Dealing with Anger in Children and Teens, Part 1: Why Is My Child So Angry?

Q&A with James Lehman, MSW
Dealing  with Anger in Children and Teens, Part 1: Why Is My Child So Angry?

Have you found yourself asking the question, “Why is my child always so angry at me?” Do you feel like your adolescent surrounds himself with a force field of anger and hostility? In part one of this frank Q&A, James Lehman explains the difference between hostility and anger—and tells you where these emotions often come from.

EP: James, why do some kids seem to be so angry all the time? Where is the hostility coming from?

You have to understand that part of the function of hostility is to keep you on your toes—to keep you pushed away. It’s like a porcupine’s quills: hostility is meant to stop you from getting too close.

JL: I think it’s important to make a distinction between anger and hostility. When you’re angry, you feel as if you’ve been wronged; you want to get back at someone. Anger is about striking back, but hostility is more a sense of defensiveness and waiting for an attack. Hostility is related to antagonism, animosity, and ill will. It’s really closer to the word “hatred” than it is to the word “anger.” What a lot of parents experience as defiance is really hostility.

Think of it this way: hostility is the attitude, anger is the action. So the attitude is, “Don’t mess with me.” Anger is the reaction you get.

Related: Angry child with hostile reactions?

Of course, when you’re dealing with kids, especially adolescents, they can move very fluidly from one state to the other. What’s described as the “force field of hostility” means that whenever you talk to your child, even if you’re saying “How was your day?” you get a contemptuous response from him.

As many parents know, it’s very hard to deal with a child who behaves this way. Often, parents take several different routes. One route is to give up. Some start punishing their child for having “an attitude.” Parents certainly feel the contempt, and they overreact to that by doing something that makes them feel powerful: yelling, screaming, and threatening. But none of these methods are really good responses because they’re not effective and they don’t solve the problem. The bottom line is that none of these things will motivate your child to take responsibility for his own hostility.

EP: James, what do you mean by “solving the problem of hostility?”

JL: Ask yourself, “How does my child deal with hostility once he’s experiencing it?” As with all things, you need to get your child to take responsibility for his behavior in order for the work you’re doing with him to have any long–lasting effect.

I believe adolescents who are hostile all the time are like this because of the way they think. They develop a way of thinking that makes them the victim all the time. These distortions in thinking tell them that things aren’t fair, that their parents have placed too many expectations on them, that their teachers are idiots. They believe that nobody understands them but their friends. In some kids, this further develops into a general air of, “I hate you; I’m against you.”

That way of perceiving the world—believing oneself to be a victim in all instances—is called a “thinking error.” Kids who employ them think they’re the victim all the time; it’s not a big leap for them to want to push you away. In their minds, they’re the victim of you; you’re the enemy. The consequences that come their way have nothing to do with the fact that they’re not meeting their responsibilities, or that they’re not able to function autonomously in the ways that kids in their age group are supposed to be able to function. It’s all because you’re the enemy, school is stupid, the teachers are idiots. In fact, you’ll often hear hostile kids say, “The teachers are out to get me” or “That teacher doesn’t like me anyway.”

Related: Teach your child to be accountable.

After they’ve used these thinking errors for awhile, they get into more trouble and they develop an increasing sense of hyper–vigilance. For any kind of criticism or challenge, they will either attack or shut down. These are kids whose parents say, “I can’t even get two words out of my mouth and he’s running up the stairs” or “He’s screaming at me all the time.”

EP: Some parents say, “My child is so hostile that I’m afraid to ask him to do anything because it will provoke an outburst.” What would you say to them?

JL: You have to understand that part of the function of hostility is to keep you on your toes—to keep you pushed away. It’s like a porcupine’s quills: hostility is meant to stop you from getting too close. When you do, it starts to hurt—you get pin–pricked. And hostile kids are like porcupines all the time. You try to talk to them and they strike out at you; you try to work things out with them and they start an argument; you go to have dinner with them and they’re sullen and nasty if you try to make them talk. They’re sullen with their siblings; they want to hide out in their rooms all the time. There’s no pleasant conversation with them. I think parents do become afraid to ask them for things because that can often produce an outburst of anger. The child’s hostility is warning you that the anger is right behind it—the porcupine’s quills are up.

So now your child’s attitude is “Don’t mess with me; don’t mess with me; don’t mess with me. POW! Now you did it.”  And then an hour later or the next day, the same pattern occurs. I think what tends to happen with many parents is that they learn to avoid making their kids go “POW.”

