Apart from anecdotal evidence and a cornucopia of movies, books, and songs written on the subject of teenage angst, we can learn from scientific research that negative emotions become more common as people age from age 10 to age 15. Then, from age 15 to age 18, the ratio of positive to negative emotions becomes stable. Parents always notice when their children become less happy and more irritable. There may be a philosophical discussion about whether people become less happy by losing some of the natural happiness they had in their youth, or if children are only so happy because they are ignorant of life, and the more they learn the more they come to the natural state of emotion exhibited by adults. That discussion is viable, but in the meantime, teen-parent conflict is a stressful situation with negative effects on both sides. Where does teenage anger come from, and can we do something to make it better?
Why Do Teens Get Angry So Much?
Seeking to answer where teenage anger is coming from, one psychiatrist summarized a mass of complaints that he heard from his teenage clients that generally fall into categories relating to over-commitment, frustration over feelings of inadequacy and guilt, discontent over unfairness, and the classic “My parents are stupid, they don’t understand”. While some of these may appear ridiculous to an adult, it is important to look at the situation from the teenager’s point of view. Sure, they may have many things handed to them, including free education, lodging, and electronics. Most teenagers look at these as a right, not a privilege. It is understandable for parents to be indignant about such views from their children, but remember that the teenager has no frame of reference: they’ve always had such privileges. Until they are financially independent, they will not fully understand the benefits of living as a dependent. This causes still more teen-parent tension, as teenagers (like any human) find comfort in routine, and the looming future of independence is scary. Even though many teens claim to want that independence, a study found that teens reacted negatively to any activity that could be considered as socializing them into adults.
The disparity of viewpoints on the subject of responsibilities held between teens and parents often leads to the ‘unfair’ argument. The other common cause of claims of unfairness is the disparity teens see in their lives compared to those of their peers, or worse, the romanticized lives of people they see on television. Adolescents have newly-developed social comparison abilities, and they desperately desire to be admired by peers. This frequently leads to frustration, as social status is rarely as impressive as one would hope. Hormonal imbalances make emotional regulation difficult, and conflict rises at home. Parents may make ultimatum claims (“My house, my rules”), which unfortunately leads to “My parents are stupid, they don’t understand”, and the downward spiral continues.
Best Practices for Parents
So how can parents break through this cycle of negative interactions? The first step of healthy relationships is always open communication. Possibly the most important step is also the hardest to do when tensions are high, and that is to increase time spent together. Research shows that teens are spending less time with family than ever before. While girls are more likely than boys to replace this family companionship with friends, teens of both genders are spending more time alone. As social creatures, this has a negative impact on emotional well-being. Lack of companionship can make individuals feel abandoned and likely resentful. As adolescents age, those with adequate time spent with parents claim to feel better about starting interactions and conversations, and have more positive feelings about themselves.
According to commonly accepted psychological theories of development, teenagers are going through a period of identity formation (see a previous article on psychological development here). During the teenage years, a sense of self is formed, encompassing one’s interests, desires, and social belonging. This explains the ‘phases’ that adolescents go through, some of them less wholesome than others. While the teen may claim that they’ve found their true identity, remember that identity formation is usually not solidified until age 18 – 20. In the years leading up to identity formation, teens need to try out different activities and social groups to see what they like and dislike. One common method is through media consumption, through which teens can envision themselves in different potential ‘selves’ to see how they react to such a possibility. For the sake of this development, parents need to allow media consumption. Of course, there is a balance to be found, lest the teen becomes too engaged in a virtual reality that holds them back from truly developing themselves.
Remember that teens want to try many hats during these years. When they want to move on to the next style or social group, anything that they feel is holding them back will be met with resentment. Parents may want their child to continue taking music lessons or finish the sports season, especially if the child shows promise and talent. But forcing a disinterested child to continue may backfire: they may come to associate their anger at having to practice with the sport or music altogether, and for years hold a grudge against something that they once enjoyed. Rather, give them room to jump in and out of recreation activities. They may decide to leave the sports team, but after trying a few other groups, come back at the beginning of next season with fresh enthusiasm.
While the teenage years may be some of the most challenging years for a family, the anger that comes with adolescence can be remedied. Involved parents will find the right balance of spending quality time with their children, while still giving the teen space to find their identity by trying many personalities and social groups.
- Negative emotions increase from ages 10 through 15
- The most common complaints by teenagers about what makes them angry are unfairness, guilt, and feelings of inadequacy.
- Teens that spend time with parents report more positive emotions
- Teens are going through an identity formation stage, and need space to experiment with what they do and do not like.