This article is intended to be a resource for parents, guardians, and teachers of teenage girls and boys struggling with anger, disrespect, and defiance. We will provide an overview of anger and defiance in teens, signs that your angry child’s bad behavior is out of control, how parents can help manage their teen’s anger, and discuss nature therapy as treatment.
Teenage Anger: A Phase or a Problem?
The behavior of teens with anger and defiance issues exhibit extend far beyond the typical disrespectful behavior, eye-rolling, slammed doors, and arguments between teen and their parent. Anger is a normal part of adolescence and can be a healthy emotional response to outside stressors.
Anger is a secondary emotion for teens as it often masks other underlying issues including sadness, hurt, fear, and shame. When the underlying emotion becomes too much, a teen will often respond by lashing out. Because the teen years can be stressful, most teens will lash out from time to time. However, for a young person with anger issues, emotional outbursts can be a regular occurrence.
Teens with serious anger issues are consumed with anger. These individuals can be defiant and may turn to violence, self-harm, risky behavior, and illegal activity as a way to cope with strong feelings. They may lash out with anger in response to outside stressors or an untreated or undiagnosed mental disorder. In the sections below, we will define common causes of teen defiance and the behaviors and patterns that fall outside of normal.
Why Are Teenagers So Angry: Causes & Contributing Factors
There are many factors that contribute to angry feelings and defiance in teens. Every teen’s emotional regulation skill set, capacity, and maturity is different. Some teens simply need more help in learning how to healthily manage strong emotion and cope with stress. Other teens experience intense anger as a symptom of a mental health issue, traumatizing life experience, or simply from the stress and pressures of adolescence. Some of these common triggers of severe anger in teens include:
- Low self-esteem
- Victim of bullying or persistent & unhealthy peer pressure
- Conflict within the family
- Traumatic event
- Death of a loved one
- Adoption issues
- Substance abuse
In addition to the above list, unresolved issues such as teen depression, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) can contribute to anger issues in teens. These disorders often impact social skills, self-control, and impulse control, resulting in a child being more prone to angry outbursts.
10 Warning Signs Your Teen’s Anger Is Out of Control
If a parent is concerned about the level of anger and defiance a teen is exhibiting, the first step is understanding what is normal teen behavior and which behaviors may indicate a more serious issue. If your teen is exhibiting one or more of the following behaviors, they likely have anger issues that require external help.
- Physical violence or aggression
- Excessive arguing with parents, siblings, teachers, and/or peers
- Regular emotional outbursts that may include yelling, screaming, or lashing out
- Irrational thinking and behavior
- Verbal threats
- Cruel behaviors to people or animals
- Criminal activity
- Destroying property
If your teenager displays any of the behaviors mentioned above, it indicates that their anger issues require professional intervention to develop effective anger management skills, along with the support of parents. If your teen's anger surpasses what is considered a normal response to external stressors and demonstrates angry behavior, the next course of action is to establish a comprehensive parenting plan and seek guidance from a therapist or family physician.
8 Ways Parents Can Help Their Angry Teen
While parenting a defiant or angry teenager is extremely draining for parents, there are several key steps parents can take to help ease the contention and strain within home. Teenagers lack the emotional maturity and stability and therefore significantly rely on their parents to give them the help and direction they need.
It is essential that parents do the best they can to love and support their child while still keeping in mind that they cannot control their teen’s emotions or actions. The best thing empowering parents can do is provide their teen with proper support within the home and seek appropriate external treatment to help the teen learn how to manage his or her feelings.
1. Create Boundaries and Expectations for Your Teen
Defiant and angry teens need clear rules that are tied to a clear consequence when he or she breaks the rule. Establish these rules and expectations during a calm time. Have a conversation with your teen so they know what to expect when the said rules are broken. Explain to your teen that these rules are to help keep him or her safe and free from harm. Express your love for your child. Even angry teens want to know that their parents love and care about them.
2. Talk to Your Teen
Parents of angry teens may find it difficult to talk and communicate with their child through the outburst and contention. During times of peace or once a teen has calmed down from their outburst, parents should try and talk to their teen about what is really bothering them. If the teen is willing to speak or share, do not judge or try and correct your teen. Simply listen to him or her without becoming angry.