Related: How to parent your oppositional, defiant child.

EP: James, many parents are afraid that their child will hate them if they set limits or give them consequences. That fear is understandable. How would you advise them?

JL: There’s a word we use a lot in behavioral therapy and psychotherapy and it’s called “ambivalence.” Ambivalence is the concept of love and hate. I think kids are very ambivalent about their parents during their adolescence. They love you but they hate you too. They love you when you’re nice to them; they hate you when you tell them what to do. So as far as kids loving you or hating you throughout their adolescence, I think you’re going to see a lot of ambivalence from your child. I think parents just have to ride that out. On the other hand, can your child be angry at you and love you at the same time? It happens all the time. Many of us get angry at our spouses but we love them. Many of us get angry at our children but we love them. I don’t think anger or even hostility is a necessary indicator of hate, even though hostility feels hateful and anger feels explosive and maybe even threatening. But kids love their parents. Unless there’s some abusive situation or neurological or psychological problem, their instinct is to love their parents. And so if you make your child angry, don’t be afraid he’s not going to love you. That’s the last thing I tell parents to worry about.

Related: How to stop worrying, and start parenting calmly.

I always tell parents, if you do things for your kids to love you, maybe they’ll love you and maybe they won’t; I don’t know. But if you do things and carry yourself in such a way that they respect you, then they’ll want to love you. Kids want to love the people they respect—and they’ll find things to love about you.

In Part 2 of Anger and Hostility, James discusses concrete ways for parents to manage hostile attitudes in kids and teens. He teaches you how to stop negotiating the field of landmines around your child and how to start defusing the anger and hostility now. Stay tuned for part 2 to read more.

 


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James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."

READER'S COMMENTS

I have been blessed with my daughter. she maintained a 3.0 in high school, played sports and did her A-G to go to college, 65 out of 633 in her senior class..had a spot saved 4 her in the uc..well 2months befor her graduation she decided to have a boyfriend which was a big no. then i told her if her grades come down that's it, no more bff. well they did come down from a 4.o to a 3.5 but now she lyes and can't trust her ..caught the bff in her clost hiding because we arrived home ..told the boy no more seeing my daughter. well 3 wks later they are still seeing ...now she wants to live in the dorms at college and i'm worried she will not be focused ...and bye the way she hates my husband and i ..so confussed. this boy is not a good person. he asked her don't you want to be bad? he is 18 in march and my daughter just friday turned 18 and i told her she needs to get on the pill. she said no you can/t make me i.m 18 you can't tell me what to do ..i told her yeah you need to get a job and i want your cell phone because i'm paying for that too. i can't believe she would throw all of what she worked so hard for away because of a boy!!

Comment By : hir2tame

THANK YOU FOR HELP. IT SEEMS LIKE YOU MADE A PHOTOGRAPH OF MY SON. Thank you for taking the time to care. Blessings!

Comment By : Esmeralda

You know my son so well :) Your articles are extremely helpful to me as a single mother. Thank you !!!

Comment By : Forgot Screen Name

My child says he wishes I was dead. Is this more than anger?

Comment By : kimspencer01

Has someone been peeking in my window?? Thank you for putting perspective on the attitude problem that reared its' ugly head in my home this summer. I will be less alarmed having read this article.

Comment By : Kara

Great article, but living in a world where your kids are "powing" all the time at you can be exhausting. I'd really like to see some examples of handling this type of behavior. Have you thought of doing video's showing an adult the ways in which we mess up and then the right way? Visual learning for those who don't read a whole lot could be really powerful. Thank you

Comment By : vbailey

good information. I feel more clarity needs to be given to gaining the respect of your children. it's a process of having a connected relationship, setting firm and appropriate limits, and modeling respectful behavior. thank you for giving great information to parents! Amy Cluff, LCSW and mother of two boys

Comment By : Amy Cluff, LCSW

* Dear vbailey: Thank you so much for your comment. We do have two videos by James Lehman, MSW that were created to help you manage your angry child in the moment. The videos come complete with role plays showing you what to say and do. Please check out: The Complete Guide to Consequences or Getting Through to Your Child. Thanks again for writing, and hope this is helpful for you!

