Teen rage: mental disorder or psychological crisis?

Published: Friday, Aug. 24 2012 10:00 p.m. MDT

To say that a teen's anger was provoked by something comparatively miniscule is a total misreading, said Carl Pickhardt, psychologist and author of 25 books on adolescents and teen anger. Those small things are big things in disguise; they are symbolic.

Parents are often taken aback by the way a teen overreacts to something small that they did or didn't do, Pickhardt said. "All of a sudden a small thing is illuminated as a huge issue."

After an angry reaction, parent and child often want to put things aside and decide to leave it alone, Pickhardt said. "But that's a mistake. Because there is some really important data here that needs to be looked at."

Teens need to learn to identify what triggers their anger and how they typically respond when angry, Lohmann said. "Anger is a highly-charged, explosive emotion." Often, parents know what irritates their teen, such as loud noises or nagging. Discovering how to prevent those pet peeves and helping a teen cope with them can reduce the tension.

If the teen needs time or space, parents should respect that and avoid pushing their child to respond immediately. Teens should learn how to take a timeout and collect their thoughts, giving them a place where they can seek respite. Lohmann suggests cutting the overhead lights or encouraging them to retreat to an outlet such as a physical activity, music or a book.

Emotional literacy

A major root of anger lies in the inability to positively communicate feelings. Often when teens are cut off from their emotions, they are unable to talk about their feelings, which inhibits them from receiving the kind of supportive response that diffuses the anger, Pickhardt said.

One thing parents can do to combat anger early is to teach the child "feeling words" as soon as the child has gained command of words, Pickhardt said. When a 3-year-old in a fit of anger takes a swat at her father, he must tell the child it is not OK to hit and teach her to use the word "angry" the next time she has the urge to hit. It's important to teach the child to identify these feelings, to put words to them to connect them with experiences.

"What you want is emotional literacy," Pickhardt said.

The value of anger

We are a country that has a hard time with anger, Pickhardt said. He called entertainment media a "marketplace phenomenon" in which very powerful market forces are frantically competing with more and more extreme material to attract attention.

Americans appear to enjoy anger in movies, for example, but struggle with it in daily life. "We don't appreciate it, we don't honor it, we don't respect and we don't use it for what it can do to teach us," Pickhardt said.

Anger has spawned a number of important developments, Lohmann said, from the civil rights movement to women gaining the right to vote to mothers against drunk driving.

"I could go on and on about the organizations created because someone felt something was unjustified and they took that emotionally charged anger and pushed it into something positive that bettered society," Lohmann said.

Sometimes teens merely need a nudge in the right direction. "One thing I do know now is that it's worth not giving up on our teens, even when we're tempted to," Tynan-Wood said. "Sometimes pushing them beyond their comfort zone is exactly what will bring a smile to their face."

Email: rlowry@desnews.com

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