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When Parents Get Angry at Their Adolescent

Adolescence causes more anger for teenagers and for their parents, too

Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.

Although one often hears about the “angry teenager,” from what I’ve seen the “angry parent of a teenager” is just about as common. Adolescence can be maddening on both sides of the relationship.

First consider why anyone gets angry at all. Anger is part of what I think of as a healthy person’s affective awareness system. It uses feelings to register and direct attention to something significant going on in their world of experience.

Anger is one of a group of unhappy feelings which all have important functions. For example, fear alerts a person to possible danger, frustration to existing blockage, grief to significant loss, disappointment to broken expectations, and so on. People who are out of touch with their feelings can miss a lot of vital information.

Anger identifies some violation of one’s well-being. Some insult or injury or offense has occurred that feels unfair, unjust, or wrong, that shouldn’t have happened or be allowed to stand. Anger also energizes and empowers the person to take expressive, protective, or corrective action in response. So, like other hard emotions, anger has a useful purpose.

Between parents and adolescent, there is nothing “wrong” with anger except when it is managed in destructive ways.

Anger at parents is primarily built into adolescent life for freedom’s sake. The job of the teenager is to push for more individuality and independence to grow; the job of parents is to restrain that push within the interests of safety and responsibility. So a young person frequently finds it maddening to have their freedom to grow restricted by parental limits and demands. “You never let me do anything!” “You’re overprotective!” “All my friends get to do more than me!” “You expect me to do too much!” “Why should I have to?”

But why would parents get angry at their teenager? Consider a few common flashpoints for parental anger:

Delay. Parents can take offense when repeated requests are ignored of put off until later. It’s easy to get angry at adolescent delay. Rather than act mad, parents can act effectively. Persistently they can pursue what they asked for until compliance is given.

Rule Breaking. Parents can take offense when a significant family requirement is violated. It’s easy to get angry at adolescent disobedience. Rather than act mad, parents can act effectively. They can deliver or allow expected consequences that a significant violation brings.

Alteration. Parents can take offense at unwelcome expressions of adolescent growth. It’s easy to get angry at adolescent changes. Rather than act mad, parents can act effectively. They can bridge growing differences with interest to find out what is going on, and they can reaffirm acceptable boundaries of behavior.

Debate. Parents can take offense when a demand provokes talking back. It’s easy to get angry at adolescent argument. Rather than act mad, parents can act effectively. They can give a fair hearing, appreciate knowing more, state their final position, and then not argue back.

Inequity. Parents can take offense when they feel they give a lot and get little in return. It’s easy to get angry at insufficient adolescent contribution. Rather than act mad, parents can act effectively. They can insist on evidence of mutuality, waiting to get effort before giving effort of their own.

Ignorance. Parents can take offense when not knowing begets worry. It’s easy to get angry at lack of adolescent communication. Rather than act mad, parents can act effectively. They can explain their need to be informed as a condition for the adolescent being allowed.

Dishonesty. Parents can take offense when told a falsehood. It’s easy to get angry at adolescent lying. Rather than act mad, parents can act effectively. They can explain how dishonesty causes them to feel unsafe for the teenager, becoming harder to convince to permit and provide.

Mistreatment. Parents can take offense when feeling ill-used. It’s easy to get angry at adolescent thoughtlessness or exploitation. Rather than act mad, parents can act effectively. They can demand the time to discuss the hurt they feel and the amends that must be made.

So what is the problem of parents acting mad when they feel angry at some adolescent violation of their wellbeing? The answer is: it’s usually ineffective.

Mad at their teenager, parents are emotionally tempted to bypass communication and “do” something critical or punitive to show their displeasure. Rather, consider two parental rules for managing anger at their adolescent. First, honor what anger has to tell by talking about it. Second, never punish in anger because that reduces corrective effect.

Honoring what anger has to tell. People (and parents are people) don’t get angry at what doesn’t matter to them. Or, affirmatively put, they only get angry at something that does matter to them. Feeling anger at what the adolescent has done (“borrowed” a valued parental possession without asking, for example), the offended or injured parent comes to a communication fork in the road. They can act mad and vent hard feelings, or they can discuss what matters enough to feel angry about so that it can be empathetically understood and reasonably resolved.

