At-risk teens typically have a lot to be angry about. The circumstances of their lives that placed them at risk of becoming criminals, addicts, or victims of abuse are unfair and undeserved. But succumbing to anger without the tools to manage it can increase the risk of negative outcomes. The frequency of angry outbursts or harmful behavior begs the question: Is there a self-destruct button embedded in at-risk kids?
Why Are Teens Angry?
Some types of anger in teens are normal: hormonal changes, an itch for greater independence from parents, or disagreements with friends can induce angry behavior. Teens also become understandably angry if they are the victims of bullying, or if they have suffered a loss and are grieving. But for at-risk teens, the causes of anger can be much more profound. They may have come from a disrupted home situation involving divorce or abandonment, have been passed through a series of foster homes, or have endured physical, sexual, or psychological abuse.
Anger Is a Self-Destruct Button for At-Risk Teens
Often, teens can’t identify or express exactly what it is that is making them feel so angry. They turn their anger inward, and engage in self-destructive behavior. They express anger indirectly by doing things like refusing to clean their room or do their schoolwork. Some get in trouble with the law or begin abusing drugs or alcohol. Some angry teens become violent, perpetually argumentative, or engage in self-harming behaviors such as cutting. These self-destructive behaviors are all warning signs that a teen is in serious distress and needs therapeutic help.
Health Implications of Anger
Anger and hostility keep blood pressure high, and in teens, can cause health problems such as anxiety, stress, and fatigue. Other health problems associated with anger include headaches, digestive problems, insomnia, depression, skin problems, and even heart attacks.
How To Help At-Risk Teens Cope With Anger
Is there a self-destruct button embedded in at-risk kids? The simple fact that a teen can be described as “at-risk” is a good indicator that they are in danger of engaging in self-destructive behavior. Angry teens need to have their anger acknowledged, and need help releasing anger in non-destructive ways.
Fortunately, there are strategies to help teens safely express anger:
- Encourage Exercise:Participating in physical activities helps diffuse feelings of anger and aggression. The impulse to do something physical when feeling angry is strong in most teens. Channeling that impulse into sports, dancing, running, or other physical activity has the benefit of releasing endorphins, the “feel-good” hormones that calm the brain and encourage relaxation and positivity.
- Model Healthy Living: In addition to exercise, teens need to learn about healthy eating and good “sleep hygiene.” Getting a good night’s sleep is essential to anger management. Teens need 8-10 hours of sleep a night. Setting a firm time when screens must be off or put away, and encouraging teens to spend an hour or two before bedtime journaling, reading, or just sitting quietly with parents, counselors, or caregivers is effective preparation for a solid sleep. These are all better techniques to help avoid over-exposure to the light of phones or televisions that is known to disrupt the normal “circadian rhythm” that prepares humans for sleep.
- Cushion the Blow: Angry teens may want to hit something. Instead of breaking things or hurting themselves or someone else, make it possible for a teen to take their anger out on a punching bag, pillows, or cushions specifically designated as anger relievers.
- Take a Time-in: A “time-in” is an inclusive action, where a parent, counselor, or caregiver sits with theteen teen listens to them to learn what set them off, and helps them calm down so they can talk about it and learn alternative, more positive and productive ways to handle their feelings.
- Turn on the Tunes: Teenagers are into music, and often incorporate their musical tastes into their identities. While music that is too loud and lyrics that use foul language or express violent or suicidal ideas should be off-limits for troubled teens, finding music that helps express feelings, or simply makes you want to get up and dance, can be a positive outlet for angry teens. Learning to play a musical instrument is also a way to channel negative feelings into more positive activity.
- Identify Triggers: Teens may have trouble figuring out and expressing exactly what is making them feel angry. Some common anger triggers are feeling threatened, being frustrated, or situations where one feels powerless. When it’s obvious a teen is becoming angry, encourage them to identify what it is, in that moment, that is making them feel that way. Did something just happen, or are they remembering something that hurt or frustrated them in the past? Helping a teen get specific about what triggers their anger is the beginning of finding solutions for working out those feelings in non-destructive ways.
- Get Creative: Everyone has talent, including angry, at-risk teens. Offering teens the opportunity to engage in creative activities is a way for them to identify their talents and develop better self-esteem. Whether it is writing, painting, acting, singing, dancing, or playing guitar, teens who discover a creative activity that they like and are good at have a chance to channel anger into something more positive.
Many young people respond to anger through aggressive actions such as punching, kicking, breaking things—or worse, hurting other people. They also use criticism, finding fault with others, or sarcasm as ways to express anger.
Parent, teachers, counselors, and juvenile justice workers can learn how to help angry teens develop coping strategies to manage anger. Among the many life skills packages and courses Arise Foundation publishes for those who work with at-risk youth is a comprehensive anger management curriculum to use with high school-age teens and young adults.
Listening without judgment, empathy, and positivity can go a long way toward helping at-risk youth learn to understand and cope with feelings of anger. When teens develop anger management skills, they are less likely to engage in self-destructive behaviors that harm themselves or others. When those behaviors are under control, at-risk youth can move forward to learning additional life skills that will prepare them for life as productive, responsible adult citizens and members of their communities.