Anger Management Techniques for Teens

My 14-year-old son gets angry very easily and cannot control his temper. He is very defensive. Every time we bring up his behavior, he gets angry and cries. When he is not angry, he is a well behaved, likable child. What can we do?

Question:

It sounds like your son is as confused about his angry outbursts as you are. His anger and tears when you try to talk about them seem to indicate that he feels embarrassed and helpless to change them. From your question, it is not clear whether these angry outbursts are new or whether they are actually dangerous to him or to others. We will cover a variety of possible causes, some strategies for helping both you and your son figure out what might be bringing his anger on, and also some ways to help your son learn to express his feelings in safe, appropriate ways.

Anger can be triggered by many factors. Some people are temperamentally more volatile, more sensitive and more easily angered. Developmentally, there are periods of life where growth struggles bring about increased frustration (like when you're a toddler or a teenager), because kids are trying to understand what they get to control and what they don't get to control. Finally, there are stressful circumstances with friends, sports, school, or home which can cause increased feelings of anger.

In thinking about anger, it is important to remember that it is usually a secondary emotion. The underlying emotion is more likely to be rejection, fear, failure, frustration or sadness. For boys, society is often more accepting of anger than it is of these other underlying emotions and so anger may be what your son shows most readily. However, it's important to bear in mind that there are other feelings underneath that need to be expressed and resolved.

Here are some suggestions for working with your son:

  • Approach discussions from a supportive place. While it is natural to be disappointed and frustrated with your son for losing control one more time, he needs your support and understanding. He needs to know that you have confidence in him. It is from this base of support that he will be able to pay attention to his feelings, think clearly and figure out what is happening inside of him. Try saying something like, "I know we both get frustrated when you lose your temper, but let's see if we can understand what happens when you start getting mad and come up with some solutions."
  • Understand that feelings are not wrong. In our society, certain feelings are viewed as "negative" and others as "positive." In fact, every feeling is a normal part of being human. If children get the message that there is something wrong with some of their feelings, they come to believe that something must be wrong with them. Understanding that feelings are normal can turn our energies to learning to express them appropriately rather than repressing them.
  • Help your son explore acceptable ways to express anger and other feelings. An important distinction to make is that we want our kids to learn to control the expression of their feelings, not the feeling itself. So rather than asking your son to suppress or ignore his anger, tell him you would like him to learn alternative, safe and appropriate ways to express that anger. Each family needs to decide what ways are acceptable and which aren't: "In our family, we yell a lot. We don't call names or say hurtful things, but people get loud when they are angry." "Dad prefers to have time alone when he is feeling mad. It helps me to punch the punching bag or take a run around the block."

It can sometimes be tricky if people in one family have different ways of expressing anger. It is important that you and your son think about ways he could show his anger that are both satisfying to him and acceptable in your family.

  • Think about the models your son sees. Even more important than what we tell our kids is appropriate, is what they see. They are watching the people in their family, people on TV, friends. Work on modeling the ways you would like to see your son express his anger and discuss with him the other models he is seeing.
  • Explore your own feelings. When our children are struggling with big feelings, especially anger, very often our own feelings get stirred up. Take some time to think about what you learned about anger as a child and what healthy messages you would like to pass on to your son.
  • Help your son discover the sources and triggers of his anger. By age fourteen, most people haven't yet learned what events and circumstances are likely to trigger their anger. (Many of us, as adults, have still not learned this!) Helping your son figure out the things that are likely to get him mad will give him some power. ("I've noticed that every time you call Joey after school and he can't get together, you blow up.") As your son learns the things that are likely to trigger his anger (not eating enough, not getting enough sleep, having a disappointment in school, experiencing a setback in sports), he will feel less blindsided by his feelings. Eventually, understanding his triggers will give him the ability to choose alternative routes so he doesn't end up so angry.
  • Help your son learn to recognize his feelings before they get out of control. Once your son has identified some of the things that he has been mad about, he may be able to think about how he felt just before he "lost his temper." (Often this is the moment when he experienced the underlying feelings of hurt, fear or sadness) If your son can learn to recognize that he is "on the way" towards being mad, he can make some decisions about what he wants to do with the feeling, rather than letting the feeling overtake him.

Sometimes it can be helpful to share your own stories: "I remember when I was in a big track meet and I could tell I was going to come in second in a race I really wanted to win. As I started thinking about who I wanted to punch, I realized I was really sad about not winning and I decided to go off and be by myself for a while."

  • Get help if you need it. If your son's angry outbursts continue or feel out of control, or if he is being violent toward pets or people, seek out the support of a counselor or other professional who works with adolescents.
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