Teenagers with anger management issues can be extremely difficult for parents to deal with. They might seem to blow up over the smallest things, at unpredictable times. Trying to calm down an enraged teenager can feel like defusing a bomb; pull the wrong wire and it’ll blow up in your face. Why is anger management for teens so difficult? In this article, I’ll share some proven strategies you can use to help your teen get it under control.
Here’s what you need to know. During the teenage years, emotional volatility is raised because certain neural pathways associated with managing and inhibiting extreme emotions haven’t matured yet. Also, teens are dealing with many social pressures, physical changes, and life experiences for the very first time.
You have to give teens some credit for processing so many new things at once!
However, this incomplete level of brain development means teenagers won’t always know how to react to the new situations and emotions, which can be frustrating. This cycle can lead to difficulties with anger management for teens. Studies show teenagers who don’t learn to express their feelings in a healthy way are more likely to engage in risky behaviors and outbursts.
If your teen is acting out in anger, don’t worry. Think of your teen’s angry episodes as opportunities to offer critical life lessons. When your child finally does develop effective anger management skills, the whole family wins. In this guide, I’ll break down why teens get so mad in the first place and I’ll share 8 life-saving tips on anger management for teens.
The Science of Teen Rage
The Battle in the Brain
There’s war going on inside your teen’s head. It’s a tug-of-war between a primal brain area, the amygdala and a developing brain area, the frontal lobe. Both areas greatly influence our ability to regulate our emotions and soothe ourselves. It’s essential to understand how these brain regions work together, and against each other, before you learn about anger management for teens.
The amygdala resides in the core of the brain, where lower-level, instinctual responses occur. It is responsible for our most basic emotions: anger and fear, or fight and flight. The amygdala creates intense feelings when we’re in danger, to prompt a quick, aggressive solution. When you ask a teen “What were you thinking?” you might get an answer like “I wasn’t thinking.” That’s actually the honest truth. In that moment, the amygdala was winning the war against the slower and more considerate frontal lobe and your teen really wasn’t thinking (I cover this more in my article on the teenage brain).
Anger management for teens is about teaching them how to strengthen their frontal lobe, the brain region that keeps strong emotions in check. The frontal lobe is what stops us from literally resorting to fighting or running away from situations that don’t really call for it. It’s the voice in your teen’s head that says, “Wait a minute, maybe I’m overreacting here and should calm down.”
Because teenagers haven’t fully developed their frontal lobes, they have a difficult time responding to an infuriating situation without fighting or fleeing. Anger management for teens is particularly important because their immediate fear and anger responses are very strong. In fact, research demonstrates teens have a hyper-active amygdala compared to adults. Also, in general, there’s less connectivity between the amygdala and other areas of a teen’s brain, including the frontal cortex.
The teen brain floods itself with the sex hormones, estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone during puberty to stimulate biological development. These hormones can seriously affect anger management for teens. In fact, teens experience a sharp surge in serotonin, the “mood molecule,” resulting in more frequent, intense, and dramatic emotional swings.
In these years, anger can easily boil over and your teen might struggle to keep a lid on their feelings. Sometimes amplified moods can manifest in risk-taking, depression, or vulnerability to peer pressure. Hormones can sometimes compromise anger management for teens but that doesn’t mean the situation is hopeless. When teens learn to spot their anger triggers they can start to manage their rage.
3 Anger Triggers for Teens
There are certain situations that will tend to set your teen off more than others. Identifying these anger triggers is the first step in mastering anger management for teens. After talking to dozens of parents and counseling experts, I’ve identified three major types of triggers for teen anger.
One of the top things in your teen’s life that can trigger angry outbursts is teen stress. There are a million things for teenagers to stress about from pressure at school to lying with parents. It’s not easy for any teen to deal with. But some teens are especially likely to snap when they’re feeling anxious. Your teen might be the kind who lashes out under the pressure when things get stressful. When these types of teens aren’t able to relax and process their thoughts, they can become hostile, venting their anger in an unhealthy way. Anger management for teens like this can be difficult to learn.
Recent studies indicate many teenagers today have difficulty coping with their stress about the news. Environmentalism, inequality, and imminent international threats seem to deeply affect today’s teens. The data suggests news headlines didn’t keep teenagers of prior generations up at night, so many parents might not understand just how much stress teens are under every day. If your teen exhibits anxiety, frustration, or aggravation about the news, that stress might explain the anger management issues. Anger management for teens gets difficult when they are living in a world of constant stress.
Taking away a teen’s sense of independence is like taking a fish out of water. Teens love to feel in control and they crave autonomy. The whole point of the teenage years is to learn about independence to prepare for adulthood! When a teenager feels controlled, put down, or challenged by authority, it can trigger a massive anger response. Anger management for teens works best when they feel empowered and in control of their own lives.
If this sounds like your teen, try to avoid making them feel challenged and controlled. Of course, you don’t want to let your teens do whatever they please, but you can certainly find low-risk ways to give them more independence and the opportunity to use it responsibly. This alone might improve anger management for teens who are particularly resistant to oppression.
Sometimes the answer is simply that your teenager needs something to eat. Maybe they’re a little testy after football practice or perhaps they are ready to pick a fight in the morning before breakfast. An empty stomach could be preventing your teen from regulating their mood. We all get a little ‘hangry’ sometimes, but teens are especially susceptible to hunger-induced anger because they need more calories to stay energized. Plus, mood swings hit them harder than adults. Anger management for teens in this category is as easy as making sure they always have something to snack on.
