Being a teenager is often hard and confusing. So is parenting a teenager. If you find yourself wondering why your teen is so angry, you are not alone.
Someone recently asked me about my work as a therapist, curious about the types of clients I see. I mentioned I especially like working with teenagers, and impulsively added, “the angrier the better.” It got me thinking about why I have such a soft spot for angry teens. I think part of it is that anger is a change-oriented emotion–it implies, “Something is wrong!” Teens often blame others for their anger, or misunderstand what a healthy change would be, but that’s OK! I can work with that!
I try to be up front when talking to parents who are struggling with angry teens: I have an unfair advantage here. Your teen will probably be more polite, forthcoming, and cooperative with me than with you. I might make an observation you’ve shared with them a hundred times, and they’ll act like I’m the first person to notice it. I see this as part of the very specific relationship I have as a therapist with my young clients. Although I bring warmth and caring curiosity to my client relationships, there’s also a professional distance that makes it feel safer for them to share with me. I’m not the parent who sees them every day, has loved them forever, and has ideas and hopes for their future. Taking the risk of upsetting me, disappointing me, or shocking me is far less intimidating than taking those same risks with you.
So, what do I do with angry teens? My first step is to get them telling the story of their anger–how do they understand it? where do they think it’s coming from? how is this anger different from when they were younger? what is it trying to express in aggression, tears, or screams that they can’t easily put into words? how do they feel about their anger? And once we can get a vocabulary for how this particular teen experiences their own anger, we can begin dismantling the wall of inaccurate assumptions, unspoken questions, and unhealthy habits they may have built up in response to it.
Sometimes intense anger can indicate depression. Sometimes it’s about a traumatic experience or loss. Sometimes it’s a reaction to the numerous challenges of adolescence. Whatever underlies the anger, I have yet to meet an angry teen who didn’t, deep down, want some type of change in their relationship to or expression of anger. I enjoy providing a safe place for angry teens to explore and understand their anger, and begin to feel better.