Q: Dear Dr. Wes and John: I need help with my anger. I am going to a therapist. What do I do? - Teen Boy
A: Dr. Wes: There must be a lot of angry teenagers out there, because aside from questions about romance and sex, this is the No. 1 topic coming across my desk. In this case you're already seeing a therapist, so we'll suggest some strategies drawn from "cognitive behavioral" therapy that might help in that process.
Focus first on your "self-talk" - the stuff you say to yourself in your head. Everything going on around us exists both in reality and in our mind. Our perception of reality is actually just a story our mind tells us about a person or event or situation. Sometimes that is an accurate story, and other times it's completely off base, but how we respond is a product of that self-talk. For example, if you see a pretty girl you'd like to talk to, you might tell yourself, "Wow I'd like to get to know her. She's just my type." Or you might say, "I could never talk to someone like her. She's too good for me."
How you think about the girl actually will dictate what you do. All she does is stand there and look good. The same is true of an anger-producing situation. If your teacher gives you a bad grade, you may think "what a witch. She's doing this because she hates me. I'm through trying in her class." This is called "attribution," and it is the root of most angry responses. If you teach yourself to substitute something more rational, you might think, "Wow, I guess I'm going to have to study harder next time." Alternatively, you can let yourself be angry, but use that feeling to generate a more productive response. For instance, you could say, "That teacher is such a witch. I'm going to show her the next time by acing the final." In either case, you are thinking differently about the situation, and that changes your response.
If you listen to your internal dialog, you'll find some thoughts that make you angrier and some that tend to calm your anger. You then can replace the angry thoughts with calming, pleasant thoughts that will bring your anger level back down. Here are a couple of examples for you to practice:
¢ "My mom is late. That ruins my whole day" versus "I can wait a little longer. What's it matter in the larger scheme of things?"
¢ "I can't stand how that guy always talks down to me" versus "It's sad for him that he treats others this way."
¢ "My parents totally favor my brother over me" versus "My brother got the good deal this time, but I remember when I got the favor."
Psychologists also warn against making too many "should statements," which place unrealistic demands on you and everyone else. We simply don't live in a world where we get to have control over other people and all events just because they should do what we want or what is right. And no matter how mad we get, it isn't going to change that. Teach yourself to avoid "should's" and instead focus on statements like "It's not rational to think others will always act the way I want them to" or "I can't control how other people act by getting angry, so why get all worked up about this?"
This all sounds great on paper, but it's harder to do in real life. However, with some practice, you literally can talk yourself out of anger-producing, self-defeating thoughts and the actions that go with them. You'll find yourself a great deal more powerful as a result.
John: In a previous column, I compared collecting anger to collecting stamps. Whenever someone upsets you, you can choose to print out "anger stamps," which you later redeem for a furious rampage, or you can opt not to print the stamps in the first place. The second option is more difficult, but it's a sustainable way to manage anger. I'll now discuss it in more depth.
First, make sure you understand what is really upsetting you. Anger often appears as the result of other emotions, and if you don't know what those emotions are, you won't be able to reconcile them or your anger. An article in a February 2007 issue of Newsweek claimed that depression in men is underreported because they mask it with anger. In talking with your therapist, make sure to put all your issues on the table so as to present an accurate picture of your entire psyche.
Anger is also related to anxiety and sometimes referred to as "frozen fear" because it's much easier to get angry when you're scared. Students may be testy during exam season, and couples tend to get in fights when big issues like money are on the table. Sometimes the fear of not being wanted can trigger anger. For example, if you forget your brother's birthday, he'll probably be a lot more understanding than your girlfriend. That's because your relationship with your brother is stable and he won't worry about long-term prospects. Your girlfriend, on the other hand, will suspect you don't care about her anymore and might fear a looming break-up.
If fear causes anger, then we need to fight fear to fight anger. Talk to your therapist about what makes you afraid, whether it's money, school, parents or anything specific to you. There's no reason to be ashamed of your anxiety or therapy visits. In fact, fear can be a good thing because it indicates you don't ignore your problems. Just make sure you temper that fear by understanding what you can control. As Dr. Wes said, a change in attitude can be tremendously helpful in soothing your anger and increasing your competence to boot.
Next week: Social networking strategies for teens
- 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.