Hormones, Emotions, and Anger

Picture Marcus, a fifteen-year-old boy whose parents have brought him to see a therapist to deal with his anger problems. Marcus is sulking; he thinks therapy is lame. At the same time, though, he admits to the therapist that he doesn't always understand what happens to him.

“Sometimes I have a good day at school. My classes go well, and I get to hang with my friends. Maybe the girl I like even talks to me. Then I get home, and my mom asks me why I didn't take out the trash. And all of a sudden I'm so angry. I yell at her and slam my door. Last week I punched a hole in my wall. I don't know why I do that; my mom is actually pretty cool.” Marcus shakes his head. “It's confusing sometimes.”

Emotions are powerful things. All boys struggle from time to time to express their emotions clearly and effectively; by the teen years, most boys have difficulty showing feelings, asking for help, or even being truly aware of their own emotional state. As if this isn't enough of a challenge, however, the hormones that accompany the physical changes of adolescence complicate matters even more. Emotions, which often prompt impulsive behavior, are flowing freely, while the part of the brain intended to manage them is not yet mature. No wonder teens and their parents can feel so irritated with each other!


Hormones (especially testosterone) appear to affect a teen's ability to read nonverbal signals accurately. Adults use the prefrontal cortex to read emotional cues, but teenagers rely on the limbic system, the system responsible for gut feelings. Teen boys often read emotional cues inaccurately. For instance, when shown pictures of adult faces expressing various emotions, adolescent boys interpret most of them as anger.

It is more important than ever to stay connected during your son's teen years, to use your listening skills to draw him out, and to continue to give him words for his often unruly emotions. As much as possible, remain calm — even when your son is not. (Taking a time-out to cool off is a valuable tool for both teens and parents.) Use active listening skills to help your son identify his own emotions; it may be helpful to share your own feelings, as well as experiences you had in your own adolescence. Remember, even though it may feel deeply personal, much of your son's behavior (and anger) is not really about you.

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