Healthy Anger Management for Teens
by Dr. Bernard Golden

While not every teen is an angry young man (or woman), all teens benefit when they learn healthy anger management. When they do so, they gain increased self-awareness, frustration tolerance, self-control, competence and empathy for themselves and others.In contrast, teens who mismanage anger may exhibit social withdrawal, academic underachievement, substance abuse, bullying, gang participation, prejudice and suicidal behaviors. Healthy anger implies managing it in a constructive way, not denying, minimizing, or suppressing it, nor letting it “all hang out.” Most importantly, we teach healthy anger management by helping teens recognize that anger is a natural emotion. We teach healthy anger management by helping them to 1) Recognize and identify the negative emotions behind their anger, 2) Identify, challenge and replace unrealistic conclusions and expectations, 3) Learn physical relaxation skills to maintain composure, and 4) Develop problem-solving skills.

We teach teens healthy anger management when we help them recognize that anger is most often a reaction to other negative emotions such as embarrassment, anxiety, guilt, shame or hurt related to rejection or feelings of inadequacy. Sharing your emotions, unrealistic expectations and conclusions that underlie your anger, helps your child reflect on the meaning of his anger. By modeling reflection and self-awareness, you also offer your child permission to candidly and openly accept and discuss his feelings and thoughts.

Actively listen to the emotions behind your teen’s anger. Then share, observations such as “When I become angry, it’s usually because I first feel hurt, disappointed, embarrassed or some other emotions” or “In that situation, I know that I would first feel rejected and then probably somewhat annoyed.” We also teach healthy anger to teens by helping them realize they are more prone to experience negative emotions and related anger, when they maintain unrealistic expectations and conclusions regarding others and ourselves. Your son may be prone to anger when he has rigid expectations (rather than a desire or wish) that he or others “have to” or “should” behave as expected. For example, he may get angry when he feels shame about not measuring up to his expectations about how he should play his guitar. He may experience anger when he mistakenly concludes that a best friend no longer likes him. Your oldest daughter may experience expectations of entitlement that make her vulnerable to anger following the slightest disappointment.

Teens need help in challenging and replacing these unrealistic thoughts, including “all or nothing” thinking such as “I need to be perfect or I am a failure.” Help them challenge such thoughts with more realistic and compassionate thoughts such as, “The fact is no one is perfect,” “We are all human,” “Just because I feel like I have to be perfect does not mean it is true,” or “People will still like me even if I am not perfect.” In addition to recognizing emotions and unrealistic thoughts associated with anger, teens need to learn skills in body awareness and relaxation in order to reduce the physical tension associated with anger. Simply deeply inhaling and exhaling three times can help an adolescent become relaxed. This approach can be rehearsed when your child is calm so he easily remembers to use it when he actually experiences anger.

Visual imagery offers another way towards physical control and relaxation. The following exercise can be rehearsed so that your teen can gain physical composure when he actually experiences tension associated with anger. Have him sit in a comfortable chair, close his eyes and visualize a place that is extremely relaxing and peaceful. Suggest he imagine the colors, the sounds, the air quality, the shapes, lines and texture of the objects in his scene. Once relaxed, suggest he shift his attention to envisioning his muscles becoming more relaxed, beginning with his forehead, his face, jaw, neck, shoulders, torso, and down to his toes. Then have him do this once again. By rehearsing it, he develops the capacity to relax his body without having to actually picture the scene.

Problem solving skills may involve brainstorming, thinking through alternative ways of managing anger, communicating anger and evaluating effectiveness of strategies for managing anger. While most teens benefit from these strategies alone, some may need additional support from professionals. Special support is indicated when your teen’s anger is of a long duration (several weeks or longer), is intense (physically or verbally) and is pervasive (directed at many different individuals and in many different settings). Learning healthy anger management is a process that takes time. It requires commitment, practice and patience – from you and your teen.

Bernard R. Golden, Ph.D. is the author of “Healthy Anger: How to Help Your Child or Teen Manage Their Anger” (Oxford; 2003; $28). He is a psychologist in private practice and offers workshops on anger management. For more information please visit www.angermanagementeducation.com, call 1-312-642-0265, or email bgolden10@aol.com.