3. Encourage a Healthy Lifestyle
Encourage a healthy lifestyle of physical exercise, healthy eating, and proper sleep. Creating a healthy lifestyle routine for your teen helps fosters good behavior in children and teens. This includes setting regular mealtimes and bedtimes, a set time to check-in with your teen, and regular exercise.
Most of all, make sure your teen gets enough sleep. Sleep deprivation can increase stress, mood swings, irritability, and can also cause problems with weight, memory, concentration, and decision-making. All teens should get between 8-10 hours of sleep. To achieve this, many parents find it helpful having teens turn in their electronics two hours before bedtime to eliminate distractions.
4. Limit Technology Use
Parents should not just limit technology at bedtime. The overuse of technology, social media, or screen time is unhealthy for any teen. Too much screen time can not only adversely affect your child’s sleep, it can also lead to irritability, and low frustration tolerance. Parents must monitor their teen’s technology use to ensure they are not consuming violent tv shows, video games, movies, and music as they increase the likelihood of outbursts and violent behavior.
5. Encourage Your Teen to Find a Hobby
Hobbies can help teens manage their negative emotions. Adults should encourage their son or daughter to participate in a hobby that will serve as an outlet for anger. This includes anything from sports, weight lifting, journaling, music, yoga, mindfulness & meditation, cooking, art, and horseback riding.
6. Set a Good Example for Your Teen
One of the best ways parents can teach their teen healthy coping patterns and emotional regulation is by example. When your teen starts to feel angry, make sure you display healthy and appropriate responses and that you stay as calm and as rational as possible, even when your teen is extremely difficult and defiant.
7. Have Reasonable Expectations for Your Teen
Perfection from teens is not reasonable. A teenager’s brain is continually developing and changing until about the mid-’20s. Therefore, a teen’s brain will process information much differently, including the way a teen manages intense emotion and makes decisions. Hormones can further complicate things. While these factors should not serve as an excuse for bad behavior, it is important parents keep these biological differences in mind.
In many ways, teens are still learning, and consequences provide learning experiences to help their brain and judgment develop. Parents of angry teens should maintain age-appropriate expectations for their teen and nothing more. For help in knowing what is reasonable to expect, see neuropsychiatrist Dr. Daniel Siegel’s book, Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain.
8. Spend Quality Time with Your Teen
Every child wants to be unconditionally loved and accepted by their parents, even when they do not show it. Take the time to spend quality time with your teen doing an activity they enjoy. During this time, just focus on loving, validating, and being positive about your teen and their strengths. Reassure them how much you love them both in word and in deed. Even if a teen is angry or negative towards you, deep down they are likely feeling unlovable and insecure. Give your teen your undivided attention to reassure them that you love and care.
Don’t get frustrated if your teen resists your efforts. Just continue trying. Remember, the objective is to simply build a relationship with your teen and support them in the ways they need it most.
Nature Therapy as Treatment for Anger in Teens
While the support parents provide to their child at home is incredibly important, severe cases of teen anger require more intensive treatment. The best thing parents can do for their son or daughter is to provide them with the professional help they need. It is important that teens learn healthy coping mechanisms now, so their anger does not consume them or hinder them in their adult life. To achieve this, many parents turn to nature therapy.
Nature therapy is defined as, “a creative and integrative therapeutic method that takes place in nature and functions through direct contact with it, perceiving nature as a partner in the therapeutic process.”
A credible nature therapy program will teach a defiant teen how to manage their anger from a loving and experienced clinical team in a therapeutic nature setting. These two factors, among others, enable nature therapy to help teens with anger issues in a way that talk therapy cannot.
A Natural Setting Benefits Teens with Anger Issues
Nature therapy for teens utilizes the natural benefits of the outdoors to help angry teens heal and grow. Studies show that simply being outdoors has mental health benefits. In addition, the new and novel environment of nature therapy is ideal for establishing new patterns and ways of coping in defiant teens.
Nature Therapy Promotes Healthy Habits for Teens with Anger Issues
A credible nature therapy program will use proven therapeutic modalities like cognitive behavioral therapy to teach teens how to cope with anger and provide regular opportunities to develop problem-solving skills, and establish healthier patterns and behaviors. A credible nature therapy program will create a schedule so that participants get regular exercise, receive good nutrition, and healthy sleep. These provide teens with a healthy mind and body that will be more receptive to learning new patterns.
