GUEST ARTICLE: Helping teens with anger management: Part 1 Understanding causes of anger by Ken Burnstein, MSW, LCSW

What causes anger in teenagers is a complex topic; often problems with anger are caused by a combination of social, environmental, and internal factors. What is important to understand is that while many angry teenagers have the same symptoms, the causes are much different. In order to successfully help the teen that struggles with anger, I have found the secret lies with understanding the cause, or causes. Below is a list of different causes that can underlie anger in teens:

1) Difficulty coping with losses (divorce, death of a family member, loss of friendship/ romantic relationship)

2) Family conflict (conflict with a parent/ parents, sibling, addiction issues in a family member)

3) Peer causes (either peer conflict, or trying to follow norms of a negative peer group)

4) Difficulty managing academics (difficulty coping with stress and frustration of increased work load- can happen in school changes i.e. grade school to jr high, jr high to high school

5) Difficulty coping with emotions (sadness, uncertainty, self criticism, self doubt, hurt)

6) Negative, immature beliefs, cognitions, and values

7) Problems with physical health

8) Presence of chronic underling mental health issues (depression, anxiety, autistic spectrum disorders, behavioral disorders, or personality disorders)

This list is not meant to be a definitive one, but a starting point to look at the larger picture of the teen’s life situation, beyond the symptoms. Using creativity one can add many more causes to this list, as well as become aware that there can be more than one factor combining to create the problem. It is important to have an understanding of the time length of the anger problem; often-long term chronic anger can have different causes than anger that is more situational based. Also important are the questions: who, what, and where. (Who does the anger happen with, what triggers the anger, and where does the anger happen)

Thinking about the causes of the anger, allows us to enter the teen’s world and understand their viewpoint. This can be especially important in working with teenagers who are unable to articulate problems verbally, due to their developmental maturity. When we are able to look at how the symptoms of anger can have many different causes, this suggests the treatment approach that will best address the underlying cause. An important diagnostic skill is developing the ability to understand the teen’s situation and share empathy, regardless of the teen’s external behavior. Skillful use of empathy and compassion forms the cornerstone that successful treatment is built upon. Later articles in this series will address anger management treatment, cognitive therapy interventions, and understanding the etiology of the teen that has long term, chronic problems with anger and irritable mood.

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