Let’s be honest. We all get angry from time to time and that’s because it is a completely normal emotion — not something terrible, just a normal feeling.
When our children begin the slow transition to adulthood, many of them, particularly boys, can struggle more with anger. It is important to keep in mind that anger is not the problem — it is a symptom of a deeper problem or challenge. When we have a deeper understanding of the factors that contribute to the ramping up of rage particularly spontaneous or irrational anger for our teens, we can better support them during this turbulent and confusing time in their lives.
Given that any change triggers stress we should try and be mindful that adolescence is a time of change on so many levels – physical, hormonal, cognitive, emotional, social and psychological. Teen brains are wired up to be receptive to this change to facilitate learning and development, but this also them makes them super-sensitive to stress.
Many teen boys are still conditioned and shaped by a rigid set of expectations, perceptions, and behaviours of what is “manly” behaviour”. Things like, real men don’t show vulnerable feelings and anger is an acceptable emotion for men to express. Another key message that is closely linked to this is that men must remain stoic and strong and “take it on the chin”.
During the early teen years there’s a significant growth spurt in the emotional brain - the limbic system - the first responder to dangerous and emotional situations.
The impact on both teen girls and boys, is that they feel things much more intensely than they did before puberty. This partly explains both the spontaneity and volatility of the anger that we often experience as parents.
Much of a teen’s responses to their world and experiences arise from their emotional brain - which isn’t yet being regulated and told what to do by their rational and reasonable frontal lobe - the most immature part of a teen’s brain. Their slowly developing pre-frontal lobe affects the ability of young adolescents to manage emotional states such as anger, frustration, fear, boredom, shame and feelings of worthlessness. Their way of thinking can often allow them to catastrophise rather than accurately assess the current situation. Their inner critic can also become a louder voice once puberty hits.
It takes the development of the pre-frontal lobe in an individual’s brain for them to have the capacity to make a different, more mature choice, although their automatic impulsive response will always be the most likely first choice. Many of us will know that when confronted by a threatening situation – and often this can be a perceived threat not a real threat – the emotional brain tends to respond automatically in one of three ways:
The amygdala, which is the threat detector in the brain, is larger in boys and with the emotional intensity amped up, it’s easy to see why irrational anger can be linked to this automatic impulse to protect one’s survival. When you add the surges of testosterone that flood through our teen boys you can understand how things can get really volatile really quickly.
During the teenager years, the biological need to belong becomes stronger and one of the reasons for many seemingly irrational outbursts of anger from our teen boys, can sometimes be the perception that their belonging is being threatened.
This can easily happen over misinterpreted banter, or when physical connection like a punch or a shove goes wrong, or when someone laughs at them. The embarrassment that ensues can often transform into rage.
From the start of puberty to the mid-twenties, a teenage brain completely rewires itself from back to front. It keeps the synapses - the connections between brains cells - that are being regularly used and discards the ones that are rarely or never used. When this synaptic pruning takes place in early adolescence, it often increases forgetfulness, poor organisation and an inability to manage moods. Many teens can struggle with remembering things even before the brain does its pruning! So, for a teen who forgets their hair appointment, accidentally leaves their bag on the bus and loses their sports kit – again, they can feel that there is something wrong with them.
When this happens frequently and they seems to be endlessly getting into trouble for their forgetfulness and being disorganised, it’s not really surprising is it, that they are going to experience some significant angry moments?
On top of that many teens lose the capacity to speak articulately and start the mumbling, “yep’, “nope’ or ‘dunno.’ This can trigger embarrassment for our children especially when people make fun of it and well-meaning adults tell them to speak clearly.
It’s not their lack of vocabulary that’s the problem, it is the synaptic pruning that’s the problem and they have know clue know that it has happened!
Sleep deprivation is another contributor to the heightened tension in a teen’s brain. Poor sleep especially, when it becomes chronic, is a major contributor towards an increase in anxiety, emotional outbursts, more aggressive behaviour and is a major factor in adolescent depression.
