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Adolescents, Trauma and Anger

ADOLESCENTS, TRAUMA and ANGER

Adolescent Issues

A number of issues prevent traumatized adolescents from expressing their anger in a healthy manner. Not the least of these is the fact that adolescents are just developing their cognitive connections and emotions are very difficult for them to identify and articulate. When trauma is added to the adolescent mix, it further complicates the issues of adolescent anger because higher order functioning is further impeded by trauma.

Look for these issues in any adolescent dealing with anger, but especially in youth hindered by traumatic memories.

Generalized, not Specific

Adolescent anger isn’t usually specific about a certain cause, feeling or incident, even more so if trauma is a factor. If you ask an adolescent “Why are you angry?” It’s likely to cause more anger as they probably can’t pinpoint a cause which results in additional frustration.

As an adult, it is better to just observe the situation and say something like, “You sound angry…”, then sit back and let the young person talk.

Emotions are not well-defined in adolescence so the display of anger could encompass a range of emotions—including frustrated joy. The young person may actually be happy but has failed at conveying that to anyone in a meaningful way leaving them feeling lonely and isolated.

Be a sounding board and help a young person discover a range of emotions. You can help expand their emotional vocabulary with words like “irritated,” “frustrated,” or “enraged.”

Tangible, not Cognitive

Adolescents are not able to cognitively name what they are angry about so they look for tangible ways to release anger. If you are the closest person, you will probably get a share of the wrath.

It helps to keep in mind that the anger is probably not directed at you—you just happen to be there. It also helps to know that youth—especially traumatized ones—rarely get mad at adults they don’t trust.

Many have experienced abandonment from an early age and they’d rather experience your anger than your indifference. They will push against a fence that gives, but not one that breaks.

Within limits, allow them that give and take. But make rules about expressing anger. Violence and deprecation are not allowed and will only make the young person less healthy if they don’t find healthier means of expression. It’s all right to say, “You can express your anger to me, but you cannot be abusive.”

Explosive (or sometimes simmering), not Focused

Adolescent anger is often explosive, it ignites all in its path and rarely specifically targets the source of anger.

At the other extreme, insecure adolescents might also have a deep simmering anger lying just beneath the surface all the time.

Whether explosive or simmering, the anger is rarely directed towards the cause or towards resolution and therefore rarely therapeutic.

The story of trauma usually has a victim-narrative. Helping a young person develop a narrative where they can identify what they have power over TODAY is crucial for feeling a sense of hope and building resilience.

Cognitive Distortions

Bernard Golden, Ph.D, discusses how traumatic anger can lead to “all types of cognitive distortions such as overgeneralization, catastrophize, and emotional reasoning [sic].” 1

It’s hard enough for a person to get through adolescence with a healthy perspective on anger. Combining adolescence and trauma can make it nearly impossible without insightful and compassionate assistance.

Quick Tips

Keep these tips in mind when dealing with Adolescent Anger;

  1. Be a sounding board.
  2. Name the emotion displayed, do not ask what they feel or why they feel that way.
  3. Do not personalize the anger. It is generally not about you, even if you are being targeted.
  4. Create healthy boundaries together for displaying anger.
  5. Help build a sense of hope by focusing on what can be done today.

It is not easy to be the outlet for anyone one’s anger—regardless of a person’s age. However, following these tips will help you keep that person’s anger in perspective, help that person work towards finding healthy resolutions to their anger and begin to move them beyond the victim hood of trauma to a life of hope and resilience.

References

1 When Anger Management Requires Going Deeper, Bernard Golden, Ph.D., Psychology Today © 1991-2018 Sussex Publishers, LLC, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/overcoming-destructive-anger/201801/when-anger-management-requires-going-deeper

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