Dear Therapist:

I have a 13 year old son who has been having these anger outbursts. He has always been a pretty good kid but since his bar mitzvah has been getting really angry with his parents and siblings. He has been physical with his siblings and talks with a lot of chutzpah to his parents, especially his father. His...[teachers]...say he is doing well in school and there hasn't been much of a change in his life other than the added responsibilities that come with being older. We have tried talking to him but he hasn't been very forthcoming. We are not really sure what's bugging him. Maybe it is just a stage and we have to wait it out but it's hard to say. Can you give us some ideas as to what might be going on as well as some ways we might be able to draw out of him what could be bothering him?

Response:

The issue with which you are dealing is in no way unusual. Unfortunately, many kids go through various stages in life, some of which can be upsetting. I was gratified to see that you recognize that the source of your son’s negative actions may be something that is bothering him. This speaks to your understanding that the solution is not necessarily behavioral alone, but that there may be underlying issues that should be addressed.

Obviously, I do not know what is going on in your son’s mind. In fact, even he may not be entirely clear about what is bothering him. In some cases, the troublesome feeling is relatively vague, like general feelings of anxiety or depression. Nonetheless, there is usually a more specific issue or concern that is not being acknowledged. In other cases, there is a clear understanding of the problem. When this is the case, people are often hesitant to discuss the issue with others for fear of being negatively judged.

There may be a particular cause for your son’s change in attitude at home. Something may have happened that is making him feel unhappy or uncomfortable. However, this may not be the case; he may simply be feeling and thinking differently from the way that he did as a young child. Sometimes this can cause feelings of confusion and discomfort, leading to anxious or depressive thoughts and feelings. These, in turn, can reinforce the notion that his new thoughts and feelings are problematic, thus completing a vicious cycle.

Without discussing specifics, I think it is important for your son to get the message from you that it’s okay to feel anxious, sad, or to have concerns or fears. He should understand that development of new types of thoughts and feelings is normal. It is common for people (especially children) to feel that negative emotions or thoughts are singular to them, and that these indicate that there is something significantly wrong with them. This is true for urges that they consider to be outside the realm of normalcy.

If your son can be made to feel that he is okay, and that his feelings or urges are normal, this can go a long way toward making him feel more comfortable discussing them. In addition, simply recognizing that he is not abnormal, and that it is normal to think and feel things differently than what he is used to, can help to alleviate his negative emotions. If your son can feel that he is in a safe and non-judgmental environment, in which he can discuss his thoughts and feelings openly, this can help him to better deal with issues relating to maturation and life changes.

-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

  www.ylcsw.com / 516-218-4200