Why are our teens so angry?

Why Are Our Teens So Angry? – Emotions in Disguise –

By Janet M Bender, M.Ed.

Did you know that a recent Harvard study revealed that an alarming 1 in 12 teens has an anger disorder? In fact, angry feelings turned inward (toxic, suicidal) or outward (spiteful, hostile), create a perfect storm for harmful behaviors among today’s youth and in their families. Science aside, the nightly news confirms that misguided anger fuels most of the unrest, backbiting, conflict, and despair in our society.

Enough about the problem stats…lots of angry behavior! Where does so much of this anger come from?

Psychology tells us that anger is a secondary emotion. What?

It sure behaves like a primary emotion!



























I recently became absorbed in a Mel Robbins talk show segment on something called the Anger Iceberg.* Let’s take a look at the iceberg theory. Anger is like an iceberg. We can only see about 1/3 of the iceberg above the water. The other two-thirds are hidden beneath the water supporting the entire shape of ice, much like roots support a tree.

In an instant, my counselor’s ears perked up and I zoned in as the television host led her guests, a mother, and teenage daughter, through a brief exercise intended to facilitate better communication while diffusing their frequent angry exchanges. Each, in turn, listened as the other shared her feeling/s from the hidden layer of the iceberg.

In a matter of moments, the emotional climate in the room changed drastically! It was incredible how quickly the tension turned into mutual insight and cooperative harmony!

What was the secret sauce of that exercise? Empathy was awakened! Melting the iceberg of anger happened by identifying, listening, and exchanging the underlying raw emotions that had been disguised with a mask of anger.

As a former counselor of elementary students, I spent a lot of time trying to cultivate an acceptance of all human emotions and guiding students to express their emotions in socially acceptable ways. One simple method I found effective was the use of cardboard masks depicting emotions like anger, sadness, hurt, fear, etc. In using them, we considered what other emotions might be hiding behind the mask. A clown doll with a rotating head, painted with a smile on one side and a frown on the other, was also conducive to launching a discussion of observable emotions versus hidden ones.

Most of us show only a few emotions in our daily lives. Yet, we have many emotions that we keep below the surface. If we repeatedly quench those important emotions, they may build up and trigger “fight or flight” survival reactions. What evidence of “fight’ reactions do you notice (shootings, abuse, rage)? What tragedies of “flight” reactions do you see (self-harm, depression, suicide)? These are likely evidence of built-up emotions that haven’t been expressed.

On the other hand, anger in the form of irritation, frustration, or agitation is designed to be a natural, powerful healthy emotion that can help us recognize potential dangers, threats to our ego or self-esteem, or boundary-infringing injustices.

According to Dalila Jusic-LaBerge, LMFT, “Insight empowers us to make better choices and have less frustration.” Margarita Tartakovsky, MS, writes “Anger is an emotion-filled with information. The key is to listen and use it to inspire calm, thoughtful action.”

When we pause to identify our hidden but primary emotions such as anxiety, fear, hopelessness, hurt, or shame, we can remove the anger mask and begin to melt the Anger Iceberg by calmly communicating our thoughts, feelings, and personal needs.

It sounds like a simple solution, but one that is not easy to implement. Authentic communication of primary emotions requires heightened self-awareness and intentional effort over time. Our youth are apprentices to adults. They can only do better when they know better. We are their teachers, role models, counselors, and coaches.

I’m convinced that the “WHY” behind much of teen anger is to a certain degree the result of confusing emotions that they have not yet learned to identify or express.  My challenge to myself and all adults is to delve deeper into your own hidden feelings the next time frustration or irritation begins to feel like anger. Test yourself by using the Anger Iceberg, the Angry Mask, or other exercises that help identify personal hurts lurking beneath the anger. More clarity in understanding our own emotions allows us to help others better understand how to do this for themselves.

I suspect and hope you will find as I have, that acknowledging and accepting anger as a normal, useful emotion in youth and adults, can advance our understanding of the emotions we don’t see, and best of all, facilitate stronger, more fulfilling interpersonal relationships for us all!



* Mel Robbins Show


*Anger Iceberg. The Gottman Institute