I hope you’re starting to appreciate how many of the adolescent changes (and I haven’t even touched on the endless hunger or awful acne that they can experience) underpin why our teens often find their world frustrating and annoying.
Males and females tend to process emotion differently in the brain. Females tend to quickly shift emotions from the brain’s emotional brain to the word production centres of the brain, which means they’re able to verbalise very quickly when they are upset.
Whereas males tend to move emotions very quickly from their brains into their bodies. So often boys at any age when they’re really upset will kick or hit or shove or run away. They often need to physically discharge the excess stress hormone - cortisol - and it helps be aware and understand this need. This goes some way to explaining the intense physical expression that can occur when a boy becomes overwhelmed with anger.
And these emotions can remain in our nervous system for a long time after the event that triggered them. For example, some boys and men can be carrying shame from an experience in their early childhood for years that keeps rearing its ugly head and can be manifested as anger.
Sadly, there is a lot of anger in adolescence especially for those teens who have been conditioned to perceive that unhealthy expressions of anger are OK – and feeling sad or frightened is not. Many teens can damage relationships with explosive angry outbursts and many struggle to repair those relationships. Often, following such outbursts our teen then have a tendency to attack themselves, inwardly. This creates even more emotional tension and angst that increases the likelihood of a teen reaching the end of their tether.
Feeling like a failure or feeling excluded triggers big emotions that can often overwhelm a teen, and might often respond by becoming angry and expressed through aggression.
Some of this anger can be a cover for an underlying anxiety and way of coping with stress. But for other teens, anger is an expression of deep grief, loneliness and a damaged sense of pride. Anger can hide and mask so many things so might be best perceived as seen as a symptom of a deeper problem not the cause.
It is important to remember that no matter how confusing and frustrating our teen’s feelings may seem to us, they are real and important to our teen and discharging emotions safely, especially anger, can be really helpful to them.
Shutting it down and making it wrong can potentially make it worse later. Even worse is when parents get angry at their teens being angry!
It’s understandable that parents want their teen to stop being angry, but the anger is not the problem. It’s often a response, a reaction to feeling rejected, disappointed, confused, scared, unloved, misunderstood, disconnected, full of grief, sad, ugly, embarrassed, ashamed, useless, powerless or out of control.
So how do we help our teens to manage their anger?
Unquestionably, the most significant soother for our teenage children is knowing they are loved, valued and respected by the people who matter most to them.
Relationships – especially ones that can hold a place of unconditional love for our teen, during this incredibly emotionally volatile period of their lives – are the secret to helping them feel safe in their confusing world. This period does not last forever, just a few years, however it can seem like a very long time.
It can be helpful to talk to a teen about what works for them to defuse their anger when they not angry or upset. Don’t try to talk to him when they are dysregulated!
We should try and talk to our tweens and teens boys about strategies to safely physically discharge intense emotional distress.
Any cardiovascular activity, especially if it gets their heart rate up quite high, can help them to stay calmer and cooler throughout the day.
Many teens living in the modern digital world with gaming and social media are a lot more passive and sedentary than they used to be. And some of the games they play can certainly increase their emotional intensity. So they do need really effective outlets for the healthy physical expression of their emotions
Here are a few ideas and activities for your teen to manage anger and process excess cortisol:
We do need to help our teens to understand that feeling frustrated or upset because they can’t do or have something they want is normal. Frustration can quickly become anger and we need to help teens to work out how to manage these big emotions without hurting themselves or other around them
Rather than shouting, shaming or punishing them when they make a mistake or bad decision, we can break the cycle of just further fuelling more shame and anger by instead guiding them through loving connection, quiet support and teaching them accountability. But, as I mentioned before, it’s important to for these talks to take place after everything has calmed down.
If you are concerned that your teen’s anger are beyond the extremes of typically teenage mood swings, you should seek out professional support.
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