Harvard Health Publications

The angry adolescent — a phase or depression?

Posted By Michael Craig Miller, M.D. On September 10, 2012

A friend once asked me about his son, who was about to turn 20. As a teenager, the boy had a quick temper. His dad assumed that his short fuse was related to that awkward stage of life. But now, on the brink of adulthood, the young man seemed to be getting worse. He’d been less able to deal with criticism, minor upsets, jokes, or comments contrary to his point of view.

The young man’s father didn’t know if his son’s behavior was normal, or if it was a sign of depression or other problem. He also wanted to know how to talk with his son about his anger.

To understand this situation, it helps to put yourself in a 19-year-old’s shoes. Still inexperienced, there are big challenges ahead: graduating from high school, entering the work force (in a tough economy) or starting college, living away from home for the first time. These are stressful transitions for anyone.

But when a teen gets angrier as time goes by — or more rigid and defensive — it is a cause for concern. At the very least, this is not a very adaptive response to life’s challenges and it can make every day tougher than it needs to be. Whether it’s depression or just anger is probably less important than the fact that the teen is suffering and could use some help.

On the cusp of adulthood

A 19-year-old is no longer a child, but neither is he or she a fully-fledged adult. This in-between state, which may be more apparent in wealthy countries, can extend well into the twenties. Some human development researchers have begun to call it “emerging adulthood.” In theory, it is a time of life when a person takes life’s possibilities more seriously. Emerging adults know that responsible choices matter. But they are still young enough that they aren’t ready to make lasting commitments.

People are reaching the usual adult milestones — financial independence or getting married and having children — later and later. It’s not clear if the trends are a natural part of human development or a product of the social and economic changes in our communities.

No matter what we call this stage, it presents a tricky time for parents and their children. Emerging adults must decide how much help they want or are willing to accept from their parents or anyone else. At the same time, parents must decide how much help is reasonable to give.

Taking a step back does not mean abandoning your child. By the time a child hits young adulthood, the goal is to replace direct help with encouragement about (and belief in) your child’s ability to manage these responsibilities on his own. And that can spur the process of maturing.

Understanding anger

The origins of anger, and other feelings, vary from person to person. Anger could be a sign of depression or substance abuse (the National Institute on Drug Abuse has useful information about this, and advice about talking with a child about it.) It could be a manifestation of anxiety about “making it” in the grown-up world. It could signal some crisis, like trouble in a relationship.

It’s also possible that it’s just you. It is very common for children of any age, but especially teenagers, to be intolerant of parents’ input, whether it is constructive criticism, helpful advice, or being playful.

Make time to talk

I advised my friend that he should calmly get this message to his son: He was taking his son’s problems seriously, and his son owed it to himself to take the problems seriously, too. I wanted my friend to remind his son in a loving way that he was becoming responsible for his own life, that he respected his son, and trusted his son’s ability to manage whatever problems came up.

Here are some different ways to start that discussion:

  • “You are your own person. I only get to see how you interact with me. Perhaps you are quite happy when I’m not around, but from my perspective you seem very unhappy.”
  • “You don’t have to talk to me about it. If you’re managing things on your own, I respect that. But if you are unhappy and you don’t want to talk to me about it, there are plenty of other people you could talk to.”
  • “You may not be interested in help right now, but I’ll always be willing to help you, or help you find someone other than me to help you, if and when you want it.”

Your child may respond with anger. When you’re working hard to be helpful, and you’re met with hostility, it’s tempting to strike back. Resist that impulse. Your child may take the advice to heart and get help. But there is no guarantee he or she will report back. Or say thanks.

At least not right away. But if the growing up process takes hold, my friend might someday hear something like this from his son: “Hey, Dad. Remember a few years ago when I was being such a pain? Thanks for putting up with me.”

(This article is adapted from a longer version written for InteliHealth.com.)

Related Information: Coping with Anxiety and Phobias

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