Dear Therapist:

Our teenage son often loses his temper. He can get really worked up over seemingly silly things. Not just at home but even with his friends it has becoming something of a joke about how he can "lose it." He isn't violent c"v or anything like that and is mostly a pleasant nice kid but he can really go from 0-60 quickly sometimes. How do you advise we deal with him when he gets like this? Do we make a zero-tolerance policy for it? Do we try and make a joke out of it? What do you suggest that we can do to help him with this in the long term?



I believe that there are two basic questions. The first is the one that you are asking: How do we, as parents, properly deal with our son’s outbursts, both generally and in the moment? The other question, however, speaks to the causes for your son’s anger.

Generally anger is not a primary emotion. Think about the times that you have gotten angry. Ask yourself whether your anger was the “true” emotion or whether there was another, underlying emotion. For instance, were you really embarrassed, insulted, hurt, sad, or feeling some kind of loss? Were these feelings consciously manifesting as anger?

Going one step deeper, we can ask ourselves whether some of these “primary” emotions are even the root cause of our anger. Why do we get embarrassed? Insulted? Hurt? Of course these feelings are perfectly normal, but does that mean that there is nothing deeper that causes them?

When we feel embarrassed or insulted, are these “natural” feelings? They are in the sense that most people feel them. But should we feel them? What makes some people feel these more strongly than others?

Let’s use embarrassment as an example. When we are embarrassed, the strength of the emotion generally comes from the sense that we are being belittled. If we are put down by someone who we feel is completely beneath us, we don’t feel very bad. If someone who we consider to be on or above our level does the same thing, this hurts much more.

In reality, we are the only ones who have the power of “deciding” whether or not to be embarrassed. However, when we feel “worth less,” this causes us to have negative feelings. This is about how we feel toward ourselves. Someone who truly feels positively toward himself will tend to feel less embarrassed than someone who does not.

When we do not recognize the underlying negative emotions causing our feelings of embarrassment, we wind up consciously dealing with the branch of the tree instead of the root. When we do not even acknowledge the embarrassment, we are dealing with only the leaves. The more we focus on the immediate, instinctive emotion, the harder it becomes to see the underlying feelings.

Obviously, I do not know who your son is. I don’t know his issues, insecurities, or how introspective he is. However, there is likely a general issue that runs deeper than his anger. Of course, we all have issues. We all struggle with unwanted emotions. When symptoms of a deeper issue, however, constantly reveal themselves it becomes important to begin working on the root of the problem.

-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW

  psychotherapist in private practice

  Woodmere, NY

  adjunct professor at Touro College

  Graduate School of Social Work

  author of Self-Esteem: A Primer / 516-218-4200


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