Your teen, it seems, is constantly angry about something or the other. They snap back at you at every possible opportunity. They’re grouchy when things don’t go their way. Even the littlest things make them grumpy and irritated.
You keep wondering:
Is this normal?
Some Teen Anger Is Normal
First, let’s reassure you. During adolescence, a measure of increased moodiness is normal. Hormones flare during puberty and adolescence, so teens react to triggers and process emotions in different ways than during their early years. As toddlers, a small mishap might have led to tears or a small tantrum, until you redirected them with a toy. Adolescence couldn’t be more different. Your teen could stew about something or someone that wronged them for days or weeks. And yes: depending on the situation, this could be typical.
Anger in Adolescence
Puberty brings dramatic changes in a teen’s brain. The adolescent brain develops rapidly at this stage, but the prefrontal cortex (the decision-making part of the brain that considers the consequences of actions) is still under construction. The prefrontal cortex does not finish developing until adulthood. This is why many teenagers are more impulsive and emotional from the age of 12 through 18 than during other stages of development. They’ll act before thinking and yell without considering the consequences. They may express their anger, unbridled, with no filter.
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It’s not that your teen wants to lose their temper. They just don’t know yet how not to.
During adolescence, teens also begin the psychological processes of separation and individuation. They start withdrawing more from their parents in their quest to become their own person and gain independence. This tension often leads to conflict. As parents try their best to keep control of their adolescent while that adolescent is trying hard to detach, things can get heated and escalate into full-blown, angry arguments. Whether that means receiving a “no” from you about something they really wanted to do, hearing criticism, or going through a major breakup, any difficult or emotional situation can make your teen furious.
When Teen Anger Escalates
Increased moodiness is common, normal, and expected during adolescence. Increased anger is common, as well. However, extreme anger can, for some teens, result in verbal or physical aggression. Biologically, the release of tension that accompanies acts of aggression during moments of rage is thought to be stress-relieving, although research has shown it does not really help long term. That’s why your teen might resort to yelling, screaming, slamming doors, and throwing things when they’re mad.
However, while the emotion of anger is a completely valid emotion for your adolescent to have (and be wary of invalidating your teen’s anger by retorting “This is nothing to be so angry about”), expressing said anger in damaging ways is not. This includes physical and verbal aggression. Verbal aggression includes speaking meanly or sarcastically on a consistent basis, insulting someone intentionally, embarrassing them in public, and frequent use of obscenities.
When You Need to Get Help
If your teen’s anger often escalates into physical and verbal aggression, temper tantrums, violence, and age-inappropriate behavior, you need to consider seeking help from a mental health professional. Receiving a clinical assessment from a licensed social worker, school counselor, or guidance counselor can help you get started on the path towards improving your teen’s anger issues.
A clinical assessment can determine if your teen’s chronic anger is due to a treatable mental health issue. Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) or disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD) are both characterized by extreme anger and irritability. Additionally, ODD and DMDD often co-occur with another mental health issue like depression or anxiety.
Teen Mental Health Treatment for Anger Management
If your child does have a diagnosable mental health issue, they might benefit from a teen rehab center. A full continuum of care – residential treatment centers (RTC), intensive outpatient programs (IOP), and partial hospitalization programs (PHP) – exists for adolescents who struggle with extreme anger. There are also dual-diagnosis treatment programs for teens struggling with substance abuse in addition to anger-management issues.
When searching, ask whether the RTC, PHP or IOP incorporates Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) into their programming and counseling.
DBT is recognized as an effective treatment for anger management. DBT has four core modules: Emotion Regulation, Mindfulness, Distress Tolerance, and Interpersonal Effectiveness. These four skills-sets work hand in hand to help your teen reduce both the number and intensity of angry episodes.
How DBT Treatment Will Help
Firstly, DBT gives your teen resources to figure out if anger is the appropriate emotion in every situation they encounter. The DBT skill Check the Facts, for example, asks teens to consider – in the moments before they explode in rage – whether an emotion like anger is justified for that particular situation. There are times, of course, that anger is justified. For example, if your teen (or someone they love) is attacked or hurt very badly, anger is justififed. Or if an important goal of theirs is blocked, anger may also be a logical reaction.
If, however, the emotion of anger does not fit the facts of the scenario, or if the expression of said anger is just ineffective for the situation, then DBT teaches teens how to engage in skills in order to change the intensity of their emotion. For example, one important skill is Opposite Action. This skill teaches teens to “gently avoid” the situation or act “just a little bit nice” when they’re angry, in the hopes that will gradually lessen the anger.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy also teaches teens how to engage in Mindfulness in order to notice when they’re getting angry. This means noticing the somatic symptoms they experience when they get upset, such as trembling hands, blood rushing to their head, fists and teeth clenching, or palms sweating. When they understand their physical warning signs, they can learn to implement the DBT skill or skills appropriate for that specific situation.
Other Ways Teen Treatment Can Help Anger Issues
In addition to DBT, many teen mental health treatment centers provide ample opportunities for contingency management. In residential treatment, for example, teens learn to follow new limits, rules, and consequences. The goal is to have them practice tolerating these new limits in a residential setting, where staff is on-call round the clock to provide in-the-moment skills coaching. Then, when the teen transitions back home, they have already practiced what it means to live with the consequences of behavior. This makes it easier for parents to implement the same rules and structure at home. To make the transition even smoother, high-quality teen mental health treatment centers will also incorporate family therapy. Parents receive training to learn how to set these same limits when their teen returns home.
Lastly, many teen treatment centers – RTCs, PHPs, and IOPs – offer weekly Anger-Management group therapy.