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The Mask of Anger

Heather Page

Mother and daughter“Why is my teen so angry?” is a common question raised by parents as their previously even-tempered child’s mood starts to vacillate between apathy and moodiness. This period can be particularly challenging for parents who are resolved to believe their child is just being defiant or may take their child’s behavior personally. However, the following possibilities should be considered to inform next steps.

Is my teen depressed? When people think of depression they often think of crying spells and low mood. Although those are consistent with depression in teens, depression tends to present differently, as depressed teens often appear angry. Teens are much more prone to emotional outbursts, frustration and hostility than adults because they lack the emotional regulation skills to manage their feelings in healthier ways. Additionally, admitting to feelings of sadness can be particularly vulnerable for teens and they may view anger as a more appropriate expression of their feelings. Moreover, teens who experience bullying in addition to all the other challenges during this time are particularly at risk. Teens who are bullied can experience feelings of loneliness, low self-esteem, and fear, which can have significant impacts on their well-being. Furthermore, the hormonal changes teens experience may make them more susceptible to emotional wear-and-tear.  It can be challenging for parents to differentiate depression from typical teenage angst since irritability and moodiness tend to be features of normal adolescence. While anger is a normal emotion, when you start noticing marked differences in your teen’s attitude and behaviors professional help might be warranted. Be mindful of changes such as lashing out, making verbal threats, becoming destructive, and engaging in physical violence that cause significant distress and problems across settings (e.g. home, school social life).

Is my teen asserting their independence? Adolescence is characterized by a period of identity development and learning how to navigate the world independent of parents. For that reason, adolescence can be marked by feelings of frustration and confusion. It should come as no surprise that this can be a difficult period for the parent-child relationship as children are attempting to pull away from their parents and parents feel like they still have so much to teach their children. This push-and-pull dynamic is often seen as negative by parents, but perhaps reframing this stage as assertiveness building would be helpful. Parents should model and encourage assertiveness as a way for their child to express their feelings in an effective and non-threatening way. Assertiveness training can be beneficial in helping teens channel their frustrations into something that works for them instead of against them. Professional services can be an invaluable resource to help teens learn the assertiveness skills necessary to navigate the journey that lies ahead.

Is my child stressed? Adolescence can be a particularly tumultuous stage for teens when they are dealing with challenges such as graduating from high school, entering the workforce, starting college and being away from home for the first time. This stress and uncertainty can be overwhelming for teens which can manifest into anger.  Simply talking to teens and helping them brainstorm solutions to their problems can be helpful in this regard.

What can parents do?

  • Keep the lines of communication open. Having a safe, non-judgmental person that teens can talk to is critical. It provides them with someone they can express their frustrations with that will validate their experience.
  • Give teens space to assert their independence and form their identities. Identity formation is a huge part of adolescence and being given the latitude to figure out what kind of person they want to be is essential.
  • Give teens space to make mistakes. It is inevitable that with emotions and tensions running high, teens are going to make mistakes. However, each mistake is an opportunity for growth and making amends, a skill that will be useful in adulthood.
  • Seek professional services for your child if needed. Sometimes problems related to anger are beyond the scope of parents’ skill set. In these instances, it is best to rely on the expertise of professionals who can give your child the necessary skills to manage their emotions in healthy ways.

While anger is a normal emotional response to stress, it is imperative that teens learn healthy coping mechanisms before they reach adulthood. Most importantly, teens need to know that it is not wrong or bad to feel angry, but when that anger consumes them or controls their actions, it becomes problematic. Anger is rarely about defiance and almost always a mask for something else going on in the child’s ecosystem. Anger should not be dismissed as normal growing pains, but rather it should be used as an alert system that a child may be in need of something they are not getting, whether it be tools to cope with their emotions, social support, or both.

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