Solve Common Teenage Problems: Anger, Frustration, and Aggression

 

The following is correspondence between parents concerned about the anger and aggression of their young teenage son, (13), and FirstAnswers.com contributing expert, Dr, Scott Seaman. Watch for explanation of the boy's emotions and for ways parents can help their son learn to control aggression and anger–a common teenage problem. Notice the times when the teen is most likely to act out and the characteristics of the behavior:

MOMENTS OF FRUSTRATION OR AGGRESSIONSolve teenage anger and aggression

  • when plans change
  • disappointment
  • asked to do something he doesn't want to do
  • tasks that are not interesting

BEHAVIOR

  • blames others
  • foul language–lashing out verbally
  • intense emotional breakdown
  • talks back
  • unmotivated

 

Question:

"We have a 13-year-old son who we love and is amazing and wonderful in so many ways, but he has a very hard time managing his anger. We are older parents and we adopted him at birth. Our son is active, talented in all sports, a little smaller boned than average, handsome, affectionate, energetic, an A- to B+ student in the 7th grade, very competitive and he feels things deeply and has a reaction to or comment about everything. If a friend can't play, if there is any change in plans, if he is required to do something he doesn't want to do at the moment, he lashes out verbally. Recently a friend changed plans and wasn't able to go to a show with him. He ranted for nearly 30! minutes. He called him every 13-year-old swear word he could think of. It seems to escalate and he isn't able to calm himself. It's getting to the point that it's very disruptive to our family. Actually it has been that way for too long. He talks back to us, especially to me, his mother. (I'm always home. His father is in a job that takes him away most evenings and Saturdays.) He is not disruptive at school but he is obviously not motivated to complete anything that is not convenient to do or interesting. (Perhaps that is just being a boy at age 13.) If anything goes wrong, it's always someone else that is to blame. When he has been especially rude to me, his dad will pick him up and take him with him thus preventing him play time with friends. This helps for a while but his dad can't always break away to come home and get him. My son knows he has a problem with anger. It is getting worse, not better. We feel we need some specific guidance on the anger issue and look forward to your counsel."

 

Answer:

Dear Parent,

Sounds like you’ve been going through the wringer for a while now.  I’m so glad that you can see all of the wonderful things about your son, that’s so important.  I hope you tell him about those things often accompanied with a lot of physical affection!  Verbal and physical praise/affection are two of the most powerful reinforcers there are and need to be used often.

As we all do, children feel a wide range of emotions and face the enormous task of learning what they are, what they feel like, and how to manage them.  This is easier for some, while for others, it’s a more challenging endeavor, as it appears to be for your son and his anger.  While there could be any of several things happening for your son, and it being a little hard to narrow it down to a real fine point not having met and talked with him, let’s talk about anger a bit first.

Understand Anger

Anger is an interesting emotion with lots of twists and turns.  First and foremost, it is vital that your son know that what he is feeling is “O.K”, normal, and purposeful; that he’s not bad for feeling angry.  At the same time he needs to learn that while the emotion of anger is O.K., its behavioral expression, aggression, is what gets us into trouble.  We have to learn how to prevent the emotion from becoming inappropriate aggression. That being said, as a culture we tend to view anger as a “bad” emotion rather than just simply one of many emotions designed to provide us information about ourselves, others, and our environment.  When we begin to see it as the latter we can then use it, and control it, rather than becoming subject to it and controlled by it.  I imagine that it seems to you and feels to him like his anger is controlling him at the moment.  We want to switch that around.

Anger Covers Up Underlying Emotions

Anger can be either a primary or secondary emotion.  As a primary emotion it warns us that we or someone we care about is being taken advantage of or hurt in some way and it activates us to protect.  This is very useful; however, in today’s world there are fewer real threats that fit this response than there used to be.  As a secondary emotion, anger is the “cover-up” for another underlying emotion that is leaving us feeling vulnerable.  These might include feeling hurt, sad, scared, anxious, etc.  We don’t like feeling vulnerable so we reach for anger because it feels more powerful and helps us feel in control.  It is important that your son begins to identify which form of anger he’s experiencing, so I’d encourage you and him to start to observe and talk about it either during his anger episode  (if he can) or afterwards once he’s cooled off a bit.  If it’s primary, then look at what needs to happen, what options there are to make him safe again.  If it’s secondary, then address the underlying emotion by:

1) identifying what it is,

2) labeling it out loud (i.e., hurt, scared, frustrated, sad, etc.),

3) validating why he might be feeling that way (i.e., “that is hurtful that Jared changed his mind at the last minute, no wonder you’re feeling frustrated.”), and

4) come up with and choose an option for dealing with that particular emotion/situation.  Don’t forget to “thank the anger for helping him see what was really happening”.

