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Parenting the Angry Adolescent

The trials of growing up can create more to get mad about.

Key points

  • Anger can identify violations of one's well-being and energize expressive, protective, or corrective action.
  • Anger is triggered by an act of judgment that what occurred should not have happened.
  • Parents can help their adolescent manage anger.
Source: Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D.

Anger, be it in adolescents or adults, is hard to write about because the management of anger is so complex. So, consider one way to think about why this feeling is valuable, and then how it can increase with the onset of adolescence.

Why anger?

In most cases, anger performs two valuable functions.

  • First, it patrols experience for violations of one’s personal well-being; it focuses attention.
  • Second, it energizes an expressive, protective, or corrective response; it motivates action.

Anger is usually triggered by an act of judgment about what is going on. Anger declares what happened shouldn’t have occurred (“You betrayed my trust!”) or that what didn’t happen should have occurred (“You never told me!”)

The more judgmental a person is, the more inclined to anger they are: “I need to have everything done the right way!” Such people can be too angry for their own good: “Every little wrong sets me off!” Ongoing anger can feel taxing and stressful. The person can be prone to temper.

The less judgmental a person is, the less inclined to anger they are: “Just going along with whatever happens is OK.” Such people can be too accepting for their own good: “I take whatever treatment I get; I have no complaints.” Incapacity for anger can leave a person undefended. The person can tolerate mistreatment.

So, anger responds to a perceived violation of one’s well-being: “That was wrong!” “You broke your promise!” “You lied!” “You didn’t listen to me!” “You really hurt me!” And, second, anger directs a response: “We need to talk about what happened, why it happened, and how it needs not to happen again.”

Anger feels right to feel wronged

To the good, anger patrols emotional well-being and can be positively empowering when it energizes some healthy self-preserving response: “This is unfair!” “I need to stop that!” “I should be treated differently!” So, anger can be constructive.

To the bad, however, it can be oversensitive and overreact, taking personally what is not personally meant. Turning grievance into hostility, it can justify doing harm: “I’ll get you back!” “I’ll get my way!” “I’ll show the world!” So anger can be destructive.

It’s tricky: Anger as resolve can set things right, but anger as rage can justify violence. The use and abuse of anger can make it a hard emotion to get right.

Now consider this challenging emotion as it tends to increase with the onset of adolescence.

Anger in adolescence

Contrasted with the generally cheerful child that was, when the coming-of-age passage gets underway, starting around ages 9 to 13, parents often describe living with a more easily angered adolescent.

What do parents notice? Many are the terms they use: more temperamental, discontented, restless, grumpy, complaining, sensitive, argumentative, touchy, moody, grouchy, short-tempered, and sometimes explosive: “Tick…tick…tick, we never know when something’s going to set him off, and neither does he!”

Why might such a youthful change be so?

I believe they can be living around more developmental irritation because the young person is playing constant catch-up with growing physical, emotional, and social change she or he does not control. For example, each day begins with morning mirror misery, confronting the reflection of an awkward and unsatisfactory image of themselves that they must take to school for all to see, assuming others will be as critical as themselves, and sometimes are. Her self-complaint often rules: “I wish I could change how I look!”

The shifting instability of social relationships doesn’t help. Peer relationships can become more political when young people strive to gain and maintain membership place: “To stay ‘in’ with the ‘in’ crowd takes work.” More insecure, more easily hurt, more prone to dissatisfaction, more ready to take offense, some days the young person is operating on a shorter emotional fuse. Sensitive when things go wrong, or they feel wronged, it’s easy to feel cause for angry discontent: “I got teased for what I wore today and everybody laughed!” He had a “bad friend day.”

Absolving anger

Sometimes the young person wishes she or he could stop feeling angry but doesn’t know how to get “un-angry.” Parents can suggest 10 strategies:

  1. Value anger’s objection: “Anger told me I should not have been treated this way.”
  2. Talk hard feelings out: “Just confiding how I’m feeling badly can help me feel better.”
  3. Set right what’s going wrong: “I pushed back against being pushed around and it stopped.”
  4. Let grievances go: “What happened is over, and I don’t have to worry about it anymore.”
  5. Forgive injury: “I said I was hurt, they said they were sorry, and now that’s behind us.”
  6. Reset positive expectations: “Just because things went wrong today doesn’t mean they will tomorrow,”
  7. Focus on what’s going well: “Even though one friend dissed me today, others treated me OK.”
  8. Refuse the temptation of resentment: “It’s easy to hold a grudge, but that just keeps me feeling unhappy.”
  9. Be less judgmental about what happens: “Everything doesn’t have to go just right for me to feel OK.”
  10. Treat anger as a good servant rather than a bad master: “Just because I feel angry doesn’t mean I have to act that way.”

Parents can help

Responding to adolescent anger with parental anger is not a good answer: “Stop acting so mad!” Rather than treating mad as “bad,” encouraging communication with empathetic listening can work better. How?

Understand that adolescent anger is usually a referred emotion that can be in response to a host of unhappy experiences. Adolescent anger can express grievance and feeling emotionally wounded in so many ways. For example, the young person can get angry over feeling embarrassed, shamed, misunderstood, mistreated, rejected, forbidden, forced, betrayed, insulted, disapproved, disappointed, blamed, ridiculed, teased, defeated, bullied, ignored, violated, attacked, or frustrated.

So, help the young person treat anger as a good emotional informant: "When you are becoming angry, that means you feel wronged about something that did or didn't happen. Anger can help identify your sense of violation." However, also caution about how anger can be a bad immediate advisor, provoking unwise impulses or aggression: "Losing your temper or striking back can make a hard situation worse." Because anger can be a good servant, but a bad master, feeling angry is always a good time to stop and think.

As the adolescent grows, life simply gets more complicated to manage. Anger announces that some sense of feeling wronged or some unwanted outcome has occurred. Better to think it out and talk it out than act it out.

More from Carl E Pickhardt Ph.D.
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