Reviewed by Lauren Guilbeault
As a parent, you have probably seen enough episodes of meltdowns, freak-outs, and tantrums. Emotional control is something we all have to learn, and for some, mastering self-control is not an easy process. However, when do you draw the line and decide that your teenager’s aggression or violent behavior is no longer part of a learning phase but an issue that requires intervention.
Aggression in teenagers is sometimes an indication of some underlying issue. It is a polymorphic thing, a common sign of many medical problems, mental disorders, and living conditions. Therefore, at the root of every treatment for aggression is first to discover its source.
Many teenagers are struggling with aggressive behavior, both at home and outside. The fact is that the teenage years are full of chemical and physical changes. This often causes confusion and uncertainty in the minds of teenagers. Also, in this phase, teenagers start to reevaluate their roles in the family and their environment. Each of these factors could contribute to violent outbursts among adolescents, who do not yet know the proper ways to vent or channel their confusion. Other factors may contribute to aggression during adolescence, all of which will be addressed in this article.
What Is Aggressive Behavior?
Frustration is an unavoidable part of life. Many parents fail to remember that they have had more years to learn different coping skills for frustration. Adolescents have not lived long enough to learn the process. for a teenager, frustration just appears unbearable and devastating, causing a negative response, such as aggression. Aggression does not have to be physical; it can be verbal too. As a parent, there is a significant role in helping your child avoid aggressive behavior and stop acting when the aggression starts.
You may be wondering, “what does aggression mean?” According to social psychologists, aggression is described as any behavior meant to harm another person who does not want to be harmed. Since it entails the perception of intent, aggression from someone’s perspective may not appear the same way from another viewpoint. The same harmful action may be considered aggressive or not, depending on the intention. However, intentional harm is considered worse than unintended harm, even when the injury is the same.
According to this definition, some behaviors that would normally come under the aggression canopy are ruled out. For example, a rugby player who mistakenly breaks the arm of another player during a game or a driver who accidentally hits someone would not fall under some examples of aggressive behaviors because although injury occurred to another, there was no intent to hurt. A salesperson who tries to make a sale via constant phone calls is not aggressive because no harm is intended – the behavior might be called “assertive” instead of aggressive. And not every intentional action that hurt other people are aggressive behaviors. A dentist might knowingly administer a painkiller’s painful injection, but the objective is to stop further pain during the treatment.
Since the definition demands evaluating the perpetrator’s intent, there will be a certain interpretation of the intents, and there could be disagreement among those involved. Although the player whose arm was injured in the rugby match may feel it was due to hostile intent, the other player may say that the injury was not intentional. Within the legal system, juries and judges often have to decide if the harm was done deliberately or not.
Types Of Aggression
The type of intent that backs an aggressive behavior in teenagers differentiates the two major types of aggression, resulting from highly distinct psychological processes.
Emotional or Impulsive Aggression
This form of aggression happens only with a limited premeditation level or intent and is decidedly majorly by impulsivity. Emotional aggression is caused by extreme negative emotions someone is dealing with when the aggression occurs and is not meant to produce any positive results. When someone yells at their partner, it is possibly emotional aggression—it is impulsive and done in the heat of the moment. Another example would be a jealous lover that lashes out in rage or sports fans that vandalizes stores or cars around the stadium after their team loses a vital game.
Instrumental Or Cognitive Aggression
This is aggression that occurs deliberately and after planning. This is more cognitive than affective and could be utterly emotionless and scheming. Instrumental aggression is targeted at hurting someone to produce a result – attention, monetary reward, or political power. If the aggressor thinks that there is a quicker way to get something done, the aggression may not occur. Good examples of instrumental aggression are a bully who kicks a child and takes away their toys, a terrorist who harms and kills civilians to get political recognition, and a hired assassin.
Causes Of Aggression In Teenagers
Over the years, scientists have performed plenty of research on aggression in adolescents, and certain factors have been consistent. These factors include:
Divorce, death, or sickness of a loved one, recurrent sibling, or peer harassment are extremely upsetting and can cause teenagers’ aggression. Ongoing disagreements and discord at home, especially among parents, can also lead to such behaviors. The environment a teenager grows up in may play a part in aggressive behaviors. People who grow up seeing different aggressive behavior forms are more likely to think that hostility and violence are socially permissible.
Sometimes, there are organic factors for aggressive outbursts—when a child suffers frontal lobe damage or certain forms of epilepsy. There may be no identifiable cause of the aggressive episode in such situations, and the episode could have an explosive aspect.
Finally, there are situations when aggression in children or teenagers is driven by the stressors in their condition and do not race back to an underlying emotional illness. However, it is necessary to understand that this is relatively rare, and when aggressive starts to become recurrent, it could be a sign of a developing emotional issue.
Physical or sexual abuse is another cause of aggressive behavior among teenagers. Abuse in any form can cause feelings of anger, inadequacy, and shame—and since they are often unable to share the details with anybody, it shows in forms of aggression.
Some teenagers may deal with mental disorders such as panic disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, and PTSD. These disorders tend to trigger aggressive behavior in teenagers. Signs of aggression often reduce once treatment of the underlying condition commences.
