Sue Scheff: Teen Anger

A very common thread I hear from parents of teenagers is that their teen is displaying rage, anger and other outbursts of negative behavior.  Whether it is not getting their own way, or another personal issue, parents need to be prepared and attempt to find out where this anger is coming from.  Here are some great parenting tips from Connect with Kids.

teenangerSource: Connect with Kids

“I think it’s a combination of the adolescent testing boundaries and trying to be more independent and having a whole lot of emotions in them that they don’t know how to control.”

– Nancy McGarrah, Ph.D., Psychologist

They throw a fit when they don’t get their way.  They scream and slam doors.  They wage a war of words with their parents.  For some kids, adolescence is a time of emotional upheaval.  But experts say how parents handle it can help or make matters a lot worse.

“Pretty much the rebellion stage started kicking in right about age 12,” says 15-year-old Kim.

Kim’s father, Jim, said that she had been a happy, delightful child, but then “her moods became really dark. She became very angry.”

“If I didn’t get my way, I was a banshee,” adds Kim. “I really was.”

And sometimes, the fights over schoolwork, friends and daily chores turned violent.

“I threw a ceramic-potted Christmas tree at my dad’s head,” says Kim, describing one of her outbursts, “…and luckily it missed him because I don’t know what I’d do if I had injured my dad.”

Some experts call it the “terrible teens.”

“They hit 12 or 13, and parents will co me into me and say, ‘My adorable 12-year-old is now a screaming, shrieking 13-year-old’,” says Dr. Nancy McGarrah, an adolescent psychologist.

Experts say it’s a common problem, and many parents make a common mistake – they give in.

“Most parents are real scared about adolescence,” says Dr. McGarrah. “They don’t know how strong to be with them. They try to avoid conflict.”

And when a yelling teen gets their way, their bad behavior is rewarded.

“So they keep pushing and pushing and pushing those boundaries,” says Dr. McGarrah.

Experts say the solution is seemingly simple. Parents have to be clear about rules and stick to them, no matter how much screaming and resistance they get.

“The hard part is following through because it’s exhausting,” says Dr. McGarrah.

It’s hard, but eventually a child will learn what Kim has – yelling isn’t the way to get what she wants. Doing well in school, doing her chores and being respectful, however, is.

“I like to think of myself as a very nice person, a very giving person,” she says. “Back then, I was loud, rude.
I was actually kind of evil.”  

Tips for Parents

The American Psychological Association says that anger is a normal, usually healthy, human emotion. But when it gets out of control and turns destructive, it can lead to violent outcomes.  Many teens today have a difficult time keeping their anger under control, as evidenced by the following data:

  • According to more than 1 in 3 high school students, both male and female, have been involved in a physical fight. 1 in 9 of those students have been injured badly enough to need medical treatment.
  • The 2002 National Gang Trends Survey (NGTS) stated that there are more than 24,500 different street gangs in the United States alone. More than 772,500 of the members of these gangs are teens and young adults.
  • The 2002 NGTS also showed that teens and young adults involved in gang activity are 60 times more likely to be killed than the rest of the American population.
  • A 2001 report released by the U.S. Department of Justice claims that 20 out of 1000 women ages 16 to 24 will experience a sexual assault while on a date. And that 68% of all rape victims know their attackers.
  • The U.S. Justice report also stated that 1 in 3 teens, both male and female, have experienced some sort of violent behavior from a dating partner.

Anger creates physical changes that both teens and parents need to recognize:  increased heart rate, a rise in blood pressure, soaring adrenaline levels.  Once these changes occur, along with the thoughts that fuel the anger, the emotion can be hurtful.  Provena Mercy Center cites the following warning signs indicating that your teen’s anger is unhealthy:

  • A frequent loss of temper at the slightest provocation
  • Brooding isolation from family and friends
  • Damage to one’s body or property
  • A need to exact revenge on others
  • Decreased involvement in social activities

If you believe your teen has a problem with anger, you can help him or her develop positive conflict resolution techniques. The University of Michigan Health System (UMHS) explains that teaching children strategies for dealing with their anger can be difficult, because you don’t know when your child will get angry again.  To help, use the time between angry outbursts to discuss your child’s anger, and practice how to deal with it.  The UMHS outlines the following strategies for teaching your child anger management:  

  • Practice a substitute behavior. You and your child should develop a substitute behavior to use when he or she is about to get angry.  Some ideas include breathing methods, counting backward or visualizing a peaceful scene or a stop sign.
  • Reward. Sit down with your child and figure out some rewards that he or she can earn by practicing the exercises (on a daily basis), and when he or she uses the exercises when frustrated or angry.  Don’t skip the rewards – they are essential to the success of anger management in children.
  • Give examples. Think of times when you deal effectively with your own stress and point these out, very briefly, to your child.  Also, share your coping strategies with your child as examples of how he/she might handle a similar situation.  It is important for your child to see you successfully deal with your own anger.
  • Encourage using the exercises. When your child starts to get upset, briefly encourage him or her to practice the substitute behavior. Only prompt your child once.  Do not continue to nag him/her about using the exercises.
  • Avoid arguments but do discipline consistently.  Avoid arguing with your child.  Everybody loses when a confrontation occurs. You need to set a good example and deal with your child in a quiet, matter-of-fact manner.  

The Nemours Foundation reports that teens often require specific coping strategies that are less formal than behavior modification.  Have your teen try the following tips next time he/she begins to lose his/her temper:

  • Listen to music with your headphones on and put your “anger energy” into dancing.
  • Write it down in any form – poetry or journal entries, for example.
  • Draw it – scribble, doodle or sketch your angry feelings using strong colors and lines.
  • Run, play a sport or work out. You’ll be amazed at how physical activity helps work out the anger.
  • Meditate or practice deep breathing. This one works best if you do it regularly, not when you’re actually having a meltdown.  Meditation is a stress management technique that can help you gain self-control and not blow a fuse when you’re mad. 
  • Talk about your feelings with someone you trust.  Many times, other feelings – such as fear or sadness — lie beneath the anger.  Talking about these feelings can help.
  • Distract yourself so you can get your mind past what’s bugging you.  Watch television, read or go to the movies instead of stewing for hours about something.

Parents who teach anger-management strategies and encourage non-aggressive conflict-resolution techniques early on may find the teenage years less challenging.  If your child has long-lasting feelings of anger or is unable to adopt coping strategies, seek medical assistance and treatment.  


  • American Psychological Association
  • National Center for Education Statistics
  • Nemours Foundation
  • Provena Mercy Center
  • University of Michigan Health System
  • U.S. Department of Education

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