Anger in Real Life

We once had a young lady at Heartlight named Sarah who came to us because of her anger issues.  You see, the day she turned six, her father, a state trooper, was working an extra shift.  Running late for her birthday party, he was hurrying home when he had a fatal car accident.  Her mother later remarried and life went on, but several years later when Sarah became a teenager she began resenting her step-father, and she became a very angry young girl.

She expressed her anger to her step-dad in hostile words and rebellion against his authority.  It wasn't that her step-dad was a bad guy, but the absence of her real dad from her life made her angry at the man who was there in his place.  When she began to really understand death as a teenager, she didn't know how to appropriately deal with her dad's death -- something she also blamed herself for since he was rushing home to attend her birthday party when it happened.  The loss of her dad will always be with her, but Sarah has learned how to properly deal with the emotions she feels because of it.

We've also dealt with a number of other young people at Heartlight over the years who expressed their anger by running away.  It's important to distinguish between whether they were running away from something or running to something. Teens who run away from home often do so out of frustration. It's hard, but parents of such runaways may need to step back and look at the way they respond to their teenager when they exhibit anger.  

The focus mustn't solely be on eliminating the expression of anger—the symptom—or the real problem will never be resolved. Like a pressure-cooker, the heat is still on and the pressure grows. In fact, they may feel like they are literally going to explode physically as well as emotionally.  The only way they know to deal with it and relieve the pressure is to go somewhere else to reduce the heat.

Letting Off Steam

It's never productive to simply put a stopper on anger—if you do, it will manifest itself somewhere else.  As long as the underlying issue remains, those emotions must be dealt with in some fashion.  When my dad told me, "Wipe that attitude out of your head right now," it was nearly impossible for me to do so.  I learned to smile and say "OK" but the anger was still there… and it always came out in other areas of my life.

Help your teen understand what is acceptable when it comes to expressing anger.  And help them find appropriate ways to deal with their emotions, giving them ways to let off steam.  We had a young man at Heartlight many years ago who had serious anger issues.  I gave him an old golf club and told him to go out and beat on a tree when he felt like he couldn't handle things any more.  It gave him a way to dissipate his anger without hurting himself or anyone else while we worked with him to understand and process the truly awful things that had happened to him.

Don't Disregard the Anger Warning Sign

Wise parents look at anger as a warning sign.  If you see anger in a place you don't expect it, it is an indication that there is something going on that you don't know about that needs to be dealt with.  Dig until you find it.  Don't let it go, because it will keep causing behavioral trouble until the underlying issue is dealt with.  

Remember, behavior can be managed by consequences, but feelings are much deeper. When you tell a child not to feel a certain way; like saying, "Quit acting so angry all the time," they don't see how that is possible. But when you help them deal with the real issue that is causing the angry behavior, it instills a sense of hope. Getting at the root of the problem and finding strategies for working through it gives them a path they can follow, and a way to move on… past the anger.

Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight (http://www.heartlightministries.org), a residential counseling program for struggling adolescents located in East Texas.

Publication date: January 11, 2011