If You Are the Parent of an Angry Teen, You Are Not Alone
For a lot of people, anger is an unpleasant or even frightening emotion. However, even anger has a purpose. Anger can be motivating. It can show us the things that are important to us. It can give us the strength to act when we need to change.
Problems arise when people are not able to manage their anger in healthy ways. This can be especially true of teens because they are facing new and challenging experiences with fewer life experiences to help them know how to manage and regulate their emotions.
This article provides insights for parents and other concerned adults interested in understanding and helping teens to regulate their emotions. There are also indications when anger is a serious problem, as well as tips for teens themselves.
Anger tends to get a bad reputation as far as emotions go. Being on the receiving end of someone else’s anger sure can be scary. Sometimes, when you get angry, you may even scare yourself.
But the truth is, that anger by itself is not all that bad. The things that make you angry can show you the things that matter to you in life.
By the same extension, observing what makes other people angry can show you what matters to them.
A Toolbox for Handling Difficult Emotions
Anger becomes a problem when people do not know how to handle it.
For all emotions, not just anger, it is important to have a metaphoric toolbox called emotional regulation skills. These emotional regulation skills help people to deal with their feelings in healthy and constructive ways.
Without this toolbox, people are left without ways of managing their emotions. This can be especially difficult when dealing with difficult emotions like anger.
For teens, who have fewer life experiences than adults and are often dealing with new and intense feelings, they might not have all the emotional regulation skills that they need to deal with their feelings in healthy ways.
The good news is that it is never too late to add some new tools to your toolbox. Learning emotional regulation skills can improve relationships for teens, parents, and the whole family.
Warning Signs Your Teen is Struggling with Anger
Just about everyone gets angry sometimes. Anger can direct people to the things that matter to them or even motivate people to make a positive change.
However, when people do not know how to cope with anger in healthy ways, poor anger management can make already difficult situations worse. There are three major warning signs that your teen may not know how to manage anger in healthy ways.
The first sign of poor anger management is aggression. Aggression could be directed towards you, another family member, or your teen may even be directing the aggression towards the teen themselves.
An inability to keep yourself or others safe is a sign of serious anger issues and should be taken seriously. You, your teen, and everyone else has a right to be safe.
Another major sign that your teen has serious anger issues is if your teen is using substances such as drugs or alcohol to cope with or mask their emotions. Unhealthy coping mechanisms such as substance use may lead to greater and greater challenges for your teen and your family.
Finally, some people who are unable to manage difficult emotions such as anger turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms. This may involve avoiding all difficult situations, such as skipping school.
If there is conflict in the home, teens may try to deal with the conflict by self-isolating and hiding in their room. Self-isolation is not a healthy coping skill.
If your teen is exhibiting any of these unhealthy anger coping skills, you may consider addressing these issues with a professional counselor.
Dos and Don’ts for Parents Dealing with Teenage Anger
1. Don’t Rush. Wait Until You Are All Within Your Window of Tolerance.
Of course, teens are not the only people who struggle with anger. Parents and other adults have a difficult time with their anger too.
If you are the parent of an angry teenager, one of the best things that you can do to help is to make sure that you yourself are calm. Some parents think that when a problem arises, they need to deal with that problem immediately.
If someone is in immediate harm or there is an imminent risk to safety, then it is important to handle the situation right away.
However, unless someone is in immediate danger, it may be best to deal with the situation once everyone’s emotions have had a chance to calm down.
Everyone has a certain amount of stress and negative emotions that they are able to cope with and remain functional. That is sometimes called the Window of Tolerance.
Some people are able to cope with more challenging situations. Their Window of Tolerance is larger. Other people may struggle to cope with less complex challenges or negative situations. Their Window of Tolerance is smaller.
Teens have fewer life experiences than adults. They are also beginning to develop more complex emotions. This lack of experience and new emotions make it relatively easy for them to be pushed outside of their Window of Tolerance.
However, everyone—teens and adults—experiences difficulties that put us outside our Window of Tolerance from time to time. When this happens, it becomes a challenge to think clearly, respond rationally, and make healthy decisions.
Basically, if you are outside of your Window of Tolerance then your thinking brain has shut down. You are not able to reason or learn new information. Your lizard brain has taken over.
Your lizard brain is responsible for reactions like fight, flight, or freeze. Brains function this way under stress because these responses are used to help keep people safe from dangerous predators.
However, these same responses are triggered in situations where they are simply not helpful, such as a disagreement with a loved one.
If you would like to have a productive and healthy conversation with your teen—or anyone else—it is best to first make sure that you are all within your Window of Tolerance.
If you or the other person are not within your Window of Tolerance, it may be best to wait. Then everyone involved will be better able to think, listen, and learn.
2. Lead by example and teach your teen co-regulation skills.
If, as a parent, you find yourself outside of your Window of Tolerance and you want to help your teen develop coping skills, you may choose to work on them together.
For example, you could practice deep breathing and have your teen mirror your actions. Then, you are learning to manage your emotions together.
For practices like this to be effective, it is best for you to have developed a habit of these coping skills rather than trying to use them for the first time in emotionally charged situations.
3. Address Shame Before Expecting Accountability.
Most parents understand that it is important for their teens to be accountable and accept responsibility when the teen has done something wrong.
