From temper tantrums to outbursts of violent rage, adolescents are vulnerable to the effects of this powerful emotion. The Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry reports that in a national survey of nearly 6,500 teenagers, almost two-thirds admitted that they had experienced at least one outburst that resulted in violence or property destruction. For many teens—especially teens—drugs and alcohol provide the fuel for angry behavior.
Anger can express itself in a lot of different ways: shouting, punching, kicking, insulting others, destroying property or behaving recklessly.
Anger can also take more subtle, passive forms, like self-isolation, deliberate silence, glaring and sullenness. Some young people take out their anger on others in the form of physical bullying or verbal intimidation, while others turn their rage inward and injure themselves or take dangerous risks. If you’re aware of the ways that anger manifests itself in your teen, you can act early to help him manage his emotions in healthy, nonviolent ways.
What Causes Explosive Episodes?
In adolescence, the higher areas of the brain that control logic, decision-making and self-discipline are still in development. Meanwhile, the lower areas responsible for basic survival needs like hunger, sleep and sex exercise a strong influence. It takes a lot of time and effort for teens to learn how to curb anger and other forceful emotions for the sake of their long-term good.
Brain development isn’t the only reason that some teens have trouble controlling their anger. Other influences that contribute to emotional control include:
- Hormones. As the body grows and changes, so does the balance of hormones in a teenager’s body. Hormonal changes can produce strong emotions, ranging from love and affection to anger and rage.
- Parental influence. Teens who see their parents handling anger in healthy ways are likely to model this behavior. By the same token, young people who grow up in an environment of uncontrolled anger will probably have trouble controlling their own emotions.
- Personal history. Traumatic experiences like sexual abuse, physical abuse or bullying make teens vulnerable to episodes of explosive anger.
- Mental health. Mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and impulse control disorders have a strong influence on emotional regulation. In teens, for example, depression often manifests itself as anger or irritability.
- Substance abuse. Drug and alcohol abuse interferes with normal adolescent brain development, encouraging high-risk behavior at the expense of long-term benefits. At the same time, drugs affect the brain chemicals that regulate emotions, making it harder to control angry outbursts and aggressive episodes.
When Does Anger Become a Problem?
When it’s handled properly, anger is a healthy emotion. Anger can be a sign that you need to take action about something that’s going wrong in your world. If someone is harming you, taking advantage of you, or threatening someone you love, anger is a healthy response. But when rage feels uncontrollable, and the results are destructive, then this powerful emotion can have devastating effects on everyone in your life—including yourself.
How can you tell when anger has become a problem? Here are a few warning signs that a healthy emotion has gone out of control:
- Your teen’s anger frequently has destructive consequences, such as injuries, accidents or deliberate destruction of property.
- When he is angry, your teen threatens to harm himself or others.
- Your teenager’s outbursts are triggered by apparently minor incidents or seem to have no justification at all.
- When he’s not having an angry outburst, your teenager acts depressed or spends a lot of time alone.
- Your teenager seems to undergo a total transformation in appearance, emotional affect and behavior when he’s in the grip of anger.
National statistics on teen violence indicate that aggression takes a severe toll on Americans between the ages of 10 and 24. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that over 700,000 young people in this age group received emergency medical treatment for injuries related to violence in 2011. Anger has also been linked to a higher rate of risk-taking behavior and suicidal ideation among teens.
Anger and Mental Illness
A repeated pattern of explosive behavior may be more than the effect of adolescent hormones; it could be a sign of a psychiatric condition or a neurological disorder.
The National Institute of Mental Health states that nearly up to 16 million Americans may suffer from a condition called intermittent explosive disorder (IED) at some point in their lives. This disorder, which usually begins in adolescence, is characterized by a complete loss of control over one’s anger. Outbursts usually involve the destruction of property, bodily injury or some other form of serious damage.
In addition to IED, there are other psychiatric conditions that can cause episodes of angry behavior in teenagers, including:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Bipolar disorder
- Borderline personality disorder
- Substance use disorders
Learning disabilities like dyslexia or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can trigger aggression or violence in teens. Teens who feel alienated from their peers because of academic challenges have a higher risk of destructive behavior, juvenile delinquency and substance abuse, according to Remedial and Special Education. Because psychiatric illness and learning disorders often go undetected in teenagers, alcohol and drugs may be used as a form of self-medication or a way to gain social acceptance from peers.
