Posted by Farah Kadhim on April 18, 2023
By Farah Kadhim
Picture this: Your teenager comes home from school. You are excited to see them. You walk over to give them a hug and ask them how their day went. You are met with eye rolling, yelling, and aloud “leave me ALONE.”
Anger is an emotion that every child, teenager, and adult experiences. It is an appropriate emotional response to an experience that is threatening, unjust, or upsetting. When expressed in a healthy way, anger can tell us a lot about how we’re feeling, and even motivate us to change and problem-solve.
Many teenagers find it difficult to express their anger in a way that does not hurt themselves or the people around them. Teenagers often express anger by yelling, shouting, swearing, hitting, or shutting down. This can be stressful for the teen and for families. It is almost always confusing and distressing for parents.
Teenagers get angry for all the same reasons that adults do, but often experience it more intensely. They are going through an intense period of development, involving hormonal, physical, and social changes. In terms of brain development, the emotional part of their brain (the limbic system) is actually one of the first parts to develop, while the logical part (the prefrontal cortex) is years away from fully forming. This makes them more prone to experiencing intense emotions, impulsivity, and risk-taking behaviours, while simultaneously not being able to find ways to express or manage these big feelings. They simply lack the tools to help them navigate their anger. Also, their bodies are producing hormones such as estrogen and testosterone, and they are experiencing new stressors including, peer and cultural pressure, family conflict, and academic expectations. Taken together, these factors contribute to teenagers experiencing anger more intensely and frequently than any other age group.
Anger has been defined as a Secondary Emotion And Not A Primary One. A primary emotion is an initial feeling that is usually instinctual, whereas a secondary emotion is an emotion that arises as a response to another underlying (primary) emotion. This means that underneath the anger, teenagers are often experiencing emotions such as hurt, frustration, powerlessness, shame, sadness, etc. It often feels safer for teens to express feelings of anger, then to show vulnerable feelings like sadness and hurt. When parents Name and Validate Primary Emotions, it can help teens understand their emotions better and make them feel safer about communicating the root cause of their anger.
1. Stay calm by PAUSING before reacting. This is the single most important step. When your teenager is feeling angry or is shouting/yelling, it can be easy to get dysregulated and feel angry too. When we’re angry, it makes it difficult to support our upset or emotional teenager. Take as long as you need – pause, breathe, self-regulate. Communicate to your teen that you need a few moments. By doing this, you are role modeling how you’re managing yourself and your feelings.
If you find it difficult to do this or find yourself often feeling anxious, angry, or upset at your teenager, consider reaching out to an experienced therapist. This can be an opportunity to help you understand your reactions and the emotions that underlie them. You can learn how to better show up for your child.
2. Name and validate the anger (even when you don’t understand it). You might be having a conversation with your teen over dinner when you notice your teen is suddenly very angry and is shouting back at you. In this moment, your teen’s pre-frontal lobe becomes shut off, which impairs their ability to respond to reason. It is not helpful to reason or apply logic to the situation. Instead, appeal to the emotional part of your teens brain by naming the anger and validating it. Remember, the angry feeling is always valid. Even though this instance might not have made you angry, something about it is making your teen upset. You can validate their anger by saying something like “I can see something about this conversation is making you angry. It’s understandable to have a range of emotions (including anger) when you’re talking with someone.”.
3. Set boundaries. Even though it is okay to feel angry, it is important to set boundaries on ways that anger is expressed. We can validate our teen’s angry feelings without accepting violent or aggressive behavior. For example, “I’m noticing you’re feeling angry about not being able to play more videogames. It is also important to know that shouting/hitting your sibling/cursing/etc. is not acceptable.”
4. Lean in with curiosity and empathy to understand the primary emotions underlying the anger. After validating your teen’s anger and setting boundaries, you can ask questions about what made them feel angry: “Can you help me understand what is making you feel upset lately?” or “I’m curious what made you feel upset right now?” If your teen opens up, you have an opportunity to understand more about what they are experiencing. Was there a misunderstanding? Did they have a tough day at school? Did they feel hurt or powerless in this situation? Once you understand the primary emotion, it can help you name and validate what is really going on. For example, you can say, “Ah, so you were actually feeling hurt by the comments your brother made, that’s understandable. It’s ok for you to express when you’re feeling hurt.”
If your teenager does not know how they’re feeling or does not want to talk about it… that’s okay and a very common experience. This brings us to the next step.
5. If your teenager needs space, give it to them. One of the hardest things to do as a parent is to see your child’s upset and not investigate further. Giving your teenager space can help them process their emotions and figure out ways to manage their anger on their own. You can let them know you respect their need for space and that you will revisit what happened at a later time.
1. Encourage healthy ways to express anger. There are lots of great ways teens can release their buildup of anger such as:
● Engaging in physical activity (sports, walking, running)
● Punching a punching bag or pillow to let out frustration
● Change the mood by watching a funny video
● Using creative outlets such as drawing, painting, writing or listening to music
● Talking it out with friends or family members
2. Find ways to connect with your teen. Set specific times or shared activities where you and your teen can connect and talk about how they are doing in general. If your teen feels safe enough to open up about the root of their anger, you are more able to help them navigate healthier ways of expressing this anger during moments of distress.
3. Offer to help by suggesting therapy. Therapy can be a great tool that helps teens learn a framework for understanding their anger. They can better understand what triggers their negative feelings and find new ways of coping when overcome with anger.
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