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Angry teenage behavior - and how do I handle it?

Is this 'normal' teenage behavior - and how do I handle it?

My 16-year-old son has become angry and argumentative.

Is this normal teen behavior or something we should be more concerned about?


Robert Woodford | Pediatrician

Robert Woodford

Any parent who has raised a teenager has likely asked themselves this same question. Most teenagers are reactive to some extent. If it is occasional and in general the parent-teen relationship is healthy, perhaps it can be ignored.

These behaviors are often due to the teen discrediting your opinion, frustration as he perceives you as a nag, or he is struggling with limits or restrictions that you might have imposed. However, parents often interpret this behavior as the teen having a negative attitude, being rebellious, oppositional, or defiant. Parents may respond to this with a critical verbal attack, perhaps commenting on the adolescent's lack of parental respect, emotional reactivity, poor judgment, unwillingness to take responsibility, or perhaps his poor choice of friends.

Any such emotional response will be hurtful, puts the teen on the defensive, and escalates the teen's emotional response. The result is often more arguing, raising of voices, name calling, and possibly alienation of the teen from the parent. Keeping yourself from getting into these emotional situations can be quite difficult. A little understanding of adolescent development may help you keep your "cool. "

Early and Middle School Years

From the early middle school years, most boys have been experiencing the physical and emotional changes of puberty. Although they develop changes of puberty in a predictable sequence, the timing is quite variable. Some may start these changes in the later elementary school years while others are just starting to develop as they start high school. They want to be "normal" relative to their peers. Self appraisal occurs as the development of body image occurs. So, these teens may experience concerns about being the "right" height and weight, having good skin complexion, hair color, hair style and acceptable clothing. They need to "fit in" with their peer group. Do they perceive themselves as smart enough or good enough to participate in various school activities? This is happening at the same time that they are developing closer relationships with others who share their same interests.

They may become interested in dating. Relationships are becoming more important, especially when it comes to being accepted by their friends and being attractive to those of the opposite sex. They develop their sense of identity and of self-reliance, with less dependence on their parents. The focus is changing from that of their family to their peer group. This is a normal process. Be careful, not to interpret this strictly as a loss of parental control, because this is how they experiment with autonomy and develop their own identity and find themselves relative to society. Although mistakes will be made along the way, teens can learn from their mistakes. Giving them another chance is helpful in the development of trust and proving that they can be successful.

High School Years

In high school, they learn deductive reasoning and analytic thinking. They discuss current events and are asked to give their opinions. Some schools offer a range of classes, such as political science, sociology, or psychology. Many study religion or attend religious faith formation classes. They think about their past experiences and their future direction. Some students take debate class and are quite good at articulating their ideas and defending their positions on a number of subjects.

So, occasional anger and arguing are responses to either the development of autonomy (the sense of independence) or the protection of his self-esteem (sense of effectiveness, being good enough, being accepted, or avoidance of being embarrassed in front of his peer group). Now, you might have a better idea of what is causing this reaction. Ask yourself whether it is worth getting upset about? Are you able to back down on some issues? Your teen cannot give in, as he is trying to get past being a child - there's probably a lot at stake for him. Try listening, be empathetic, ask him to explain his perspective, and consider the potential risks.

When to Be Concerned

Watch for signs of increasing anger or frequency of anger, verbal fighting, physical altercations, threats of harm to himself or others, or if you sense that nothing good exists between you and your teen. Note your teen's eating and sleeping behaviors. Keep up to date on his academic progress, friendships, and interests.

Emotional responses often worsen when stressors exist. These may include an ill family member, a family death, a recent move, parental separation/divorce, friendship challenges, bullying, or abuse (physical, sexual and/or verbal). Common family stressors include times when a divorced parent starts a new romantic relationship, a parent cohabitating with a new boyfriend/girlfriend, remarriage, issues surrounding a blended family, child visitation and joint custody. Many parents are often in denial (or at least minimize) that these life-changing events play a significant role in their relationship with their child.

Finally, adjustment disorders, anxiety, depressive illnesses, learning difficulties, and alcohol/substance use cannot be overlooked, as these also adversely affect the way teens perceive their world and react to it. Teens are very good at internalizing their feelings and keeping things secret from their parents.

In the case of significant parent-teen conflict, it is best to seek help early from a physician, psychologist, or family counselor. I must caution you that avoidance of seeking help often makes matters worse. Some issues cannot be helped without expert advice. If parents are reluctant to seek assistance, sometimes I ask them to consider their own needs of autonomy, fears of embarrassment, self esteem, and coping skills. Many parents ask themselves, why didn't I get help for this issue sooner? It is often true that the sooner a problem or illness is diagnosed and treated, the better the long-term outcome.

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