Dear Dr. Wes and John: I have a bad temper, and when I get mad I take my anger out on my family. What do I do? - Teen boy
Dr. Wes: Back in about 1966 psychiatrist William Menninger offered seven indicators of emotional maturity. Among them, he suggested "the capacity to relate to other people in a consistent manner with mutual satisfaction and helpfulness; and the capacity to sublimate, to direct one's instinctive hostile energy into creative and constructive outlets." In other words, grown-ups play well with others and use their anger and hostility in positive and productive ways. So your concerns about your anger and its effect on others are wise, serious and have a long history in our business.
Here are some steps to figuring out what's going on with your temper. First determine what things in your life might be triggering your upset feelings. You might have a good reason to be angry if, for example, a parent or sibling is harming or exploiting you. Next try and figure out if your angry responses are sensible given the triggers. A good way to examine this is to look at other kids your age and see if they seem to react to similar situations in the way you do. Try to look beyond your peer group, because many times kids with tempers find other kids with tempers to hang out with. If you find that you are reacting much more severely than your peers, it's time to look at the next issue.
Consider what other emotion your anger might be expressing, especially sadness or worry. Many depressed and anxious people have a hard time controlling their tempers. In the coming weeks we'll do a column on the signs of teen depression. For now, if you think you might be depressed, you may be "predisposed" to angry outbursts. Likewise for anxiety. If you are constantly on edge, worrying what others think, fearful about the future, or stressed to the breaking point by daily life, it is likely your anger stems from anxiety.
Finally, you may find that it is not enough to reflect on this yourself and get your own opinions. You may want to consult a professional. Older teens can do this on their own, but mid and younger teens should first visit with a parent and find out which therapists are available in or around their hometown. Try and find someone that is trained and experienced in working with teenage boys. It's a whole specialty in and of itself, and you'll like the experience a lot better if you find someone you can really connect with. The therapist can help you deal with nearly every one of the concerns I've raised above - social, personal, psychological and even medical issues. You only have to be honest and serious in wanting to change, and I believe you'll be on the path you seek. You've made a good start by recognizing the problem.
John: Until recently, the cashiers at Subway would give you stamps when you ordered a meal. If you collected enough of these stamps, you could exchange them for a free sandwich. Let's use this as an analogy for how to handle your anger.
If someone makes a snide comment or cuts you off in traffic, you have to order a "patience sandwich" because you can't do much about it. Then the cashier in your brain has three options. First, you can print some stamps and save them up. Once you have enough stamps, you can "cash them in" to have an angry fit. When you do this, the person you take your anger out on is rarely the one you are most upset with. She or he may have pushed you over the edge, but you've been saving the stamps from other people for a long time. Your family will not understand why you're reacting so strongly to a small issue, but you will feel the stamps of anger from every incident since your last outburst. That is why you will be unpredictable and out of control.
Second, you can print the stamps and hide them away, pretending you did not save them. But the stamps will continue to burn you on the inside. Holding a grudge leads to depression and bitterness toward the ones you love, who will not understand why you are upset. You will constantly be yearning to lash out at those who hurt you, and your wants will not be fulfilled. And the more stamps you stow inside you, the more tempting it will be to cash them. It may seem like you are in control, but you are actually being consumed by your anger. This option is not sustainable in the long run, and your outbursts, though fewer, will be far more venomous.
Your best option is to immediately throw the stamps away. Don't wait until someone apologizes to forgive them, forgive now. If you occupy your thoughts with the wrongdoings of others, you will have no room to love those around you. When someone provokes your anger, you have an instant to choose one of these options. And if you do not immediately throw the stamps away, it will become very difficult to ever let them go. To make this task easier, look for a harmless release of your anger, such as squeezing a stress ball or jogging around the block.
Remember, you are the cashier, and your emotions are your own club sandwich. When you are calm, talk to your parents about your emotions and ask them to help you sort them out. When you're angry, count to 10 and make a conscious decision to throw your stamps away. We all experience anger; the only difference is how we handle it.
Next week: I love a depressed guy. What do I do to help him?
- Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. John Murray is a Free State High School senior. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.