Getting Control of Anger in Your Child
- Tuesday, February 07, 2012
Whether angry at the world, angry at America, or just a psychopath, 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner struck out with homicidal anger this past weekend in Tucson, taking the lives of six and critically wounding Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. It has become an all too common scene; younger individuals expressing anger by snuffing out the lives of others in public places.
Whenever such tragic events occur, I receive phone calls from parents wondering if their child may be the next news headline, since their teen also seems angry all the time, listens to the same music, smokes the same dope, wears the same clothes, or has other similarities. I assure them that teens don't become homicidal just because they are angry or because they have the same interests as the latest mass-murderer. Barring mental illness or being hyped up on alcohol or drugs, most kids wouldn't think of hurting another individual, let alone taking a life. (Though it does make sense to keep guns locked away from any teen who is expressing anger or is exhibiting depression).
Teen anger must be dealt with or it will grow. It can be expressed in many different ways. It can be hot, physical and vengeful, or it can be cold, isolating and calculating. Whatever form anger takes, dealing with it begins with understanding what anger is and what causes it.
With teens, anger is usually an emotional response to not getting something wanted or losing something once held dear. I'm not talking about anger over not getting material things like the latest video game or a later curfew. What I'm talking about is a deeper anger over unfulfilled needs and wants which usually happens when something of value is lost. An example: a girl gets angry because she was taken advantage of physically, so she's lost a sense of self and self-respect in the process. Or, how about this more common situation: a child who is angry with one or both biological parents for their divorce and the split-up of the family.
Teens are especially attuned to injustice—real or perceived. Some can become angry just because they are starting to face the realization that life isn't going to give them everything they want. For instance, while Jared Loughner obviously had mental illness and was known to use illegal drugs, he recently had some significant losses in his life including being kicked out of college and rejected from the military. He was also convinced that the world would end in 2012, so his perceived future was bleak.
Anger is a symptom that is expressed through behavior, not the issue itself. The teenager may not even know why they are angry, but finding out what is missing or lost in their life is the key to dealing with it. When you take time to peel back the layers and get to the heart of the matter, you may uncover the real issue that is causing it to boil to the surface. Often this isn't something a parent can do very effectively because they are somehow involved or implicated in the loss, so a trained counselor may need to be involved. And by the way, it never helps for the parents to become angry themselves; that's extremely counter-productive to helping the teen get past their own anger.
Wise parents or counselors will spend time talking through and dissecting what is making the teenager angry. Asking questions like "What are you thinking about when you have these feelings of anger?" is better than asking "Why are you so angry all the time?" It changes the interaction from one of blame to one of interest. The goal should be to create an environment for solutions; one that welcomes the child, and makes sure they aren't afraid to express their true emotions in an acceptable manner.
It's okay to be angry. In fact scripture says, "Be angry…", but it also says, "…but don't sin." (Ephesians 4:26) So, it is important to manage the behavioral side of a teenager's anger while dealing with the emotional site. Teens can become very volatile, even violent at times, but physical and disrespectful outbursts cannot be allowed. A parent must draw and hold firm lines as to what behavior will and will not be tolerated. They may need to say, "If you're angry, I'm okay with that. But if you become disrespectful, we will end this conversation until you can calm down. If you become physical, I will have you arrested." The feelings they are suffering can seem very real to them, but they do not give them license to strike out.
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