Parenting Today’s Teens: When Teen Anger Burns Bright

In the right context, fire is helpful.  It can warm a house, cook your s’mores, even act as a signal for rescuers should you get lost in the woods somehow.  But left unattended, even a small flame can easily turn into a devastating disaster, ravaging homes and causing untold damage.

Dealing with angry kids without getting angry yourself is not easy. Teaching teens how to express their feelings in the right way doesn’t happen overnight, but it does happen. And it begins with a conscious effort to make anger constructive rather than destructive.

See Where the Fire Started

With teens, anger is usually an emotional response to not getting something wanted, or losing something once held dear. I’m not talking about anger over not getting material things, like the latest video game or a later curfew (even though these things can provoke anger). What I’m talking about is a deeper anger over unfulfilled needs and wants, which usually happens when something of true value is lost.  For instance, a girl being angry because she was taken advantage of physically, so she’s lost a sense of self and self-respect in the process. Or the more common situation of a child who is angry with one, or both, biological parents for their divorce and the split-up of the family.

When dealing with anger, remember that anger is just an expression of a deeper issue. Your teenagers may not even know why they are angry, but finding out what is missing or lost in their life is the key to dealing with it.  When you take time to peel back the layers and get to the bottom of the anger you’re seeing, you may uncover the real source of the fire. I’ll be honest—this takes a level of patience and grace on the part of us moms and dads. It’s difficult to respond calmly when your son or daughter is shouting, or when they shut down in silence. But it never helps when parents become angry themselves. It’s extremely counter-productive, and chances are your teens’ anger will increase, not decrease.

Instead, start asking questions to expose the need in your teen’s life.  What’s happening at school?  What’s going on at home?  What’s happening with friends?  Does your daughter feel clumsy and ugly?  Does your son feel untalented or un-gifted?  Is there a habit your teen can’t break, or a relationship they want fixed?  Do a little investigation in your son or daughter’s life, and find the root of the anger.  If you address the need, you’re well on your way to stopping the anger.

Allowing the Fire to Burn Out

It’s never productive to simply put a stopper on anger—if you do, it will just boil up somewhere else. As long as the underlying issue remains, those emotions will show themselves somewhere. When my dad told me, “you better get rid of that bad attitude,” it was nearly impossible for me to do so.  I learned to smile and say “okay” but the anger was still there … and it always came out in other areas of my life. And then there are the clichés or advice that sound wise, but turned out to be very misguided.  Ever heard, “every time you get angry, just walk away”? In theory that sounds good, but that’s really a bad anger habit. If I walked away from every person that ticked me off, I wouldn’t be able to get through many conversations. And can you imagine walking away from your wife or husband in the middle of an argument? That’s a rookie mistake and it never ends well.

Don’t Allow the Fire to Rage

It is important to manage the behavioral side of a teenager’s anger while dealing with the emotional side. Teens can become very volatile, even violent at times; but physical and disrespectful outbursts cannot be allowed.  A parent must draw and hold firm lines as to what behavior will and will not be tolerated.  You may need to say, “if you’re angry, I’m okay with that.  But if you become disrespectful, we will pause this conversation until you can calm down.” Taking a break from an unhealthy conversation is different than walking away. When you put a pause on things, you’re saying, “this is important and we need to talk about it, but right now it isn’t fruitful. Let’s take a few minutes to calm down.” The feelings your teens are suffering can seem very real to them, but it does not give them license to strike out. When tempers flare and anger starts to rise, the best thing you can do as a mom or dad is to take a step back, either emotionally, or even physically.

Dealing with anger needs to happen in an environment of unconditional love.  When your teenage son comes through the door with furrowed brow and fire in his eyes, stop and ask him questions. “What are you thinking about when you feel this angry?” is better than asking “Why are you so angry all the time?”  It changes the interaction from one of blame to one of interest. The goal should be to create an environment for solutions; one that welcomes the child, and makes sure they aren’t afraid to express their true emotions in an acceptable manner. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it! But if a child can’t express and release the emotions they feel, teens will live out the anger in other, much more harmful, ways.

It’s best to step in and help your teens understand acceptable ways to express their anger. Show them healthy ways to let off steam and deal with their emotions. We had a young man at Heartlight many years ago who had serious anger issues.  I gave him an old golf club and told him to go out and beat on a tree when he felt like he couldn’t handle things any more.  It gave him a way to dissipate his anger without hurting himself or anyone else while we worked with him to understand and process the truly awful things that had happened to him.

Don’t Ignore the Smoke

Wise parents look at anger as a warning sign.  If you see anger in a place you don’t expect it, it is an indication that there is something going on that you don’t know about that needs to be dealt with.  Dig until you find it.  Don’t let it go, because it will keep causing behavioral trouble until the underlying issue is dealt with.

Remember, you may be able to manage your teens’ behavior by giving them negative consequences, but you will never deal with the root issues that way. When you tell a child not to feel a certain way, like when you say, “quit acting so angry all the time,” they don’t see how that is possible. But when you help them address the real issue that is causing their angry behavior, it instills a sense of hope. Getting at the source of the problem and finding strategies for working through it gives them a path they can follow, and offers a way to move past their anger.

Mark Gregston

Mark Gregston is the founder and executive director of Heartlight Ministries, a residential counseling facility for adolescents in crisis. He is also a popular radio host and speaker and leads parenting seminars across the country. He and his wife, Jan, have served families and counseled youth for more than 40 years. They have two grown children and four grandchildren.