Teenagers with intellectual impairment and ADHD usually struggle with many social and emotional challenges. Impulsivity and poor decision-making may be perceived as a sign of aggression and anger in teens. These children do not think about the effects of their behavior, which may come across as wicked or malicious when they are just not thinking. Intellectual impairment or communication issues (such as autism) often become aggressive because they find it hard to handle their anxiety or frustration and cannot express their feelings as others do.
With conduct disorder, aggressiveness comes as part of the condition. Unlike a child who is not thinking about the effects of their actions, kids with conduct disorder are deliberately malicious, and treatment and outlook are generally different.
Teenagers with schizophrenia are usually only reacting to internal stimuli that can become distressing. Sometimes, such teens become suspicious or distrusting—or completely paranoid—and they end up with an outburst due to their fears. Kids with bipolar disorder, in their manic episodes, often become aggressive. They lose control and become impulsive. On the other hand, if they become depressed, while aggression is less frequent, they can become quickly irritable, and that irritability and crankiness can cause them to lash out.
In many cases, certain medical conditions can also trigger the aggressive side of teenagers. Epilepsy, brain damage, mental retardation, and Tourette’s syndromes are examples of medical conditions that can reduce disruptive and aggressive behavior in adolescents. With adequate medical evaluation and diagnosis, these medical disorders can be managed, and the aggression can be controlled properly.
Addiction And Abuse
Many teenagers try drugs and alcohol for pleasure. However, once they become addicted or start to suffer from substance abuse, it can trigger aggressive behavior. For instance, an intoxicated teen is unaware of their actions and may react aggressively to situations – something they may not do if they were sober.
Teenagers usually seek acceptance and to be part of a group. When they feel rejected, they may experience pain and anger that may trigger aggressive behavior. Also, it may cause low self-esteem that they may try to mask under aggressive behavior. On the other hand, in the wrong crowd, aggression may seem like the norm.
Solutions To Control Aggression In Teenagers
If your teenager has been exhibiting signs of worsening negative behavior, you may be worried that they will become aggressive in the future. There are ways to help the child deal with aggressive behavior and choose positive actions.
Be An Example
One important thing parents can do for their teen is to model proper behavior. The teenager needs to learn certain things like taking a break during an argument. By doing that, they will know it is okay to walk out of an extremely frustrating situation. Later, the conversation can continue when everyone is calm and ready to talk and resolve the situation.
Have a conversation with the teenager and explain how you are dealing with the frustration. They need to know what their parents do when they are angry and what would happen if they let the anger control them. Talking about such things in calm situations is an effective way for the teenager to learn anger management skills. If you repeat this enough time to them, your coping skills will start to rub off on the teen. The aim is that the teen will start to deliberate on these things when they encounter frustrating situations instead of quickly resorting to an aggressive reaction.
Have The Teenager Evaluated
Although aggression can happen independently of other issues, it could also indicate a more complicated condition. Aggression often accompanies many adolescent psychological disorders. Having the teenager evaluated by a psychologist or psychiatrist can provide a definitive answer regarding the possible cause of the child’s aggressive behavior and potential treatment options.
If the adolescent is diagnosed with a psychiatric or neurological condition like depression or epilepsy, using the correct prescription meds can help control aggressive behaviors.
Creating rules and guidelines does not mean that the teen will despise you—it helps them understand that you care about them. You know your teen better, so you know the best limits to set. Some basic pointers for setting rules with the teens include:
- Get their help when setting the rules and consequences – they will be more likely to follow them
- Write the rules down and place them in a visible area
- Include the positive and negative consequences for negative to ensure compliance
- Do not make rules that you cannot enforce
- Make good on the consequences with no discussion or bargaining
Despite efforts to prevent or control aggression, there may be a time when the teenager may get aggressive, physically or verbally, with you or another person. Since aggression may threaten the teen’s safety and the victim of the aggression, your response at that moment has to be practical.
First, you need to ensure everyone is safe, including you, the teenager, and everyone present. If anyone is not safe, it might be better to call for help or ask someone else to do so. The best bet is to avoid engagement that might further escalate the issue.
What you can do include:
- Stay calm
- Avoid showing anger or anxiety as this could worsen the situation
- Avoid bringing up past behavior
- Avoid making threats
- Pay attention to your body language and voice tones
- Avoid mentioning the possible consequences of the behavior
- Present a way out
Teenagers can learn relaxation techniques to cope with stressful conditions. It will come in handy when they feel burdened, probably with homework or extreme peer pressure. Also, it will help ease aggressive behaviors. They can learn to use the techniques when they feel angry or stressed.
Take the teenager to a trained and licensed professional for individual counseling. This can help them take responsibility for their actions and resolve issues in their relationships. It may also help to involve the entire family in counseling. Discussing with one another under the guidance of professional and trained therapists can help. This can help with conflict resolution and relationship issues that are contributing to aggressive behavior in the teenager.
At the end of the day, as a parent, you have the most influence on the child. You will be present often when aggression occurs, and you will be the best bet to deescalate the situation. You will also have the chance to help them learn better anger management and problem-solving skills. You will also be the one to help them professional help if required. Being supportive is what the teenager needs at this point.
You must learn how to help the teen prevent aggression and control the behavior when it occurs. Early intervention is important to help them develop into productive and respectful adults. An excellent place to start is having them undergo aggression assessment.