“What matters to me in what you did is this. I want control over the use of my possessions. You took that away from me. That’s what I want us to talk about. How your taking without asking caused me to feel, and what I need to happen differently.” When the adolescent learns that parental anger signals a need to talk about something that matters, and is not some hurtful outburst or emotional assault, it becomes a cue for serious discussion. "If it feels important enough to get really angry over for me or my parents, it's probably important enough for us to talk about."

Never punish in anger. When anger drives punishment, it can drive parents to overreact: “You’re grounded for the next year for what you did!” Often, the injured-feeling parent will feel stuck with an extreme “shoot-from-the-hip” punishment that on emotionally sober reflection they later regret, and may need to retract. “The next couple weekends will be enough.” Now the adolescent learns that when it comes to immediate correction, angry parents don’t mean what they say, at least not at first.

In addition, when punishment is done in anger, the adolescent can learn the wrong lesson. So I ask the high school sophomore why she is being punished, and her answer is: “My parents are angry at me again. I don’t know why!” She’s missed the point because the parents’ emotional message is what the teenager takes away, not an understanding of what mattered.

Anger risks emotional arousal. For example, frustration with opposition in conflict can increase the intensity of anger. To avoid hard feelings from causing harmful words or actions, parents need to remember that resolving the issue at difference with the adolescent is always a second order priority. First priority is managing their state of irritation or anger in order to observe the primary rule of family conflict: that it must be conducted safely so that no one gets hurt.

So if they feel their temper rising, they need to declare a time-out to restore rational control, committing to resume the discussion later when a cooler head can prevail. Parents who accomplish this challenging self-management task teach a powerful positive lesson to the observing adolescent. “My dad doesn’t blow up at us anymore. He takes the time to take his anger out of our arguments, and it’s really lowered stress in the family.”

So, what are some steps for constructively using parental anger with their adolescent? Consider three.

First: Rely on anger to identify violations of your wellbeing in the relationship.

Second: Focus on what has happened, and what it represents that matters enough to feel angry in order to decide what you want to talk about.

Third: For however long it takes, use the energy of anger to pursue addressing and redressing what feels wrong until understanding and resolution is reached.

Finally, parents need to assess their vulnerability to excessive anger—being anger prone and holding onto anger.

Being anger-prone. From what I’ve seen, anger-prone parents are some combination of being highly judgmental (“I know best”), controlling (I will have my way.”), impatient (“I won’t wait.”), emotionally explosive (“I have a temper.”), and take personally what isn’t personally meant (“That was deliberately done to upset me.”).

‘Prone’ does not have to be permanent. With practice, anger-prone parents can learn to reset their emotional flash points. They can work on being less judgmental, less controlling, less impatient, less explosive, and less inclined to take personal affront at the unwanted or unexpected. Adolescents usually appreciate when parents can make this change. “I used to tip toe around my Mom; now I don’t need to do that anymore.”

Holding onto anger. Parents should beware holding onto anger because that can yield resentment which can be hard to contain. As grievance feeds upon itself, anger is fueled and can start leaking out in hostile ways. Emotional coldness can take hold, irritability and criticism can increase, and arguments can be sought. Ultimately, it can adversely infect the person harboring the anger. As Alcoholics Aonymous advises: “Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” Some addictions seem to emotionally run on resentment when an ongoing sense of grievance is used to justify the compulsive self-destructive behavior: “I have good cause to drink how I do!” In any case, to reduce resentment, let grievance go.

So, when it comes to parental anger, do your adolescent a favor: reduce proneness to anger, avoid resentment, and keep your anger functional. Honor it to identify violations, focus on what matters, and energize addressing and redressing what feels wrong. From your explanation, interaction, and example, your teenager can profitably learn.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE” (Wiley, 2013.)

Next entry: When Adolescents Continually Lie

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