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

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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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About Q&A with James Lehman, MSW

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."

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