However, some teens are simply not emotionally able to take responsibility. This may extend to being unable to apologize when they have done something wrong.
Teens are highly susceptible to shame. The simple act of apologizing is extremely shame-inducing. They may not be capable of holding themselves together emotionally enough to allow them to take responsibility.
For some people, the idea that they have done something bad means that they themselves are bad. Therefore, they will do almost anything to avoid apologizing and spare themselves shame.
As a parent, if you want to help your teen become more emotionally regulated then you need to address what is beneath the anger. This may mean helping your teen to work through shame or another underlying emotion.
It is useful to think of your teen’s anger like an iceberg. You see the tip of the iceberg above the surface but beneath that, there may be shame, depression, sadness, guilt, and a variety of other emotions.
You cannot move forward with the situation by only addressing the emotion that you see on the surface. The emotions under the surface need to be addressed also.
4. Know When to Give Your Teen Space or Ask for Help.
Regardless of how talented you may be in dealing with difficult emotions, it may be best for you to step aside.
If your teen’s negative emotions are directed at you, they may not be receptive to listening to you regardless of how useful your suggestions are. The best thing you may be able to do is to allow your teen the space to find their own comfort or perhaps find guidance from another trusted adult.
Sometimes parents feel an enormous amount of pressure to be everything for their teen—their support, guide, comforter, teacher, mentor. Some parents feel shame if they cannot be all things to children in all ways.
However, the reality of human beings is that people learn from a variety of different sources. As a parent, you may not be the best resource for your teen to learn everything.
If this happens, trust that there are other adults and caring professionals who are ready to step in and help your teen. This is a responsibility treated with great respect.
Tips for Teens Looking to Learn to Manage Their Anger
1. Remember, You Are the Ocean, Not the Wave.
For teens, dealing with anger and other intense emotions can be frightening. These emotions may even feel like a tsunami threatening to take you under and leave you adrift or drowning.
The truth is that feelings are more like any other wave on the ocean. These waves build, rise, fall, and break. They never last forever.
Watching the waves might be scary sometimes. You might even feel yourself getting swept under. However, every wave passes. Nothing lasts forever.
Feelings are like that too. They can build, rise, fall, and break. They will not last forever and they do not have to break you. Instead of letting yourself get too wrapped up in these waves, you might try to learn how to observe them.
You are not your feelings. You are the one experiencing your feelings. It is just like the ocean is not a single wave. The waves are just happening in the ocean.
With time and practice, you might be able to learn how to ride the waves of your emotions instead of getting swept under by them. You can do this because there is always so much more to you than anything else you might be feeling.
2. Get Curious About Your Anger.
Anger does not happen in isolation. There are always underlying emotions or causes. Being able to recognize emotions is an important step in being able to manage those feelings skillfully.
Questions that people can ask themselves to better understand their anger are:
- What is causing the anger?
- How is anger helping me get my needs met?
- What do I lose when I get angry?
- What are some actionable steps that I can take to address my feelings?
For some people, actionable steps may be deep breathing, meditation, or receiving counseling.
When you understand your feelings, you can begin to take control of them rather than these feelings controlling you.
It is important to have a strategy for dealing with challenging emotions. Difficult emotions will happen. When they do happen, it is important for people to have a toolbox to allow them to deal with those emotions.
You can build your toolbox by exploring deep breathing, mindfulness, and meditation techniques and seeing what works for you.
Looking Beyond the Home and the Community
Most communities have a variety of resources for helping teens to build their emotional management toolbox. These resources may include support groups, anger management counseling services, or therapeutic treatment.
For families looking beyond traditional community resources, they may consider Wilderness Therapy. RedCliff Ascent is a regulated environment. In today’s world, everyone’s nervous systems are overstimulated. There is constant stimulation. For people who are dealing with difficult emotions, such as anger, all of this stimulation may push them over the edge.
As part of wilderness therapy, people are removed from that kind of overstimulation. There are no phones, televisions, or social media.
Being out in nature provides abundant opportunities to reduce stress. Simple actions, like digging your feet into the mud, feeling the sun on your skin, or feeling the wind on your face can be calming.
On the other hand, participating in wilderness activities provides many opportunities to be pushed outside of your comfort zone–or your Window of Tolerance.
In wilderness therapy, at this moment, a teen is being pushed out of their Window of Tolerance. They may be dealing with a challenging hike or adapting to sleeping outdoors. Someone is experiencing more challenges than they know to cope with.
However, there are supportive counselors who are available to help them regulate their emotions. They are also getting support from their peers. They are experiencing stress in a safe and controlled environment. Therefore, they are learning to deal with stress better.
Wilderness therapy also provides teens with access to trained therapists who will help them address the issues underlying their anger.
Anger as a Guide
Rather than being a dreaded thing that people need to eliminate completely, anger is better thought of as a guide. If anger is creating a disruption in the life of someone you love, it is a good indication that that person needs to develop emotional regulation skills.
Remember, anger never happens in isolation. It is always just the tip of the iceberg. It is not possible for a ship to avoid an iceberg by just avoiding the bit above the surface. The same is true for anger. In order for your loved one to heal, it is important to address the feelings that go unseen.
Rather than thinking of anger as something frightening, you might try to think of it as a useful warning sign, a sign prompting you to help your teen find the support they need.