Radford Words: Adolescents Need Help to Defuse Anger

Radford Words
Adolescents Need Help to Defuse Anger

In heavy traffic, the driver of another car darts into your lane then stops short in front of you. You break hard and just miss rear-ending the car. Then you lay on the horn.
Why? It's too late for the horn to be a warning. What happened here?
A sudden danger presented itself. You reacted in a way that protected you and your passengers. At the same time, your brain released a chemical producing an emotion and a burst of physical energy. With the danger over, you interpreted the emotion as anger and released the energy by blowing the horn. But was the emotion you felt really anger? Perhaps it was fear, desperation or protectiveness.
If you, a reasonable adult, can be tricked by your own emotions, imagine the dilemma of a 12-year-old boy, whose amygdala, the part of the brain that regulates emotions such as fear, rage and other "gut" reactions, dominates the prefrontal cortex, the seat of reason and the slowest part of the brain to mature. Also stacked against him is the message, still prevalent in media and society in the 21st century, that one of the few emotions acceptable for a boy to express is anger. Boys have it harder in this way, but girls' feelings are censored by society, too.
The human spirit feels every imaginable emotion...fear, depression, loneliness, lust, hate, love, ecstasy... So what happens when a guy gets dumped by his girl in front of all his friends in a humiliating way? He feels hurt, sad, embarrassed, humiliated, betrayed, shamed, unloved. But if he cannot name and express those real emotions, he is likely to lump them into the category of anger. There is so much physical energy surrounding the authentic underlying emotions that when the anger is expressed it can get out of control and manifest in bullying or rage events. If the energy isn't released in some way it can lead to illness, such as headaches, stomach problems or depression.
On the other hand, if he can identify his legitimate emotions and somehow express them to himself or someone else, he can have an "a-ha!" moment, a bit of release, relief, or catharsis.
Adolescent children need adults' help in learning to identify and express their emotions. Parents can do three things to provide tools for their children's use.
1. Develop your own emotional vocabulary and model how to appropriately express feelings. This means you need to be your own detective in discovering emotions behind situations. When you talk about a situation to your child, identify your underlying feelings and get in the habit of stating those feelings. When adolescents hear adults do this, they are more likely to express their own feelings.
2. Learn to use active listening with your child. If your daughter gets off the phone with a friend and stomps into the room, you could say, "You seem frustrated." When she tells you about a situation, reflect back the unspoken, underlying feelings. For example, if she describes a situation in which she was falsely accused of something, your response could be, "And you felt hurt?" Use a tentative voice when reflecting the feelings you think underlie the situation. Give your child an opportunity to agree or reject your assumption about her feelings. Ask questions sparingly and resist giving advice. The goal is not to solve the problem but to ponder out loud what your child is feeling. When the feelings of a situation are mirrored back to children, they begin to learn how to identify their own emotions. They also begin to model active listening to siblings and friends.
3. Help your children develop their own emotional vocabularies. This can start as early as elementary school, when you introduce new feeling words by acting them out with your child. Adolescents benefit from hearing all the variations and nuances of feeling words. Frustrated can also be perturbed, irritated, bothered, agitated, irate, annoyed.
I'm not suggesting that these steps are a panacea to rage, bullying or school violence. There are many reasons why children act out in anger. Unmet needs, lack of boundaries and dramas that are about things unrelated to your relationship all add to the issues of anger and violence.
But research tells us that at this age children thirst for adult connections to help anchor them when their lives feel rocky or when they just want reassurance that in their awkwardness they are okay. Helping children learn to identify and express their feelings will benefit their own mental health and help them to have healthier relationships with others.

Ann Mary Roberts, Ph.D., is a faculty member of Radford University's School of Teacher Education and Leadership in Virginia. She is a former counselor and middle school teacher.
Article courtesy of Radford University (www.radford.edu).