8 Tips on Anger Management for Teens
Alright, enough science, let’s talk about what you can actually do to calm your angry teen down and reconnect. Here are my 8 favorite tips on anger management for teens! Choose your favorites and try them out next time your teen blows up.
1. Model Good Anger Management
A parent’s behavior during times of stress can be a huge influence on anger management for teens. The next time you’re feeling stressed, you might tell your teen how you feel and demonstrate how you manage it. When teens see how counting backwards from 10 works for you, they might be inspired to copy your technique. This isn’t a time to talk down to your teen, it’s a time to admit that you deal with similar issues. Try something like:
“I don’t know if this would work for you, but when I’m really mad I like to take a walk with my earbuds in and let the song cheer me up. By the time I’ve walked to the end of the street, I usually feel better. I can’t say I know exactly what you’re dealing with, but whatever it is, this might help.”
On the flip side, if you tend to yell and hit things when you’re angry, your teen might pick up on that unhealthy habit instead. Sometimes, anger management for teens actually starts with anger management for parents.
2. Write It Out
Writing can be a valuable tool of anger management for teens. If your teen is upset with someone, you might suggest they write a letter or a text message to that person, and then delete it. This way, they can get their aggression out of their heads and onto the page, which will help them sort through it.
Here’s a pro tip: encourage your teen to type out their feelings in an email or a social media post. They don’t have to actually share with anybody, but having somewhere to write it all down can be highly therapeutic. Studies have found that journaling helps with anger management for teens and adults. It doesn’t make much difference where teens write down their thoughts as long as they write them somewhere.
3. Take It Outside
Exercise is a proven mood-booster and can relieve stress, so a quick workout might be the key to anger management for your teen. You could try taking a walk or playing a fun sport with them to shake the bad feelings off.
But watch out for violence, like throwing a boxing combination into the family couch or taking a baseball bat to the tree stump in the backyard. This type of aggression isn’t good anger management for teens. Monitor how your teen expresses anger and don’t let them get in the habit of needing to hit something every time they get mad.
4. Provide a Creative Outlet
If your teen is in a serious funk, an art project can turn anger into something creative. Turning their focus toward building a model, playing an instrument, or composing a photo can take their mind off whatever is bothering them. It’s a healthy form of anger management for teens. The project can always be thrown out later, if your teen wants to forget about what happened. See if creative art has any effect on the angry outbursts from your teen.
5. Catharsis Therapy
This is an advanced level of anger management for teens. To do it, you need to get your teen to tell you what’s really on their mind, especially if it’s something they’d never usually admit. To start, ask your teen to play a game. Then encourage them to yell at you and get all of their feelings out.
This advice comes from communication expert Mark Goulston, the author of the #1 book on listening, Just Listen.
Here’s an example of how to get started:
“Hey Jonathan, play along with me. I think I’ve got an idea that will help us stay calm, so play along for a minute. I want you to tell me ‘Mom, I never want to talk to you about anything because I know you’re just going to criticize me, and I’m already under enough pressure at school. I’m so sick of talking to you, I just want to unwind and play videogames, is that too much to ask? You just don’t get how pissed off you make me!’ Okay, now say it back to me. Don’t hold back, I mean really lay into me.”
When you’re leading the exercise, you won’t be personally offended since you’re in control. This way, your teen can manage their anger in a safe environment. You can learn more great listening tips from Mark Goulston in his master class on empathic listening.
6. Practice Empathic Listening
Many teens act out or experience frustration simply because they feel unheard, unappreciated, or alone. Try focusing your whole attention on your teen and noticing not just what they say, but how they say it. Try to pinpoint exactly what’s getting under their skin. It’s actually good to have your teenager walk you through a detailed story about when they felt angry and alone, because now they can re-experience that story with you by their side.
By showing your teen that you understand, empathizing, committing your time to them, you will make them feel better. At the same time, you’ll model communication skills they can use in the future.
7. Consider a Therapist
If all else fails and you think your teen’s anger management issues might be the result of an underlying clinical disorder, you can always get professional help. Anger management for teens is notoriously difficult and it’s common for teens to work with a therapist to learn some anger management strategies. In fact, 1 in 12 teens in the United States meet the criteria for an anger disorder.
Anger specialists can work closely with your teen and provide personalized exercises and expert advice on anger management for teens. Don’t rule out professional help when it comes to helping your teen manage their anger. It’s always a good idea to try out more than one counselor for your teen because not every therapist will be a good fit.
8. Reduce the Triggers!
Remember those three anger triggers. If you can reduce the stress, oppression, and hunger that your teen feels, they might find anger management much easier. Of course, every teen has their own pet peeves that drive them mad, so if you can identify what gets your teen wound up, you know what to reduce.
Again, it’s not about removing all stressful stimuli from your teen’s life. In fact, a little bit of stress can be healthy! Instead, this is about removing the obvious anger triggers while your teen works on their anger management skills.
Anger management for teens can be particularly challenging. Here’s a quick 30-second summary of why this is the case, and what you can do to help.
- Teen brain development and hormone levels influence angry mood swings
- Feelings of stress and oppression can trigger episodes of teenage rage
- Teens can lack anger management experience for new situations
- You can help teens manage anger by:
- Reducing anger triggers
- Demonstrating good habits
- Sharing healthy modes of expression
- Practicing empathic listening
- Meeting with a counselor
- (and more!)
Keeping It Cool
Highly-emotional teenagers can be hard to manage, but hopefully some of these solutions work for your teen. Living stressed-out and angry lives can negatively impact how teens develop into adults. Teaching anger management for teens can reduce tension at home while preparing your teenager for a healthier future.