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home : columns : dr. k May 24, 2016

2/16/2013 9:31:00 AM
Dr. K for Feb. 17, 2013

Some teens’ anger is more than just moodiness

DEAR DOCTOR K: My 19-year-old son is always angry. Is this a normal developmental stage, or should I be concerned?

DEAR READER: The late teenage years are tough. Childhood is over. The protection offered by home and parents will soon end. Teens know that they will have to make it on their own in the world. Becoming a part of the society of teens around them is very important. Plus there are big challenges ahead: starting college, entering the work force, living away from home for the first time. So it's not at all uncommon for teens to be moody, and that includes periodic outbursts of anger that they didn't have when they were younger.

But when a teen gets increasingly angrier as time goes by -- or more rigid and defensive -- it's a cause for concern. Angry outbursts are a sign that your son is suffering and could use some help -- if he'll accept it. And if your son's angry outbursts ever injure anyone else, it's time for you to get him some help, fast.

Here are some things to consider:

-- Irritability aside, is your son showing other symptoms of depression? Is he having trouble enjoying life? Is he sleeping too little or too much? Is he gaining or losing a great deal of weight? Does he have low energy or poor concentration?

-- Is there any sign that your son might be using an illegal substance? Irritability or changes in mood can be the result of substance use.

-- Is your son irritable with everyone or just with you? It is common for children of any age to be intolerant of parents' input. As with many things, Mark Twain said it best: "When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished by how much he'd learned in seven years."

Is your son going through a crisis, a challenge or a developmental transition? Maybe there is a specific problem at the root of his testy behavior that needs attention -- relationship trouble, low self-esteem, concerns about his identity, or not feeling up to the pressures of school or work. Even if he won't talk to you about this, someone else may be able to get to the bottom of the problem.

There is no guarantee that your son will talk to you about these subjects. Often a parent needs the help of someone else to understand and help reduce a teen's anger. That other person may be another family member or friend that the young man trusts, a teacher or coach, his pediatrician, or a trained therapist or school counselor.

So if your son's anger goes beyond teenage moodiness, and you find you're not able to get through to him, look for help.

(Dr. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. To send questions, go to, or write: Ask Doctor K, 10 Shattuck St., Second Floor, Boston, MA 02115.)

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