Mental Health and Wellness Requires Honest Expression: Let Teens be Angry!
Anger is complicated. It is especially complicated when it comes to teens. It is even further complicated if gender and or race are part of the discussion, which is beyond the scope of this post. The over-activation of the emotional center in the teen brain plus the urges commonly connected to anger (ie: to lash out, yell, hurt, destroy, or otherwise take action) can result in adults being either fearful or invalidating of teens' anger. On the other end of the expression spectrum, teens may be likely to suppress their anger, particularly in the context of avoiding conflict. It is especially tricky when teens are angry at the adults in their lives. Parents, teachers, coaches, and other important guiding adults have power over teens and therefore leverage to take things away, enact consequences and punishment, and even withdraw affection, which by far may be the most threatening for teens. Anger, however is a real and important emotion, one that inevitably arises in relationships, especially when we care deeply about that relationship.
Anger, as for all emotions, serves a purpose. Anger is often referred to as a secondary emotion, layered over more vulnerable primary emotions such as hurt, loss, loneliness, sadness, guilt or shame. Anger allows people to tune into something that feels wrong, hurtful, or unjust. Anger motivates us to act, protect, defend, and change. Anger helps teens get their needs met. Additionally, anger is energy and needs an outlet for expression.
So, what happens if we explicitly or inadvertently communicate to teens that anger is wrong or unacceptable?
When there is no depressurization valve for the expression of anger, the underlying primary emotions remain stuck as well. Over time, unexpressed anger festers and can manifest as something else entirely. Unexpressed anger can get internalized as persistent anxiety or depression. Other ways unexpressed anger and other difficult emotions can get rerouted is through eating disordered behaviors, self-harm, substance use, sexual acting out, reactivity, or general disregard for rules. When I explore anger with clients, I often either get a puzzled expression (as in anger feels unfamiliar) or reports that they don’t express anger for very valid reasons. For many teens, at best, anger feels unfamiliar, and at worst it feels forbidden.
Why, as adults, might we knowingly or not, invalidate or shut down teens’ expressions of anger?
Teens’ in-artful expression of anger gets misinterpreted as disrespect or challenging authority.
We, as adults are not great at acknowledging our own anger or modeling healthy non-aggressive ways of expressing that anger.
We are afraid that teens’ anger or the unleashing of other intense emotions underneath, could result in some scary or concerning behavior.
Why do teens express reluctance to express their anger?
The adult (parent, coach, etc) will get upset with me and punish me (or impose some negative consequence).
I will upset the adult and then feel guilty.
Teens have a lack of skills, models or practice at expressing anger appropriately and with self-control in the context of healthy relationships and just do not know how.
What can adults do to allow for the authentic emotional expression by teens, including anger, while also guiding teens on interpersonally effective ways to express such difficult emotions?
1) Keep in mind that teens can be easily overwhelmed by their emotions, while also are still developing the parts of their brain that mitigate self-control and lack skills in effective emotional expression. When teens are trying to express a valid emotion using unacceptable language or behavior, be clear with them about the difference. Let them know you do want to understand what they are angry about and that you cannot do that when their behavior or language is inappropriate or disrespectful. Be clear that any consequences are for a behavior and not for any emotion. Then encourage the emotion to be expressed more appropriately when you and they are ready.
2) Think about your own attitudes about anger and how anger has been managed historically in your family and other relationships. Practice and model the honest yet tempered expression of anger so words can help others understand your needs without those words resulting in a personal attack, insult, emotional withholding, rejection or shame. Do this also in your other relationships and environments observed by the teens in your life. If this feels difficult, seek your own supports in learning to do so.
3) If you are worried that a teen may act unsafely or impulsively if they are angry or intensely upset, share those concerns openly, while also trying not to walk on eggshells around them or back down from appropriate accountability or boundaries. If they do act unsafe, destructive, or aggressive, those behaviors need to be responded to with appropriate supports and help. When adults avoid their own honest expression and do not allow teens to express, even when it is intense, it reinforces that intense emotions get adults to back off and sends a message that we and they should be afraid of their own emotions. What is really needed is the kind of help that allows for the development of distress tolerance, emotional regulation, effective communication, and to address underlying concerns that may be triggering the emotional intensity.
4) Have awareness and manage your own emotions when teens express anger or disagree with you or a decision you have made (their feeling can be valid and your decision can also be valid). Access support from another adult if you feel excessively vulnerable, rather than eliciting guilt or invalidating the expression of that teen.
5) When expressing anger to teens (because they will make us angry), wait to do so until your expression can be appropriate, respectful, and nonjudgmental. Keep your end goal in mind. Remember that time is on your side. Very few things are urgent except in situations that pose imminent threat. When teens know you are angry and you make them wait to hear from you, they have time to contemplate their behavior and accept that there will likely be a consequence coming their way. Describe the reason for your anger and connect it to the underlying primary emotions. We, as caring adults, usually become angry when we are scared, worried, hurt, disappointed or embarrassed.
Teens are struggling with mental health broadly. They learn, grow, and feel supported in the context of their relationships. When adults in various roles in teens' lives, model and allow for open expression of emotions, particularly the ones that feel most difficult, it builds healthy relationships for teens; with others, with their emotions and within themselves.