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Adolescence and anger.

How parents and adolescents can turn anger into positive communication.

In counseling families with adolescents, anger is a frequently occurring issue, not just for the young person, but for parents as well. How could it be otherwise?

After all, adolescence is a long drawn out process of insurrection through which the young person actively and passively challenges and ultimately overthrows the rules and demands of parental authority.

Parents can get angry in their frustrating fight for influence, adolescents can get angry in their frustrating fight for freedom. However,the battle is finally lost and won as the new generation defeats the old.

At the end, parents are forced to adjust to their loss of primacy and influence and accept the young man or woman on his or her own individual and independent terms. Parents raise children only to have to let them go. Adolescents strive for independence only to discover that freedom isn't free. Now they have to take care of them selves.

So the first thing for parents to keep in mind is that intermittent anger between them and their adolescent son or daughter is not a problem to eliminate. It is a reality to accept. The issue for parents is to understand the nature of anger, what tends to bring it on, and choices for managing it constructively.

For those parents whose own painful family history has given anger a bad name (perhaps it was abusively or tyrannically expressed), acceptance of anger as normal and healthy can be hard to do. However, if they treat it as "bad," to be avoided, suppressed, appeased, or punished, they are ill preparing their son or daughter to manage this important and difficult emotion.

Why can it be difficult? The answer is because anger can be scary and potentially dangerous. Linked to argument it can intensify conflict. Linked to aversion it can lead to the loss of friendship or even love. Linked to aggression it can lead to acts of verbal, emotional, or physical violence.

In the extremity of the moment, destructive rage can feel justified in blaming the victim: "You brought this on yourself!" Expressed in a loud or threatening manner, anger can extort obedience. This is why many bullies favor its intimidating use. (See 9/20/09 blog, Emotional extortion.)

Of course, ongoing anger can also be a danger to the carrier, and the name of that danger is resentment. In the words of Alcoholics Anonymous: "Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die." And AA should know since most addictions run at least partly on resentment to justify the self-destructive behavior compulsively going on. "If you had to deal with what I do, you'd drink too!" The antidote to resentment is forgiveness, the process of letting anger go.

Anger can also be confusing. It is not uncommon for male and female to manage the expressions of pain and anger quite differently based on the sex role socializing they received. So a woman, wanting to avoid the angry woman stereotype for which there are insulting terms, expresses anger as pain, crying when she gets mad. So a man, wanting to avoid the crying man stereotype for which there are insulting terms, acts angry when he is in pain. (Even more serious is the jilted young man who takes deep suffering over love's loss, turns it to anger, and then physically retaliates against the young woman who caused his sorrow in order to reassert power and control.)

What is the function of anger? Anger is a feeling, and like all emotions helps us remain self-aware about what it going on within us, to us, and around us. (See 7/19/10 blog, Adolescence and emotion.) Usually it arises in response to some perceived violation of one's well being by oneself ("I messed up!"), by others ("I was mistreated!"), or by the world ("Events are against me!")

Common statements of violation I hear in counseling include: "That was wrong!" "That shouldn't have happened!" "I didn't deserve this!" "That was unfair!" "That's not right!" "I'm not going to take it!" "I'm never going to forget this!" "I'm going to get them back!"

At the extremes is where feelings of anger can be most destructive. At one extreme are people who are angry all the time. They exist in a constant state of violation and are boiling over with resentment. Everything is wrong, nothing is right, and all previous slights, insults, and offenses are bitterly remembered. They hold on to all violations. They are easily enraged. To live with, they can be impatient, critical, and irascible.

At the other extreme are people who never get angry. No matter the mistreatment, they accept it as okay. They don't complain or confront, and they don't contest a harsh word or hurtful act. They suffer in silence. They are emotionally undefended. They let all violations go. To live with, they can be enduring, deferential, and submissive.

It is on the continuum that connects these two extremes that parents need to locate themselves, allowing anger to identify violations but not allowing anger to hold excessive sway. What we give our children is who and how we are, the example we set. Typically high anger and low anger parents differ along three characteristics.

High anger parents tend to be high controlling, getting angry when they don't get their way. Low anger parents tend to be low controlling, more flexible and adaptable when things don't go their way.

High anger parents tend to be high judgmental, getting angry when things are not done right or correctly in their view. Low anger parents tend to be low judgmental, more accepting and tolerant of alternative beliefs and behaviors.

High anger parents tend to take personally what is not personally meant, getting angry by interpreting unintentional slights or unwanted events as deliberate provocations or attacks. Low anger parents tend to depersonalize adversity, dealing with what happens without assuming it was deliberately directed at them.

In counseling, it is common to help high anger adults learn to recalibrate their emotional set points. (Cognitive psychologists are often skilled at this.) So the adult learns that he doesn't have to be in complete control, doesn't have to be right all the time, and doesn't have to take personal affront when offended by some unwanted response or event.

When parental anger goes down in the family, adolescent anger often follows suit because now a different adult example is being given, and a more reasonable and less volatile interaction with the parent is possible when normal violations occur.

Over the years I've informally kept track of common violations in each other's behavior that often elicit anger in parent and adolescent. Here are a few.

Parents can decide to get angry when the adolescent: lies, breaks a promise, disobeys, doesn't keep an agreement, argues, talks back, delays compliance, refuses to cooperate, sneaks out, makes excuses, blames the parent, borrows without asking, steals, ignores a parent, walks away, slams a door, litters the home, leaves a mess, or doesn't clean up.

Adolescents can decide to get angry when the parent: teases, threatens, orders, accuses, forbids, nags, criticizes, lectures, repeats, questions, checks up on, favors another child, doesn't listen, publicly embarrasses, laughs at, breaks a confidence, invades privacy, grounds, takes away resources, or disbelieves what is told in truth.

Several strategies for managing anger that have proved useful with parents and adolescents follow.

1)Understand that anger is often not really about anger. It can be about more vulnerable emotions that are concealed underneath anger's aggressive cover. So it's always worthwhile asking the angry person: "What else are you feeling in addition to anger?" What are frequently reported are emotions that are more sensitive and salient to discuss like anxiety, worry, hurt, sadness, frustration, distrust, uncertainty, guilt, shame, regret. "I'm just upset that I really disappointed you."

2)Understand that perception mediates emotion. The equation is not: event = emotional experience. The equation is: event + INTERPRETATION = emotional experience. Like the I Ching says: "It's not the event, it's the response to the event that matters." No one can make you angry without permission given by your interpretation about what happened. Change how you think and you can change how you feel. "When I chose to believe you did this deliberately, I was really hurt and angry. But when I chose to understand that you did it unintentionally, at least the anger part went away."

3)Understand that all anger is about caring. People don't get angry at what they don't care about. They get angry about something that matters to them, and that is often worth talking about. When a declaration of mattering replaces an accusation of wrong doing, the communication often becomes easier to listen to and discuss. "What mattered to me when you didn't do as you promised was the scary feeling I couldn't count on you."

The function of anger is to identify violations of one's well being and to energize an expressive, corrective, or protective response. The burden of ongoing anger is resentment. The abuse of anger is verbal, emotional, or physical violence.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.) Information at:

Next week's entry: Adolescence and the problem with problems.

More from Carl E Pickhardt Ph.D.
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