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Q: Our 11-year-old son seems to have a bit of an anger issue. He gets upset easily, often at little provocation – like when he loses a game or is told to shut off his iPod – and will mouth off at us, his parents, or hurt his siblings. His overall personality is also just not as upbeat as his siblings’. He is hard to please and is often in a bad mood. Do you think this is just a personality type? Or does it indicate a larger issue?

A: Thank you for the question. I think it touches on some important concepts that I will address.

We know that anger is considered a secondary emotion˟. What that means is that before feeling angry we always feel something first. It is most commonly hurt or fear. Anger comes in as a protective shield to prevent us from feeling or appearing weak. When the intensity of our anger seems disproportionate to the situation it usually indicates one of two things.

  1. There is prior unresolved hurt or anger
  2. There is a sensitivity that the person has (not by choice), and they feel more than most would in that situation.

Let’s address each of the two possibilities;

Unresolved hurt or anger:

There are numerous reasons we might struggle or avoid addressing past hurt feelings. One might be that it does not feel safe for the person to do so (they fear being blamed or judged for having that feeling).

A second reason might be they are unaware that it is there. When someone appears to be constantly frustrated or unhappy with life, it is typically an indication of unprocessed negative feelings that have built over time. I would ask you to think about at what age you first noticed this in your son? How is he with his friends? What is his overall relationship like with you and your spouse? Does he seem happy in school?

It’s important to know that in adolescents anger is a common symptom of depression.


People don’t choose their temperament and can’t decide how sensitive they are. Some of the most hurtful things to tell someone that is hurt are “Why are you so sensitive? Chill out. Relax. You’re completely overreacting.” That results in them feeling both hurt by the initial trigger in addition to now feeling like something else is wrong with them. That said, it can be beneficial to help your child identify the thought preceding their feeling and examine if it’s completely accurate or not. Additionally, when people feel they are being attacked the automatic response is to defend and fight back even before considering the nature of the attack.

In terms of managing it, regardless if it’s rooted in his temperament or indicative of an underlying issue, if a habit has been formed then some of the ways to address it remain the same.

We need to understand that we cannot choose whether to feel an emotion or not rather our only ability is to control our actions following the feeling.

  1. One of the fundamental interventions in managing anger is creating space between feeling and the reaction. Many of us have heard of counting to 10, taking a time out or going for a walk. When we are experiencing anger and particularly when it is intense, the prefrontal cortex or thinking part of our brain is not fully online, which can result in us acting irrationally. If we give ourselves time to experience the feeling, it can allow that part of the brain back online and more influential in what we do next.
  2. Every emotion carries with it a bodily sensation. Help your child notice what he feels when he’s upset. It is common for people to feel anger (as warmth or heat) in their hands and head (hence the term “hothead”). When we can identify what happens in our bodies when we are experiencing a feeling it helps us attend to and process the feeling which in turn leads to calming down more rapidly.
  3. Offer your child a reward for the times he controls his temper, and with time he can begin to associate holding back his reaction with a positive feeling. (We know from research that people respond to positive reinforcement at a significantly higher rate than negative reinforcement.)
  4. Modeling good behavior is often one of the most effective teaching tools we have for our children. How do you or your spouse manage your anger when things upset you? Even if you don’t see the results you are hoping for do not give up. Many times even if we are acting in a way that our children can learn from, it can take months or years for its impact on them to be noticed.

In response to the question you asked, it may be difficult to know for sure what the source of his anger is. I hope some of these thoughts and tools can help you address this with your son.

˟There is one exception when anger is a primary emotion. It is when we are feeling upset when seeing an injustice in the world (think Pinchas).

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