Teenagers, like all of us, get angry. Often, while they are angry, they do things that hurt, disappoint and frustrate us. And so sometimes our response is to try to reduce and diminish their anger. It is understandable that we do this – but mostly it doesn’t work. Anger is in-built into our brains. At a biological level, human beings are designed to get angry. Trying to stop anger is like trying to stop breathing.
The clear message we need to send teens about anger is this: it’s okay to be angry, it is normal to get angry, and we can’t stop ourselves getting angry. Let’s live with that, and let’s accept it. Now, what can we control? One simple thing: what we do while we are angry. In other words, we accept the emotion, the thoughts and the feelings - but not necessarily the behaviour.
When I work with teenagers in helping them deal with their anger I help them see the biological origins of it. I help them recognise and observe it when it creeps up. I try to help the teenager take the role of scientist/observer in dealing with their anger, helping them identify and label it – and importantly – accept it’s place in their lives.
Then we work on what to do when angry. I talk with teenagers about what has worked in their lives and what hasn’t. I talk through the psychological research which tells us about how displays of aggression normally turn people off, and make us feel worse. We come up with alternatives. D – D – D stands for distance, distraction and (playing) detective. Distance means creating space and time between us and the thing/situation/person that makes us angry. Distraction means avoiding the temptation to dwell/analyse/ dissect and ruminate on the thing that has made us angry, and instead deliberately filling our mind with other information and topics. Playing detective means turning our attention to what is underneath our (or others’) anger. Hurt, embarrassment and fear are usually just below the surface anger. When we address these feelings in ourselves and others, anger often dissipates.
We all struggle with anger. And remember that young people have brains that fire up emotionally faster and operate far more impulsively than ours do. We need to help teenagers choose constructive ways of dealing with angry behaviour, and sometimes we need to make the choice for them.
Most of all, we should treat teen anger in a matter-of-fact, sympathetic but non-permissive manner. This means expecting anger to occur and not acting shocked or offended by it. It’s not about us. It also means being empathic. It’s a hard, long, learning process that teens are experiencing. Don’t you remember the rage of being restricted – being controlled – yourself? And it also means providing boundaries for the teenager about what is okay and what isn’t. They need and want this from us.
Thank goodness teens get angry sometimes. This means they are passionate, that they care and that they want the best for themselves. Their anger is a sign of their humanity.
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