Frustration and anger can also be triggered when we are trying to control something that we don’t have control over.  When he got angry about his friend changing plans at the last minute he was probably feeling both hurt (secondary emotion covered by anger) and wanting to control his friend’s choice, something he obviously could not do.  Hence the anger.

Collateral Damage of Using Anger to Control

It’s important to note that some children/people feel more deeply than others, so strong emotions will feel more “out of control” and it’s tempting to use anger as a way to “get back control”.  The problem is it kind of works but with collateral damage and unwanted consequences.  This is particularly common when a child/person has a hard time switching activities/plans–they tend to be more rigid in their behavior and thinking as a way to have control over themselves and their environment.  Some tools to use here are: 1) Give him warnings whenever possible (i.e., “Dinner will be in 15 minutes” rather then “turn off the TV and come to dinner now), 2) talk with him and validate if and what he’s feeling out of control about, 3) explore with him what he can and cannot control, turning his focus to what he can do in the situation (i.e., call another friend, postpone the activity until the original friend can go, choose another activity, etc.).  These tools help him to effectively use his anger as a warning emotion and information source rather than as a reactionary club.

While there are other possible explanations for his anger as well, such as it being a reaction to underlying anxiety, a part of ADHD, feelings of abandonment, genetic disposition, etc., person-to-person assessment would be necessary to sort this out.  Some children have a temperament with a quicker trigger, and once they’ve “locked down” emotionally, they need time to cool off.  There is a good book by Ross Greene called the “Explosive Child” that talks about this idea and offers some good suggestions.  You might want to check it out.

If he “locks down” then you want to stop pressing the issue at hand and either remove him or have him remove himself to a “safe” place where he can cool off.  It is important in these instances to not get caught up in the emotion yourself but rather slip into “business mom mode” (calm, emotionally level, matter-of-fact) so that his anger is not escalated by having something to fight back against.  Be firm but unemotional.  Sit down with him in a non-heated moment and have a planning meeting about how you all are going to handle the various difficult situations when they come up.  Having a pre-agreed upon plan with him of what will happen if he gets angry, loses control, talks back, etc. is important, and following through with it consistently is even more vital.  What is also important is that he knows that both you and your husband are involved, on the same page, and support one another.  This helps prevent against one of you becoming the enemy and the other the friend.  You and your husband are on the same team with the same goal working with your son in unison.

I like that you’re searching for answers, as it’s best to figure out what’s going on and how to help your son learn to manage this difficult emotion sooner than later.  One of the most important things to remember is that these difficult situations and behaviors are potential teaching moments where he can learn more about his emotions and how to manage them in different situations.  Therefore it is important that you as parents keep level heads in the heat of the moment, maintain calm, clear, and firm tones of voice, use descriptive and accurate words to describe and label emotions, and be very consistent on following through on the mutually agreed upon plan.  

What You Can Do To Help Children Control Anger

1) Talk and create a plan together. Sit down with him and talk together about the things discussed above: labeling emotions, identifying underlying emotions, removing self to "cool down," alternatives to emotional outbreaks, and possible consequences.

2) Discuss the behavior, not the person. Agree to work together on this “problem” together–he’s not the problem, learning how to deal with strong emotions is the problem–and start having some investigative conversations about what’s happening when he gets angry.  Being able to do this in the moment is optimal, but usually, at least at first, addressing it soon after the situation is normal.

3) Help him take responsibility for his own behavior.  Help him look at what part is his and what part is not, and then focus on what he can actually control–himself, with the help and support from both of you.

4) Evaluate how the “plan” is working. Have 1-2 check-in “pow-wows” to discuss how things are going, any recent incidences, evaluate how the “plan” is working, and make any adjustments necessary.

Over time, with practice and consistency, on his own your son should more frequently start "catching himself" when he feels intense anger and outbursts building up and will better identify the underlying emotions and the more positive alternatives you've discussed. 

If it continues to feel like things are getting worse rather than better and you feel the need for additional tools or help implementing the ones noted above, then I suggest seeking out professional help and doing some counseling, especially where he also recognizes that this is a problem and is willing to work on it!  Good luck, I hope this has provided you with some insight and tools.

 

Best Regards,

Dr. Seaman


If you experience similar situations with your teenager or younger children, you may want to learn more methods found in online courses. Click here: Solve Common Problems with Teens, or for younger children, Solve Common Childhood Problems

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