Angry Teens and Cooling Emotions

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With social stress, academic strains and hormonal commotion, it’s no wonder that all teenagers experience anger. By itself, the emotion is a natural feeling and response to stresses. It’s more often the behaviors that result from anger that become problematic.

As a family physician and father of four, I’ve witnessed the full spectrum of anger, from off-the-cuff outbursts to destructive defiance to rightfully worrisome isolation. Just as each teenager is unique, each teen’s anger instigators and choice of reaction are also unique. I’ve noticed that one of my teenage daughters experiences the most intense feelings when she’s overtired, has unpleasant social interactions or is troubled with school or sports.

Spotting anger trends allows parents to anticipate their teenagers’ needs and assists parents as they teach anger management. Staring into the inflamed eyes of an angry teen who is lashing out can stir up equally intense feelings in any adult, but it’s important to remember that though the teenager is often as tall as an adult, he or she is still mentally and emotionally immature.

I often remind parents that this is all part of the adolescent developmental process. Though the intense emotion of anger may initially feel out of control, parental reaction to anger should set an example by remaining calm, cool and collected. Laying a foundation of frequent and cheerful communication during everyday interactions helps parents when it’s time to address an emotional explosion.

The first step to teaching anger management is self-awareness. Successfully pointing out a teen’s anger requires control, tact and not a drip of sarcasm from parents. Try empathetically saying, “In the world we live in, we can’t behave like that.” Then, coach the teen by asking questions to correctly identify the anger’s roots. Most likely, teens won’t answer on the first try – that’s normal too – but parents can keep lines of communication open by asking the question several ways and sticking with it.

When a breakthrough happens, and teens share their thoughts and feelings, it’s vital for parents to respond without judgment or immediate reaction. Providing a safe place to talk not only provides solutions to immediate problems, but also helps future stresses.

Wrap up the conversation with suggestions for how to react to anger next time, such as walking away, taking a deep breath or counting to 10 before speaking.

Although anger is a normal emotion, abnormal reactions raise red flags of warning. For example, one of my patients was an outgoing teen athlete who became isolated and angry. His parents were rightfully worried and wondered if substance abuse was the cause. During our appointment, I learned that the teen had become fearful of being in public, and I diagnosed him with a social anxiety disorder. Between 20 and 30 percent of teens with anger also are dealing with depression, anxiety or substance abuse; that’s why I suggest all parents who witness extreme anger behavior – from defiant violence to seclusion from parents, friends and teachers – to schedule an appointment with a physician.

Mark Collins, MD, is a family practitioner at Cotswold Medical Clinic Arboretum.