Whether angry at the world, angry at America or just a mentally ill, 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner struck out with homicidal anger in January 2011 in Tucson, taking the lives of six and critically wounding Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. It has become an all too common scene; young 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, wears the same clothes, smokes dope, and 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 teenagers 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).
In any event, 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 it 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. One example could be of a girl being angry because she was taken advantage of physically, so she’s lost a sense of self and self-respect in the process. Another is the more common situation of 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 apparently 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 also was 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 OK 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 OK 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 it does not give them license to strike out.
Anger in Real Life
We once had a young lady at Heartlight 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 must not 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 intensifies. 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 resolved.
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, a residential counseling program for struggling adolescents located in East Texas.