Nature Therapy Strengthens Social Skills in Teens with Anger Issues
The therapeutic group experience of nature therapy helps teens with anger issues refine their social skills. Angry teens often feel misunderstood, but nature therapy allows them to connect with other teens who are facing similar issues. These daily interactions in a variety of situations can greatly improve a defiant teen’s interpersonal skills.
Nature Therapy Provides Angry Teens with Personalized and Specialized Help
A credible nature therapy program will support the teen with a caring and professional team of therapists and field staff to support the teen’s journey. Nature therapy participants are able to learn healthy ways to cope with anger from an experienced therapist who specializes in working with troubled teens. The clinical team of a credible nature therapy program are trained to get the bottom of a teen’s anger issues and provide them with the exact tools they need to work through it.
Nature Therapy Teaches Defiant Teens Cause and Effect
Nature therapy utilizes “in the moment” or experiential therapy, so students can see, feel, and touch what they are learning. Assessing the hidden emotions behind the anger makes them easier to reach and understand. Experiential therapy is especially effective for teens with anger issues as it helps them take responsibility for their actions and learn about consequences.
Instead of lecturing teens about their anger and poor decisions, nature therapy utilizes natural consequences to demonstrate cause and effect in a very real and immediate way. For example, if a teen chooses not to build their tent or if they do not build it properly, they will get wet when it rains and sleep horribly. Such experiences teach a teen that they their choices have consequences that only they are responsible for.
Nature Therapy Gives Teens with Anger Issues Self-Confidence
Nature therapy puts teens with anger issues in situations that allow them to feel confidence and success in a variety of different environments. Participating in adventure activities like mountain biking, rappelling, and hiking, teens are able to achieve things they never thought they could do. In turn, they become more confident and positive individuals who know they can overcome hard things. This self-confidence is key for teens who experience anger since confidence is linked to positive thinking skills as well as a lower vulnerability to stress and depression.
If you decide nature therapy is the best option for your teen with anger issues, it is important that you do your research to ensure you are selecting a credible nature therapy program for your teen.
How Parents Can Support Their Angry Teen Through Nature Therapy
Even when a teen is away at nature therapy, they still need love and support from their parents. Continue to strengthen and improve the relationship you have with your son or daughter by sending letters and calling them. Let them know you are there for them and that you are always available to listen.
After addressing necessary issues, focus on the future without shaming them for past choices. Allow your child to share their experiences and growth without judging. Parents should also keep the lines of communication open with their teen’s therapists, so they stay informed and current about their teen’s progress and what they are currently working through. Staying informed and involved with your teen’s treatment program is vital to his or her success.
While your teen is away, continue learning about your teenage anger issues and diagnosis. Consider your teen’s situation and learn more about how to help. Doing so will not only help you better understand your teen but will also help you know how you can best help your teen after treatment.
While some parent-teen conflict is normal during the teenage years, there comes a point where anger turns from a normal emotional response to a level of constant contention that must be addressed promptly. This process can be extremely draining, difficult, and heartbreaking for parents.
There is hope for parents and their angry teens. With proper care and support, things can get better. A credible teen anger management program can empower your child with healthier coping skills, confidence, and the tools they need to handle any anger issue. They can find joy and success in life.
About ThreePeaks Ascent Nature-based Therapy Program
The ThreePeaks Ascent program is uniquely crafted to assist students and their families in creating lasting, life-long emotional changes through compassionate, intentional, research-backed, and safe nature-based therapy programs. The professionals at ThreePeaks Ascent understand individuals don’t come with instructions, and every student is unique, capable, and amazing in their own right.
Our program focuses on helping adolescents and their families through difficulties that occur when various behavioral, cognitive, or developmental issues are present. Research shows that engaging individuals on a personal level with strategic and intentional activities will aid in developing the tools and skills necessary to engage in life in a healthy and positive way.
Benefits of a Nature-Based Short-Term Residential Treatment Program
Being immersed in nature can have a profound impact on a teenager. It improves their mental, emotional, and physical health. Combined with a proven clinical approach, a therapeutic experience helps teens heal. Here are specific benefits your family can expect to see while your teen is in nature-based short-term residential treatment.
