Understanding Adolescent Anger

Can you help me figure out where my teenage daughter's anger is coming from? A few years ago I would have described her as a soft-spoken, contented, happy-go-lucky little girl. Now she seems disgruntled most of the time and lashes out in fury at the drop of a hat. Sometimes I have no idea what I've said or done to aggravate her. Is this normal? What can I do about it?

The first thing you need to realize is that anger is often a secondary emotion. In other words, it’s a combination of other emotions mixed together. Naturally we can’t make definitive statements without knowing your daughter. Ideally, we’d like to have an opportunity to sit down and talk with her face-to-face before attempting to diagnose her problem. But based on what you’ve told us, we can have a general idea of what might be going on inside her head.

This much we can say for sure. Behind anger there is usually some kind of hurt: physical pain, disappointment, or sadness. Often, this hurt is related to something in the present, such as not getting asked out for homecoming, doing badly on a test, or missing a favorite TV show. There are times, however, when the hurt is an old wound that has never quite healed. Rejection by a friend. Harsh words spoken by a parent. A major loss of some kind. The basic principle here is simple: wherever there is anger, there is also hurt. You’d be wise to look for it.

You should also know that the catalyst for anger – the thing that ignites the lethal mixture – is anxiety. Hidden inside of the anger is some form of fear, worry, embarrassment, or apprehension. The difficulty here is that the anxiety may be harder to uncover than the hurt. One way to approach this challenge is to hunt for the “what ifs” in your daughter’s thinking. It might be something like “What if nobody likes me?” or “What if I can’t handle my workload?” Where there is anger, there is anxiety – count on it – and the anxiety is probably closely related to how your daughter feels about herself or how she thinks others perceive her.

Whenever you mix baking soda with vinegar, you get the fizzies. Similarly, when you mix hurt with anxiety, you typically get anger. The best way to help your daughter is to get her to identify both parts of this formula separately. See if she’ll talk about the hurt or disappointment. When it comes to the anxiety, challenge her to take a good look at the “what ifs” in her thinking. If she can’t do that on her own, it may be wise to enlist the assistance of a youth pastor or counselor. The more successfully she can manage these two emotions independently, the less she’ll experience the “fizzies” of anger. And remember: if you find yourself getting angry at your teen, try applying this formula yourself. To teach is to learn twice!

If you do decide that it’s time to call a psychologist or trained therapist, call us. Focus on the Family’s Counseling department can provide you with referrals to specialists practicing in your area. Our staff counselors would also be more than happy to discuss your concerns with you over the phone. They’ll be pleased to assist you in any way they can.


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Anger: Taming a Powerful Emotion

Helping Your Kids Deal With Anger, Fear, and Sadness

Changing an Angry Spirit

When Children Become Angry

Is My Teen Just Angry or Is She an Angry Teen?

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