Comment By : Elisabeth Wilkins, Editor of EP

* Dear ‘kimspencer01’: It could be more than anger, but it could also be a ‘provocative’ statement teens sometimes say in anger. You want to pay attention to all your child’s behavior--not just this statement. And notice how you role model. What do you say when you’re angry? If you’re concerned about your child’s emotional state, it’s always a good idea to check in with his pediatrician.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

Just yesterday I experienced the intensity of my 15 year old daughter's hostility when she didn't get her way and really lost all sense of control. This happens on a regular basis, but somedays things seem to go well. Generally it's an exhausting way to live -- my aunt says it's a teenager's job to repel their parents....

Comment By : Northern California

* Dear ‘hir2tame’: Thanks for writing in. It can be unsettling when our children are experiencing new relationships. We become concerned that they will not make the best choices for themselves. Use this opportunity to review your house rules with her and to discuss your family values. It certainly is important that she take care of her obligations--such as chores, homework and family time, but if she can do that and still have free time, it may be reasonable for her to be able to socialize with others her own age. Try to step back and think about the goals you would like her to achieve and problem solve with her how she can try to reach those goals. Many students are able to be successful in college and maintain social relationships. If she is having difficulty with making good choices with all the options available to her, perhaps there is someone at the college she can talk to for additional support. Call us here on the Support Line for encouragement and more ideas on using the techniques in the Total Transformation Program.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

I am really looking forward to part II!

Comment By : ociana

My son seemed completely out of control last school year. Sullen, angry, Acting up in school. I was about to take him to a psychiatrist. It's especially hard because not many people share about the problems their family may be experiencing. So I would always think "is it just him or is this normal?". I stopped playing into his drama. Started acting respectful towards him as I would a child not my own and as long as I have kept my own anger and frustration in check, he has a much better attitude. Seems like part of being a child/teen is to test limits. My son does this in little ways which were driving me crazy. Once I understood THAT is normal...it was much easier for ME to act normal.

Comment By : Mommamary

I am a teacher dealing with parents and friends if not myself with teenagers who are in the middle school years. I have forwarded many times the articles that have been sent to me and it is great to know that there are answers out there for those who are struggling with parenting a difficult child. I think parents need more resources for today's real problems and issues.

Comment By : Hugs

Excellent advice, as usual. And staying calm while the fur is flying helps immeasurably-it's a great quill shield.

Comment By : Medea B

I can't wait to read Part II. This is my son exactly. He is 11 and going into sixth grade this fall. It's like nothing makes him happy, and his quills are up all the time. It is exhausting and they do hurt. I'm working hard to raise expectations and responsibility as well as keep my patience. I've blown my top twice and wind up taking some time in my room to cry and re-group. He's my only child, so I don't have another one to reap the benefits of my experience with him. He does have a loving, sensitive heart and I know he loves me very much. I'm just so tired of hearing all the excuses why he 'can't' do something, the arguing, and the ever-present scowl on his face. Life is good - it's not that difficult. My husband says I should whack him upside the head. I don't see how that will help. Frustrating.

Comment By : MiMom

It is easy for me to see why children are becoming increasingly hostile and angry. Take a good look at adults and the example they are setting. There is road rage, prejudice, and a growing wave of intolerance. I pray for the world!

Comment By : sillynilly

Can't wait for part two!! Hostility is the word I was looking for to describe my 16 year old son. Since I started the EP Program I would tip tor around my son, waiting for the right time to tell him to take the trash out. I discovered there was never a good time to ask him. So I'm learning just to tell him and dish out earned consequences if he doesn't. I could not say he was an angry kid but hostile is really the perfect word!!!

Comment By : xray5255

WOW! Thank you so much!! I really needed to hear this! As a single mom, I feel like my son is more than I can handle lately. He has been acting EXACTLY the way James describes here. Thank you for keeping his work going. I know that he would want it this way and I do appreciate the articles!! He is helping us parents as we struggle even now that he has passed away and I believe that makes him happy.8) Aloha

Comment By : Amy

Good to know I'm not alone though So ready for Part 2: I need to learn how to cope with my hostile 14 yr. old son. I need tools!

Comment By : Laura R.

I am glad to know I am not alone. Thank you to all that share their experience, strength and hope.

Comment By : dancnmom

To echo what many others have stated...THIS IS EXACTLY MY SON! this is the first article I have read by this person and the first time I have visited this site. just happened upon it after deciding to search the web to find out what the heck was wrong with my otherwise great child and if anyone else was experiencing. Reading this article gives me hope and understanding. Maybe he really DOESNT hate me. Maybe its just normal to be like this at 17 and one day he will love me again. Here's to hoping! I'm off to read more on this! Thank you!

