In this article, we will better understand the causes of teen anger, how parents can cope with an angry teenager, and when to seek help.
Every parent of a teenager has had this experience - you ask your teen to do something as simple as set the dinner table, but what follows is a torrent of yelling and a slammed bedroom door. You’re standing on the other side thinking “What did I do? Why are they so angry?”
Parenting an adolescent is hard. The teenage years are filled with an incredible amount of physical and brain development and an onslaught of new stress. Their bodies are changing rapidly, their brains are trying to keep up, and the current era is bombarding them with social media, school pressure, new friendship challenges, constant news reporting, and more. It can all feel like too much sometimes, and that overwhelmed feeling can come out as irritability and anger.
Body chemistry: While it’s overly simplistic to blame “hormones” for the rise in teen anger, it is true that the adolescents years are filled with physical changes that can affect how intensely emotions, such as anger, are felt. The teen body has wildly changing levels of key neurochemicals that can make mood swings and emotional outbursts more likely. Stress hormones such as serotonin and norepinephrine are overly active, making teens especially sensitive to stress. “Happy” hormones such as dopamine are underactive, making it difficult for teens to experience positive emotions. The result? A body that is primed for a LOT of negative emotions such as anger or anxiety.
Brain development: Probably the most important contributor to anger in the teenage years is brain development. While emotions are running strong and high, the teen brain is still a work in progress. The part of the brain that controls emotional reactions (the amygdala) is fully developed, while the brain regions that regulate impulse control, rational thinking, and perspective taking are not fully developed until after age 20. That can make it very difficult for teens to effectively control angry feelings at this age.
Cognitive development: The teen brain is primed to experience more anger than at other stages of development. Anger is an emotion we experience when we perceive that something is unjust, wrong, hurtful, or has harmed us in some way. During this age, the teenage brain is both newly attuned to issues of right and wrong but still self-focused, lacks perspective-taking, and sees things in black and white terms. This combination of cognitive development can lead teens to see through a very self-focused lens of what they want/need right at the moment and what they see as right versus wrong, leading to a heightened sensitivity to perceived injustices or unreasonable demands. This is why teens can seem just as easily angered by topics of global injustice they see on the nightly news as they are by being asked to do something as benign as set the dinner table.
Seeking autonomy: The teen years are a lot of not-quite-this, but not-quite-that. Teens are no longer children but not adults either, and social expectations of them (grades, jobs, behavior) may increase faster than the freedoms granted to them. They feel increasingly ready to make decisions about their lives but often aren’t granted the authority to do so yet. This caught-in-between time can leave them feeling very frustrated and powerless, and it comes out as anger.
It might be a sign of other underlying problems: Sometimes a teen’s outward anger is actually hiding something else going on entirely. Anger is a negative emotion that has a way to express itself externally, which can make it easier to tolerate than some negative emotions such as anxiety or depression. Substance use can make teens act in angry and irrational ways, as can adverse events such as being bullied or abused. As we discuss in more detail below, sudden onset of intense anger from a teen who otherwise hasn’t had issues with impulsivity or anger before might be a warning sign that something else is bothering them.
As a parent, when you start to see anger issues in your teenager, it can leave you wondering if these signs and symptoms are potentially a mental health concern.
Beyond parenting tips, it is important to know when to seek professional help and take those next steps. If your teen is showing any of the following, consider seeing a therapist or professional for evaluation and treatment:
For teens, anger can be a way in which the underlying problem of depression shows up. If your teen is showing any of the following, seek help:
Feeling angry is normal, but taking out anger in aggressive ways that hurt belongings or other people is not safe.
Engaging in impulsive behavior when angry, such as drug use, binge drinking, unsafe driving, or unsafe sex, is a sign that the teen needs help.
There are effective treatments for teen anger. Cognitive-behavior therapy in particular can be effective for anger management by helping clients learn relaxation, cognitive reappraisal, problem-solving, and communication skills that help reduce and redirect anger in adaptive ways.