You might begin by assuring him that there’s nothing wrong with feeling angry – not as long as he handles his anger appropriately and doesn’t let his feelings get the better of him. Many teens seem to think that anger itself is a sin. Some of them try to deny or suppress their emotions in an effort to “be good.” The problem is that denial can actually lead to more destructive expressions of anger. If this sounds like a description of your son, try talking to him about the benefits of anger and the valuable service it provides.
What is the value of anger? It functions in much the same way as the gauges on your car’s dashboard. Both signal that something is amiss on the inside and needs immediate attention. No one enjoys seeing the oil light come on, but if you choose to ignore it – or worse yet, disconnect it – the results will be disastrous. Similarly, if we pretend that anger isn’t present, needs go unaddressed and more hurt follows.
God designed anger to work like that. That’s why the Bible never says, “don’t be angry.” It says, “Be angry, but don’t sin” (Ephesians 4:26). In other words, don’t allow those bitter passions to go unresolved. It also tells us that we shouldn’t be quick to anger (Proverbs 14:17). But if we try to put a lid on anger, it will seep out in numerous indirect ways. Negative attitudes, cutting words, depression, and a focus on death can all be expressions of denied anger. On a more physical level, actions like punching holes in walls, fighting or setting fires may result from bottled-up emotions.
It would be a good idea to ask yourself if you have unwittingly communicated the idea that anger is a bad thing. If so, you can counteract this by sitting down with your son and discussing positive ways of acknowledging anger. Encourage him to talk with God about his feelings. He could also write them in a journal as a therapeutic way to release tension. A chat with mom and dad may also be helpful. If you find that you are the object of his frustration, be sure to set ground rules for the discussion (no profanity, name-calling, etc.). Act as his coach. He probably won’t get it right the first time, but with your support, he can develop skills for constructively channeling his anger.
As you go through this process, keep in mind that anger is actually a secondary emotion. In other words, it’s a combination of other emotions mixed together. Behind anger there is always some kind of hurt: physical pain, disappointment, or sadness. And the catalyst – the thing that ignites the lethal mixture – is anxiety. While these factors never justify wrong or foolish behavior, getting to the root of the problem can help facilitate your conversation and prevent it from turning ugly. Here are some strategies for keeping your conversation as positive and constructive as possible:
Aim your questions at the deeper issues.
Ask your son where his disappointments lie. Help him identify his fear and worries. Talk about the “what ifs” that may be lurking in his thinking; for example, “What if I can’t __?” or “What if my friends think __?”
If you “talk down” to your teen, making him feel stupid or childish, he will resent it. Condescension often triggers defensiveness and anger. Give credit where credit is due. Teens tend to live up to – or down to – our expectations.
Don’t intimidate or manipulate.
Above all, don’t attack your son’s character or let him attack yours. Anger can be verbally expressed with respect when it’s aimed at specific behavior. For example, “I am really angry that you lied to me.”
Don’t let anger serve as a smoke screen.
Be aware that anger can be used to derail a conversation or turn attention away from the issue at hand. If you catch your son doing this, call him on it. Take time to cool off and return to the discussion in a little while.
Keep a close watch on your own anger level.
Never forget that your son may have come by his anger problem “honestly.” Some parents feel justified expressing their own anger in unhealthy ways because of their level of authority. Wrong. Model what you want your son to emulate.
If you’d like to discuss this issue with a member of our staff, feel free to get in touch with Focus on the Family’s Counseling department for a free consultation. Our trained counselors would be more than happy to talk with you over the phone if you think that might be helpful.
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Changing an Angry Spirit