Unpacking teenage anger

Parents often struggle with understanding why their teens appear angry.  Anger is defined as a strong sense of displeasure. We experience anger when things do not go the way we want or when something feels unfair. You may ask, “What does my teen have to be displeased about?” 

With changes in hormones, education expectations and social challenges teenage years can be one of the most stressful times. With so many distractions and demands for attention, some teens have a limited ability to manage their stress and emotions. Let’s be clear, there is nothing wrong with anger. The problem is our inability to handle the emotion appropriately.

I have listed three areas that unpack why anger is a common emotion for teens.  This is not meant to tell you why your teen is angry, but provide insight into factors that contribute to the emotion as a whole.

Culture: “Be a man,” “suck it up,” “stop acting like a girl,” “be a lady” - as dated as some of these statements may sound, they are still a part of our culture.  Depending on the context, these statements have been used to shape which expressions of emotions are appropriate based on sex.

In our masculine culture, tears are viewed as weakness and not a part of healing. Have we developed a culture where the mark of a man is to endure without showing pain or sadness?  Have we left out the need to express all types of emotions including sadness, disappointment, or even compassion?

Have you heard the statement that anger is a secondary emotion?  Sometimes this is the case.  Behind anger we may find other emotions that we do not want to reveal like sadness, disappointment or regret. For some teens anger is more of an acceptable emotion to express.

Tip: Although you do not have direct control of every aspect of our greater culture you do have control of the culture you develop in your home. Create a culture where emotions are acceptable. There is nothing wrong with feeling sad or angry. How you respond to these emotions makes all the difference in the world.

Talk to your teen about phrases like “suck it up” or “be a lady.”  Practice unconditional love.  Let your teen know that they can be who they are without fear of losing your love. Be intentional about establishing a culture that is okay to feel.  Encourage your teen to take responsibility for their emotions.

Models:  How do you respond to anger?  How do you show emotions?  Is it acceptable to be angry in my home?  What are your thoughts about being sad or tearful?  Are some emotions acceptable for girls but not for boys?  Take note of your feelings about feelings (meta-emotions).  Paint a detailed picture of the way you model emotions.

We first gain insight on how to express emotions from our caregivers. Think about how your mom or dad handled their emotions. Have you ever told yourself, “I sound like my mother or my father?”  Part of this is genetics, but even more important are the years of modeling you received from your caregivers.

One or two things may happen. You will either find yourself behaving and thinking like a caregiver or push yourself to do the complete opposite. Usually we find ourselves doing a combination of the two. Teens learn how to manage emotions from you. 

Tip:  Be conscious about your emotions.  Find appropriate opportunities to share with your teen times you felt angry or sad and how you handled the situation.  They may pretend like they are not listening, do not fall for it.  I have spoken to teens who want to start yarning when I start to speak. They remember what you say.  Avoid sharing stories where the teen may feel as if they have to choose sides like between you and your spouse. Not only coach teens through handling emotions, but also provide a model. 

Depression:  Irritability is a symptom of depression.  Reflect on when you felt irritable or annoyed. What does an irritable 15-year-old look like?  One-word sentences, explosive or short responses, deep sighs - these are a few signs of irritability.  We think about crying and a sad look as being the image of a depressed person, but what if those emotions are not acceptable to show?  Especially for boys, anger is a more acceptable emotional response to stress or disappointment. 

Tip:  Look for other symptoms that provide insight into deeper issues like isolation, changes in eating habits, change in sleeping schedule, hopelessness, or self-harming. If you notice symptoms, seek to understand first before being understood. Talk openly about feelings of depression. If there has been a recent change or loss, talk openly about your emotions, and open up opportunities for your child to share.  Fill your teen up with encouragement.

If you believe there are deeper concerns, contact a licensed professional

Ben Roberts, LPC-MHSP, NCC, Purposed Life Counseling, Gallatin.


Recommended for you