Anger and the Adolescent
Psychotherapist, Evan Katz has spent the last decade counseling teenage and adult males with anger & substance abuse issues. Katz is a Master Addiction Counselor, offering evaluations for substance abuse and “anger assessments”. In addition to individual psychotherapy and group therapy, he conducts seminars and is available for speaking engagements. For more information go to: www.TheAngerGuy.com
TTT: Is being angry a normal part of being a teenager?
EK: It’s good to remember that being angry is the behavior and having angry feelings is a normal part of being a person! Are feelings of anger normal for a teen? Yes, absolutely. Is the expression of that anger normal? Yes, but how it is expressed is what “anger issues” are really all about. It is how those feelings are expressed that concerns us.
Adolescents are going through a process called “individuation”, in which they are leaving the innocent child’s life and reaching toward adulthood. I consider this process to be a rite of passage, which every person must endure. How we were taught to value our “self” as a child, will largely determine how we undergo this transition from childhood to adulthood. Teens express individuation by showing their independence from what they “used to be,” (dependent children) to what they “want to be” (independent adults). They express individuality in numerous ways, including: oppositional behavior, going to extremes to stand out (e.g. music, clothes, purple hair, etc.), voicing strong opinions and experimenting. Since the teen is having so many new feelings, life changes and experiences, everything feels out of control. Typically, when anyone feels out of control, they compensate by acting in control, or “controlling.” This is a major expression of their anger.
TTT: What’s appropriate anger?
EK: An appropriate expression of anger is one in which it is used for the purpose of healthy protection; be it physical or emotional. Angry feelings motivate us to “fight” (push away someone or something not good for us) or “flight” (pull away or hide ourselves from someone or something not good for us). When used in proportion to the threat, anger is fully appropriate.
TTT: Why are boys typically more angry than girls?
EK: Young men learn to fear the verbalization of genuine feelings, as this creates emotional vulnerability. They have learned that to express vulnerability means to risk rejection. Thus, they suppress these feelings. But feelings will always come out if they are strong enough. And if we don’t talk them out, then we will act them out.Anger is the way the psyche protects itself from someone getting near those vulnerable feelings. Girls are more often conditioned to view the expression of emotions as positive. Since they’ve learned to talk about how they feel, they have less need to protect those vulnerable feelings. This is one reason why it’s so important for girls to have a strong female support system.
TTT: What’s the real reason behind angry behavior?
EK: Anger-related behaviors are fear-based. They protect the “self” from being touched or discovered. There is fear that if this “self” is discovered, then it will be rejected. Therefore, angry behavior is how we act to keep you away from the real me. Some of these protective mechanisms might be through overachievement (keeping you from knowing that I’m not good enough) or underachievement (avoiding rejection completely by not trying). These expressions of anger are ways to protect the self from the perceived threat of not being accepted and “a part of” a group. Ultimately, teens all want connection of some sort and they all want to be understood.
TTT: What’s the connection between anger and depression? How can you tell the difference?
EK: Depression is often the result of the inward expression of anger. One of the ways teens of both sexes, deal with emotional fear and lack of acceptance, is blaming themselves for circumstances out of their control. When they do this, they determine their value as a human being, based on the response they receive. For some teens, it’s easier to beat yourself up than it is to engage in conflict. For others, they would rather blame you than look at themselves. So depression is the result of anger turned inward. Depressive symptoms vary. But in males, depression is often expressed via angry behavior, since they’re trying to suppress their anger toward themselves.
Note: This is different than biochemical depression, although it shares many of the same symptoms.
TTT: I understand there are different types of angry personalities: Fighters who are aggressive, Flighters who are passive and Pretenders who are passive-aggressive. Can you elaborate on these styles?
EK: Fighters, are those who externalize their anger. It’s everyone’s fault but theirs. They’re the ones I usually see first. But these young men will usually work through it, as their acting out behavior eventually forces them to address underlying issues. Pretenders, or passive-aggressive people, are those who express their anger indirectly while managing to deflect the blame for their behavior. They appear rational and reasonable, but manage to remain unaccountable and often get their way. They avoid being confronted or challenged on their behavior, as it seems rational on the surface. Dealing with passive aggressive behavior is tricky because you can’t easily explain what the passive aggressive person is doing wrong. It is a highly manipulative and particularly powerful way to express anger. It is accomplished almost entirely at the other person’s expense. A simple way to express passive aggressive anger is through sarcasm. For example, Joe is sarcastic to Sally and says, “Oh, interesting hairstyle, Sally!” Sally is hurt, but is also confused because Joe said it jokingly. She isn’t sure what to feel. All the while, Joe has achieved complete power over Sally’s feelings.Flighters, are those who internalize their anger. This is the most self-injurious anger, since this person isolates their feelings of anger from the rest of the world. They seethe inside, while making themselves invisible or “under the radar” to others. They believe that the hurtful behaviors of others are somehow their fault. I believe suicide rates to be the highest among teens with this type of anger.
TTT: Does playing sports or being physically active help teens with anger problems?
EK: Not directly. In fact, recent studies show that expressing anger in an aggressive manner, with the intention of resolving such anger, does not work. In fact, it reinforces the aggressive angry behavior. However, there are many great reasons to participate in physical activity and group sports. Such activities may prevent angry feelings from manifesting (working themselves out on the field), but such activity would not be directly helpful in resolving the anger.
TTT: How do violent video games, movies or TV shows impact teens?
EK: Clinically, I’m not sure. However, my years of experience have clearly shown a connection. Angry men, including young men, tend to identify with angry themes. They say they “connect” and “feel understood” by the actors or scenarios in these media genres. It’s a passive-aggressive way of getting out anger without hurting anyone directly. Yet, you will see men addicted to video games and then justify their behavior by saying, “Don’t you want me to get rid of the anger like this? Better at the game, than at you!”
TTT: What’s the best thing we can do as parents of an angry teen?
Remember! It’s easy to forget what being a teen was like. Many parents tell me, “But I don’t want him to experience what I had to go through.” When you were a teen, would you have let your parents help you?”
Listen. Focus on understanding rather than on being understood.
Don’t take it personally. Your child’s experience is about him, not about you. Your fear of being rejected is not his problem, it’s yours.
Meet them where they are. Talk from an “I” position. Talk about what you felt and experienced, without making mention of their experience. For example, “I remember when I was in high school and asked this girl to the prom and she turned me down. Oh my gosh, I wanted to find a hole and just hide forever. It was the worst!”. They may not say anything, but they will have heard you.
You cannot give what you don’t have. You cannot give love and compassion to your teen if you do not have it for yourself. And you will give what you do have. You will give criticism and judgment to them, if you are critical and judgmental of yourself.
TTT: When does a teenager need professional help?
EK: It’s important to allow young people to fall and get up on their own. Struggle, has many valuable lessons and is not a bad thing in and of itself. But, when behavior patterns become consistently destructive; to themselves and those around them, it is better to be proactive, rather than reactive.
After the fact, so many teens will tell me that they were angry at their parents at first, but are really glad they were made to go to counseling. When teens feel out of control and see their relationships falling apart, they want help. But like adults, they often don’t know how to ask for it. Being angry, extra difficult, and even delinquent, are their ways of indirectly asking for help. They’re saying, “Stop me, because I can’t!” We have to be secure enough within ourselves as parents, that it’s okay if our children are unhappy with us for seeking help.Finally, if a child ever suggests ending his or her life, or if friends suggest this, call a licensed mental health professional immediately! You can also take your child to a hospital emergency room or psychiatric hospital. If necessary, call 911. It’s is always better to err on the side of safety