Comment By : on the verge

Thank! It's reassuring to know that someone understands the problems with growing up.

Comment By : confused dad

This article describes my son to a T. He is 13 going on 21. Now if only I could get my husband on board with this as they feed off one another. When will part II be out? I can't wait.

Comment By : Frustrated mother

Dear Frustrated Mother: Thanks for your comment. We will be publishing Part 2 of "Anger in Children and Teens" -- with practical tips for parents -- on September 8th, 2010, when it will also be featured in the Empowering Parents newsletter. Please stay tuned!

Comment By : Elisabeth, EP Editor

I would like to know if "hir2tame" felt she was helped by what Carol Banks said concerning the new boyfriend and the changes in her daughter?

Comment By : learn2know

This is the best help I have gotten so far...Thank you... I look forward to the second part.

Comment By : ahelpinghand

* To "ahelpinghand": Thanks for commenting. We're glad to hear this article was helpful for you, and hope Part 2 will answer more questions: http://www.empoweringparents.com/How-to-Handle-Anger-in-Children-and-Teens.php

Comment By : Elisabeth Wilkins, Editor of EP

As a mother of a 5 year ol I just need to know how to get my chil,d to understand the word no after i tell him the first time .He just continues to ask even though he doesa npot get his way, he is very strong willed.

Comment By : learning as I go

* To 'learning as I go': It can be very frustrating to have a child who does not accept limits or the word “no”. Many times children will continue to negotiate with their parents, trying to get that “no” to turn into a “yes”. When you negotiate, or try to reason with your son, about limits you set, it teaches him that if he argues enough, you might change your mind. What we recommend is setting the limit, and leaving it there. If he continues to argue with you, you can walk away, or start doing something else entirely; this way, his arguing doesn’t gain any power. I am attaching some articles I think you might find helpful: Living with Little Lawyers: Don’t Over-negotiate with Your Child & Saying 'No' to Your Child: How to be a More Assertive Parent. Good luck to you as you continue to work through this.

Comment By : Rebecca Wolfenden, Parental Support Advisor

I am 16 and fight with my parents all the time. I think you actually have a very good theory on why teens get so angry. I will often bash out at my parents when they ask me to do something...or even simply ask a question. Most of the time it's because I just don't feel like dealing with them. I get especially angry when they keep asking me to do things that I already do (like taking out the trash, for example.

Comment By : Brooke, Radical Parenting Teen Writer

Oh my gosh someone please help me. I have a 13 year old son who all of a sudden hates me and runs away. I think i am a bit hard on him sometimes and in a way i feel like it is my fault. I'm a single mum and also have two other children aged 3 and 1 he wont talk to me and hasn't been home for three days now i know hes at his friends as ive talked to his teachers who are no help what so ever. If i drag him home he says he'll just run away again. It started when his grandma died who he was really close with. What should i do as i have no support and am at my witts end, up all nite crying thinking im a bad mother. I just want my son back.....

Comment By : sadmum

* To “sadmum”: Thank you for sharing your story with us. I am so sorry this has happened to you. No parent should have to go through this. There are a couple of resources available to offer support to parents who have a child who has run away. First, there is the National Runaway Switchboard which is available 24 hours a day. You can reach this service by calling 1-800-786-2929. There is also the 211 National Helpline. This great resource can connect you to local services that may be of help to you in your situation. The 211 National Helpline can be reached by calling 1-800-273-6222 or by logging onto www.211.org. We do wish you and your family the best as your work through this difficult situation. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

The problem I have with my 10 1/2 yr old son is a little different. Sometimes the smallest thing his 13 yr old sister does and sometimes his 9 yr old brother sets him off and he becomes angry and fire after them. I've had to pull him away many times and the look in his eyes scares me. He and I were playing and O accidentally hurt him and he came at me. One day I was helping him with homework and he got so mag at himself bcuz he couldnt understand it. He refused to go to school bcuz he always has his homework done and won't go to school without it being done, but he was so upset and trying his best to hold it, he snapped a pencil in half. I did calm him down and explained his teacher will help him understand it if he doesn't with me explaining it to him. He doesnt do this at school or with friends. Just me and his brother and sister. He makes As and Bs and really is a wonderful kid.

Comment By : justworried76

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