The Problem of Substance Abuse
When combined, substance abuse and teenage anger are as volatile as sparks and gasoline. Substance abuse impairs judgment, distorts perceptions and fuels unstable adolescent emotions. Teenagers who haven’t learned how to cope with anger frequently turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to curb overwhelming emotions. Unfortunately, this dysfunctional coping mechanism often ends up making the anger worse and triggering physical violence.
The Journal of Studies on Alcohol found that alcohol and drug abuse is a driving factor in many episodes of adolescent aggression. Teens who engage in binge drinking — or the consumption of five or more drinks on a single occasion — are at high risk of aggressive behavior. Substance abuse is strongly linked to adolescent suicides, homicides, sexual assaults and accidents.
For teens with anger issues and substance abuse problems, getting help for addiction must be the first step in the recovery process.
As long as teenagers are exposed to the influence of alcohol or drugs, they are vulnerable to the effects of uncontrolled anger.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism notes that alcohol impairs the mechanisms in the brain that prevent us from acting on aggressive impulses. Even without being provoked, a person under the influence of alcohol is more likely to lash out in anger than a sober individual.
Drug abuse is another common trigger for anger in teens. Stimulants like meth, cocaine and Ecstasy accelerate the activity of the central nervous system, while hallucinogens like LSD, PCP and spice can cause severe emotional disturbances. While these substances may cause an initial rush of euphoria, they can also cause anxiety, panic attacks, aggression and violence. Unprovoked, unjustified anger is one of the warning signs of drug abuse in teenagers, especially in adolescent teens.
Anger Management for Teens
Anger management skills not only help teens avoid the dangerous consequences of aggression; they can help adolescents avoid substance abuse and lead healthier lives.
By controlling strong emotions, teenagers improve their relationships with family, peers, teachers and employers. They can also lower their risk of injuries, altercations and motor vehicle collisions.
As they mature, young adults who can deal with anger in healthy ways may avoid the serious health problems associated with an explosive temper, including high blood pressure, heart disease, depression and addiction. An anger management program for teenagers includes the following core components:
- Behavioral modification. Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, has been used successfully in many anger management programs to help teens identify and change the thought patterns that lead to aggression. Teens learn how to prevent outbursts by thinking through the consequences of their anger before they act on their emotions.
- One-on-one counseling. For troubled teens, anger is often rooted in mental illness, family conflict or a history of abuse. Through intensive psychotherapy, teens can explore the roots of their anger in a safe, nonjudgmental environment with a therapist who specializes in adolescent recovery.
- Peer group support. Teenagers who have anger management issues often have trouble making friends or sustaining relationships. Peer group counseling not only helps them learn coping skills; it provides the opportunity to relate to other adolescents and build meaningful connections with one’s peers.
- Stress management. Anger often erupts when a teenager is under physical or psychological stress. Stress management training can help teens learn how to calm their emotions and relax in high-risk situations. Alternative therapies like adventure therapy, exercise therapy and guided visualization can help young people learn how to release stress in healthy, self-affirming ways.
- Family counseling. Family therapy provides education and support for the parents or guardians and siblings of troubled teens. Through intensive counseling, family members can learn how to communicate more effectively, manage their own emotions, and set healthy boundaries for behavior.
When to Seek Help
It’s not easy for parents to know when to get help for an angry teenager.
Many families go through a period of denial, hoping that the frightening tantrums and acts of aggression are “just a phase.” Eventually, however, you may see signs that it’s time to seek support, not just for your teenager’s sake, but for your family’s safety. Here are a few indications that it’s time to take action:
- You can no longer set boundaries on your teen’s outbursts.
- Your teen has injured himself or others during an angry episode.
- Your teen’s aggression threatens the welfare of other family members.
- Your child has had repeated complaints from teachers or other authority figures about his behavior.
- Your teen has had legal problems because of his anger.
- Your teenager is abusing drugs or alcohol.
Located in a serene setting in Sonoma County, California, Muir Wood is the ideal place for troubled teens to learn how to cope with the stress and frustration that fuel their anger. We are committed to helping adolescent teens overcome the emotional barriers—including unhealthy anger—that keep them from meeting their potential.
As part of our comprehensive treatment programs for teens, Muir Wood offers behavioral modification programs, intensive one-on-one therapy, family counseling, and experiential therapies. We encourage you to call our admissions team at any time to find out how we can help you and your son create healthy, fulfilling lives.