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Maria Shriver

Life Ed: Helping Teen Sons Deal With Anger

Parenting teenagers can be a challenging and stressful time; it’s a period when boundaries are tested, doors are slammed, and voices often raised. When teenage boys express their frustrations in anger, that anger can be unsettling.

Here to provide guidance on handling that anger, is Dr. Meg Meeker, a pediatrician who has practiced pediatric and adolescent medicine for 25 years, an author of six parenting books including the recently released “Strong Mothers, Strong Sons,” and a mom to four grown children.

Moodiness and anger in teenage boys is a common issue that parents deal with. Here, we will look at “normal” teenage anger and moodiness, caused by hormonal and psychological changes, and then we will address some behaviors parents should look out for which might indicate something more serious is going on, such as depression or oppositional defiant disorder.

“Normal” anger appears shortly after puberty begins. It often stems from a teen’s desire to be more independent from his parents and his frustration that he can’t yet enjoy the freedoms of an adult. That frustration is sometimes expressed in anger and striking out verbally at parents. Teenage boys are also contending with peer pressure which is pushing them to rebel by drinking or smoking, taking drugs or being sexually active; this can intensify a boy’s anger. Teenage boys struggling with these issues can be mouthy and angry one day and then completely upbeat the next. They will teeter between being engaged with the family and wanting to retreat by themselves or with friends for several hours at a time.

Here are some tools that parents can use to dissipate this kind anger. And following, I’ll address warning signs parents should look out for which might indicate that something more is going on.

1. Address his anger in a non-accusatory manner. In other words, address his anger as though it were a broken leg. Rather than using a tone implying that he is a bad kid, use a tone that says, he is struggling with anger and this needs to be addressed and dealt with.

2. Set clear rules for his anger. Parents are often afraid of their son’s anger, especially single moms who are physically smaller than sons. So rules are extremely important. Tell your son that he is free to express his anger by talking about it, but he is never allowed to: use foul language, call names, become physical or hurt anyone or anything in the home. If he crosses these boundaries, let him know the consequences.

3. Don’t take his anger personally. Mothers in particular become emotionally entangled with sons when they are angry. We subconsciously believe that the boys’ anger is our fault. Don’t do this. Treat your son like he is someone else’s so that you can stay emotionally separate. Becoming tangled in his emotions fuels the anger.

4. Communicate to him that he is in charge of what he does with his anger. At the heart of many issues for teen boys is a desire to be more in charge. As they become men and leave boyhood behind, they sense that they need to take more control. This is a great way to “empower” a son and at the same time help him resolve his anger.

5. Don’t allow excuses. One of the worst things that we mothers can do is excuse bad behavior because a son is depressed, sad, lonely, etc. We must teach our sons that feelings are simply that; they are not behaviors. That means that temper tantrums or yelling at mom or others is never acceptable. Teaching sons to separate their feelings from their behaviors is critical to healthy maturity.

6. Let him know that you aren’t the enemy. Parents of teens often believe that what kids need is more time with peers and less time with parents. In fact, studies show that the opposite is true. Teens need parent time and most want more, not less of it. So take advantage of this and tell him that you are his ally in this growing-up journey. Just showing him this will dissipate some of his anger.

7. Train yourself to be a better listener. Sometimes boys just need to be heard. Most parents need practice when it comes to listening because we are busy and frustrated ourselves. When your son is agitated, sit down, look him in the eye and give him permission to say what he needs to say (as long as he follows the rules for anger), and don’t interrupt him. This will go a long way in helping him manage his anger and frustrations.

8. Minimize violent video games. While video games may not cause boys to act out, studies show that boys who play them repeatedly are more aggressive in their twenties. If a teenage boy has anger issues, watching violence and controlling it on a screen does NOT help a boy dissipate his anger. In fact, the opposite is true: they can become more agitated.

Signs to Watch Out For

It is NOT normal for boys to withdraw completely from their parents and siblings. If a teen is volatile, hostile, has repeated verbal (screaming) or physical (hitting) anger outbursts, it is important for parents to look for reasons why a teen feels such intense anger. He could either have depression or have experienced a deep loss which must be resolved. Anger is sadness coming out sideways, so beneath every angry outburst is a sadness or loss that the boy either doesn’t want to confront or isn’t able to identify. If a boy withdraws from his family, never shows any levity or happiness for a period longer than two weeks, then parents need to decide if he may be depressed.

A major depressive episode is identified as an individual having five of the following symptoms for at least two weeks in a row:

1. Irritable or depressed mood every day.

2. Decreased interest or pleasure in activities normally enjoyed.

3. Change in appetite or weight loss /gain without clear cause.

4. Insomnia or hypersomnia (sleeping too much).

5. Psychomotor retardation (slowing down) or agitation (hyperactivity).

6. Fatigue, feelings of worthlessness or inappropriate guilt.

7. Decreased ability to think or concentrate.

8. Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide.

If a parent recognizes these behaviors, it is important to get the teen help as soon as possible, and consulting your son’s primary care doctor is a great place to begin.

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