In Our Therapy With Teens, Anger Isn’t Treated As Inherently Unhealthy
As therapists who work with teens, we acknowledge that teens have a lot to be angry about. There’s racism, sexism and violence against people of color, transgender people and women. We’re destroying their planet. Their schools are often ill suited for human habitation or at least, poorly organized to meet their emotional needs. There are issues of concern within families. There are peers who are cruel, boys who are mean, girls who dis them and parents who don’t do the hard work to understand them. If we start by projecting the idea that anger isn’t warranted, we fail from the beginning.
We don’t relate to a teen’s anger itself as pathological. How anger gets expressed may be unhealthy, but we start with the assumption that anger is legit. We then investigate it and sort out how to give it the attention it needs so it doesn’t keep getting expressed in problematic ways.
We Can Hang With A Teen’s Anger
Above all, in our therapy with teens, we aren’t afraid of anger. Of course, we don’t have to live with the teenager–we understand it can be hard to live with for parents and other family members. But because we make it clear to teens in our practice that anger is a part of life (and a part of therapy), we create room to make it more ordinary as opposed to a forbidden or scary thing. Therapists who are intimidated by anger don’t have any business being therapists.
We can hang with anger and we let teens know it.
Supporting Teens To Be Powerful With Their Anger
As therapists, we help teens be powerful in their anger. Anger is useful–to them personally and to the world. Anger can be used to build meaningful things. It can help them change politics, fight for better circumstances at school and improve conditions for friends who are getting picked on.
There’s anger that gets expressed in ways that make people run away or shut down and there’s ways that anger can be expressed that are organizing. Take, for example, political protest or an inspirational speech–both modes are often motivated and filled with anger. Anger also benefits from friends who share that anger.
Helping teens be powerful with their anger is first and foremost about honoring it. Teens who have parents who are more active with their anger tend to be more able to do it themselves. If that’s not the sort of parent you are, that’s okay–we can help (and maybe you could work on that in your own therapy, to both your and your teen’s benefit).
Getting To The Bottom Of A Teen’s Expressed And Unexpressed Anger
Similar to how teens can express anxiety about bigger issues by fighting or worrying about something that appears relatively minor (like a pimple), a teen’s anger can also be disguised as something else. A problematic way that anger is expressed by teens is that it isn’t. This can look like a teen that is withdrawn, anxious and/or depressed. It can play out as cutting or bullying.
Just as anger can be disguised as withdrawal, depression or anxiety, the opposite can also be the case. Unaddressed anxiety, depression or trauma can be disguised as anger. In good therapy for teens, we sort out what needs attention and direct it from there.
How do we figure out what a teen’s anger is really about? It’s like getting to the root of anything in therapy–we are profoundly curious and we resist the urge to assume that what meets the eye is the whole story. We make suggestions and we’re used to the look and feel of hidden anger. It’s a scavenger hunt of sorts.
Parents Need To Get Closer To Their Teen’s Anger: Family Therapy Can Help
Teens are often angry at their parents–sometimes in ways that are misdirected and sometimes in ways that are right on the money. A teen may be angry with peers, school or other issues outside the family, but they’re taking it out on mom and dad.
Other times, as parents, we make mistakes. Being close to a teen and raising him or her from the earliest age has a funny quality of making it hard to see the impact of these mistakes. Parents are sometimes too close. They feel bad or put it out of their minds, imagining that because it was years ago it hasn’t affected the teen.
This is where family therapy can help. In family therapy, we do a lot of coaching of both teens and their parents on how to listen to each other. Anger needs to be couched in ways that it can be heard. The listener needs to really stretch their comfort level to try to really tolerate the anger well enough to hang on and figure out what it’s all about. They have to meet in the middle.
At times, we’ll work with a teen individually and then, when they feel ready to talk to their parents with our support, we bring them in. This way teens have help and there’s someone to push their parents not to shut them down. Parents can also feel supported in family therapy by having someone there who can challenge their teen to find new ways of talking and expressing themselves.
Dealing With Anger Between Teens And Their Siblings
Children of any age can be in high-conflict with siblings. Conflict and anger (along with a number of other emotional difficulties) can be misattributed as a symptom of adolescence when in reality, the anger or conflict existed for a long time. It may just be more pronounced or consequential now that a child is a teenager.
Conflict and anger between siblings can look a number of different ways, which affects how we approach it as therapists. For example, siblings are often unfairly the object of a teen’s anger. They are a convenient and perhaps weaker target of frustration that, in reality, is about the world. In these cases, we need to identify that and give it the attention it needs.
Other times, though, one sibling may be angry at another for justifiable reasons. That sibling is hurtful in some way. This needs intervention. In our therapy with teens we ask: how can the teen in therapy better stand up for him or herself? What leadership is needed from parents? How can we, as therapists or family therapists, support them?
In other cases, there may be high-conflict between two or more siblings, reciprocally. This is messier. There may be longstanding anger, anger at systemic issues in the family or everyone in the family may be angry. There may be an old loss that hasn’t been grieved, a dynamic involving parents and siblings that hasn’t been addressed or an unmet need of one or more children that is being misdirected as anger at one another.
Because of these different forms of conflict between siblings, sometimes, when anger is directed at a sibling, family therapy is called for. But on other occasions, that may be a bad idea. If a sibling, especially a younger or vulnerable sibling is the object of anger, it may not be safe to do that. We understand when there’s room for anger to be worked on with everyone in the room (and when there’s not).
It’s also important for parents to get help in providing different kinds of leadership–this is an area where parents must be engaged. Parents often need help at leading, limit setting, restructuring and giving out successful consequences. Often this involves us helping parents be tougher and give firmer consequences as we build a therapeutic relationship with teens that can help them be more compliant. At times, parents, unwittingly, in their attempts at being helpful, compound the problem by suggesting well-meaning interventions that make things worse. We help parents see this and course-correct.