The first stage of effective short-term residential treatment focuses on assessment and stabilization.
By observing your teen in a novel environment, our experienced therapists gain a deep understanding of what is really happening with your child. Research indicates accurate mental health assessments can lead to a 20% reduction in the number of days in treatment.
Mental health stabilization provides a safe environment to deescalate your teen’s level of distress and/or reduce their acute symptoms of mental illness. Until teens feel genuinely safe, they cannot begin to heal. One therapeutic modality emphasizes that “Cues of safety are the treatment” and “safety is defined by feeling safe and not simply by the removal of threat.” It is not enough to merely tell a teen in crisis that they are mentally and emotionally safe, they must actually feel and believe it.
Once your teen feels safe, our wilderness-based residential treatment program provides a novel and challenging environment that disrupts their unhealthy patterns and behaviors. Behaviors that either:
- cause your teen's mental & emotional health struggles
- or that your teen has developed as a negative way of coping with their struggles.
The second stage of an effective residential treatment program focuses on engaging teens in the therapeutic process and empowering them with the skills needed to thrive.
1. Engaging Teens in Therapy (even if they’ve been resistant to it before)
The ThreePeaks Ascent treatment program is designed to re-engage teens in healthy adolescent development. When your teen attends a short-term residential program, they are taken away from negative distractions they may have at home. They engage in treatment in a way that would not be possible in any other setting.
Your teen will participate in individual, group, and family therapy sessions while in treatment. This allows them to process their behavior as well as make changes in their personal life and family relationships. They are also able to learn from their peers, realize they are not alone in their struggles, and gain motivation to make changes.
We've found that by the time of discharge, 90% of teens were actively engaged in treatment. When contacted six months after treatment, most of these teens maintained the motivational progress they made during treatment.
2. Empowering Teens Through Skill Development
As your teen engages in the therapeutic process, they’ll start to see huge progress. But for long-term healing, it is not enough to only alleviate your teen’s struggles, we must also empower them with the skills needed to thrive in life. These skills include:
- Self-awareness skills like a growth mindset, identifying one's feelings, developing interests & sense of purpose
- Self-management skills like emotional regulation, self-motivation, resilience, setting & achieving goals, planning & time management
- Responsible decision-making skills like showing curiosity & open-mindedness, anticipating & evaluating the consequences of one’s actions, internal locus of control
- Relationship skills like communicating effectively, seeking & offering support, resolving conflicts constructively
- Social awareness skills like showing empathy & compassion for others, taking others’ perspective, recognizing strengths in others
Your teen is powerful, intelligent, and capable. They are among the leaders of tomorrow. That is why the third stage of our short-term residential treatment program focuses on helping teens redirect their previously misused potential toward developing mastery in life.
Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche observed years ago, “Happiness is the feeling that power is increasing—that resistance is being overcome.” When teens develop competence and mastery they:
- gain self-reliance and self-confidence
- become more resilient
- have a greater sense of meaning and purpose
- and better resist negative emotions.
Overall, building mastery helps teens develop a positive mindset. Because they feel competent and in control, they go from feeling, “I’m not capable” to “I can do this!”
Additional References & Mental Health Resources
- Healthy Anger: How to help children and teens manage their anger. Oxford University Press, 2002.
- LAMB, JACQUELINE, and KATHRYN R. PUSKER. “School‐based Adolescent Mental Health Project Survey of Depression, Suicidal Ideation, and Anger.” Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing 4.3 (1991): 101-104.
- Parenting Angry Teens on PsychCentral.com
- Dealing with Anger, Violence, Delinquency, and Other Teen Behavior Problems
- The angry adolescent — a phase or depression?
About the Author
Steven DeMille, Ph.D. LCMHC
Steven DeMille is the Executive Director of ThreePeaks Ascent. He is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor. His educational experience includes an MA in Mental Health Counseling and a Ph.D. in Counselor Education and Supervision. His research focus is on Nature-Based Short-Term Residential Treatment, nature, adolescent development, and counseling ethics. He is actively involved in the counseling and psychology profession and holds regional and national leadership positions. He publishes and presents on Nature-Based Short-Term Residential Treatment and the use of the outdoors. This is done around the world at the national and international conference levels.