtually every generation in the past. Teen-parent disconnect is a proverbial theme echoed throughout the ages of art and music. From Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to James Dean’s characteristic role in Rebel Without a Cause, the message is clear: teens have rarely embraced authority, whether they are chanting Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” or Will Smith’s “Parent’s Just Don’t Understand!” Still, the communication chasm isn’t as wide as we perceive; at least, not in the long run. Whoever said it, it’s true: “There is nothing wrong with today’s teenager that twenty years won’t cure.“
But still, there is some scientific explanation for this conflict that suggests some real differences in today’s teen. For instance, puberty is starting younger, around age 8-10, which brings sexual feelings and experiences before being emotionally able. The changing body can be a spark for conflict, notes Mellenthin.
“The whole physical being is in a period of rapid growth,” she says, which makes it easy for balance to be disrupted.
The factor of brain development is a huge piece of parenting education that is often left out, she says. The brain is still developing until the age of 25 for boys and 23 for girls. The frontal lobe’s development is of special importance because it’s the part of the brain that connects cause and effect (hence why teenagers might seem to mindlessly take risks or simply forget to turn in yesterday’s completed homework assignments). The bottom line here is that a developing brain can cause a lot of confusion and, at times, emotional upheaval.
Differences aside, teenagers actually get mad for many of the same reasons that anyone else gets mad. It is a time of confusing transitions in education, finances and relationships. When the status quo gets disrupted, a change in temper is normal, as teenagers know full well. Pressures combine, and teenagers find different ways to cope, some of which aren’t healthy.
Why Anger is Okay
Perhaps anger is simply a normal emotional response to perceived injustice and can be expressed in a healthy way.
“Anger is simply power waiting to be directed,” Hofer says. “We are stronger, not weaker, when we channel legitimate anger and use it as a power source to solve the problems we are angry about.”
In fact, it can be bad if a teen doesn’t express anger. Both parents and teens will feel it, but healthy anger, when expressed, leaves the person in charge and not just a pawn of emotion, according to Hofer.
Another positive side to teen-parent conflict, writes Marie Hartwell-Walker, EdD, on psychcentral.com, is that it shows caring from each side.
“Believe it or not, the intensity of feelings can be a hopeful sign,” she writes. “People who fight with each other still care what the other person thinks and still want to have impact and influence on each other.”
In the classic communication vs. misunderstanding scene in the 1996 movie ‘Jerry McGuire’, Cuba Gooding’s over-the-top NFL wide receiver character shouts out to Tom Cruise, playing McGuire, “That’s the difference between you and me….You think we’re fighting, and I think we’re finally talking!”
Energetic exchanges may signify that people still care. The real trouble may begin with the use of the word ‘whatever’. People who give up on each other and no longer care are the toughest to “pull back from disaster,” writes Hartwell-Walker.
What Parents Can Do
Just because there are good reasons for getting angry doesn’t mean being upset is always acceptable. Parents can help their teenagers learn to cope with frustration and pressure in a healthy way.
Parents must be sure to not hypocritically behave in the same ways they are trying to teach their teens to avoid. It’s difficult to teach tolerance and composure under pressure when the parent is easily prone to addressing conflict through shouting and violence.
“Children and adolescents often mirror their parents’ emotional state, as if they have built in radars,” Hofer says. “The most common statement I make to parents of child and adolescent clients is, ‘The best way to help your child is to help yourself.’”
If you want your teen to handle stress and conflict admirably, do so yourself. Here are some healthy habits parents can develop:
- Be wise in initiating conversation.
Before you initiate any conversation with a teen, consider the context of the situation. If the teen is angry, irritable or feeling rebellious, it probably isn’t a good time to talk.
- Balance positive and negative input.
We know teenagers can border on being insufferable, but focus more on the successes of a child than the failures. Nagging is easy to do and sometimes feels necessary, but be sure it is.
- Value fairness.
Consequences should not be decided in the moment because teens will likely label them as unfair. Establish rules and consequences early, and make sure you enforce those consequences when appropriate. This helps place the weight of the matter on the teen’s head rather than your own.
Parent-teen conflicts often start because each side is battling for power. Establishing rules can help avoid these battles. That said, compromise can be a good thing.
- Start young.
Teenagers sometimes won’t respond to authority and won’t take no for an answer. To parents, this may be an awful surprise of emerging adulthood, but according to Don Fontenelle, PhD, author of Keys to Parenting Your Teenager, early family trends may be partially to blame.
“Some of these adolescents have been in control of the family since they were young,” he writes. “The child determined the routines and activities in the home more than the parents.”
Establishing control early in childhood will help teens respond better to authority.
Most teenagers admit to having anger attacks, according to abcnews.go.com, but 1 out of 12 teenagers have what is called intermittent explosive disorder (IED), characterized by uncontrollable fits of rage.
“It’s an enormous problem that mental health professionals have not taken seriously,” said Ronald Kessler, a psychiatric epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston who studies IED, to ABC News.
Fits of rage will last 10 to 20 minutes. The disorder is especially dangerous because of the danger it poses for the individual and those surrounding him or her. It also can have devastating influences on employment and marriages.
The disorder most often occurs in men, but causes are not clear, nor is effective treatment established. IED often comes with anxiety, depression or substance abuse, and children exposed to violence may be a greater risk developing the disorder.
Predicting and Fixing An Outburst
Here are some signs of hidden anger, from Hofer:
- Sarcasm, cynicism, sadistic humor.
- Apathy, fatigue, stomach ulcers, isolation.
- Clenched jaws, grinding teeth, insomnia, emotional eating.
- Procrastination, lateness, passive aggression.
- Overly polite, smiling while hurting, self-harm.
- Depression (adolescent depression often manifests as anger), loss of sense of humor.
Every teen will break down some time. Here is how to best communicate when it happens:
- Take the teens words seriously, but not personally.
- Don’t snap, don’t retaliate, and never be physical in anger.
- Use a calm, professional tone, listen and don’t be argumentative.
- Connect first emotionally and express understanding, but maintain authority.
- Recognize that walking away could be better than confrontation.