A clinical psychologist practicing in Newcastle, Australia, Michael Currie has worked with adolescent boys and their families for 20 years. Much of his attention has centered on the anger that can consume boys during their high-school years. Manifesting in the home as sullenness, disobedience and fierce assertions of independence, teen rage confuses and distresses parents, who often make matters worse with their clumsy, if well-meaning, attempts to address it. In his new book, Doing Anger Differently, Currie explores what's at the core of boys' anger and lays out the dos and don'ts of the parental response. Between patients, he chatted with TIME about the turbulent inner world of the adolescent boy.
What's the difference between the anger of adolescent boys and the anger we all feel from time to time?
In its essence, not a lot. Anger is made of two components: one is an idea that there's something wrong, two is that someone else is to blame. The difference in adolescence is the struggle behind the anger. The teenager is trying to grasp the responsibilities and freedoms that come with entering the second epoch of life — that between childhood and adulthood. His identity is fragile, and it can be inevitable that anger comes with that.
Is this anger necessarily a bad thing?
No. Saint Thomas Aquinas talked about anger being an attack on the evil present in the mind, and how if one ignores this evil — the thing that's wrong — the result is sadness. The truth that has to be mastered in adolescence is that a boy can do whatever he likes, inside the law. Leaving those boundaries is a fundamentally self-destructive thing to do.
Is the focus of your book problem kids or the average teenage boy who sometimes shouts at his parents?
Both. A lot of my work with teenage anger has been with the 5% of the male population in early high school, trying to help them find other ways of addressing what's wrong rather than swearing at teachers or being violent or smashing property. But there are boys across the spectrum of anger difficulties, and all could benefit from their parents knowing more about how to manage things.
What kind of damage can adolescent anger do to families?
Enormous damage. It can destroy the bonds that keep a family together. A problem with anger is that it's contagious. When parents have an angry son in the house, it's very easy to get caught up in that anger and to respond in kind. When the son starts yelling, they yell back. If his parents keep responding in this way, the son will begin to feel there's no place for him in the home.
Aren't there angry girls, too?
No doubt. Perhaps one of the differences with girls — and it's very hard to generalize — is that they have more of a facility with speech. They tend to be able to talk about what their inner life is like, whereas boys tend not to have too many models in their life who can help them to articulate the powder keg that's inside them.
What are the keys to dealing with a teenager's anger?
Because they're the adults, parents need to suck it in and step back and try a whole lot of other things besides getting mad. Parents have to try, at times when the anger's not around, to come back to their son and revisit the issue at the core of the argument. They need to identify the kernel of truth contained in his anger, and go back to their son and say, Listen, you said this — can you tell me a little bit more about what you're feeling?
In adolescence, boys need to feel they're working towards something, whether it be an apprenticeship or university or whatever. If they have something they want to preserve, that's a reason for them to hang on to their anger. It's those boys who feel marginalized, who feel they have no future and nothing to lose, they're the boys who end up joining groups made up of other marginalized youth. They come to think, I'm going to act exactly how I feel — and I feel terrible.
Why do they feel terrible? Is it because they don't have a goal, or is that lack of a goal a symptom of feeling terrible?
The crucial point is that we all feel terrible at times. The difference between boys who get into difficulty with their anger and those who don't is the way they respond to feeling terrible.
To what extent can the anger of adolescence be traced to changes going on in the brain at this stage of life?
There's a lot of explanations that circle about as to why adolescents are angry. There's the neurological argument, the hereditary argument. Some parents look at their teenage son and say, What have I done? There must be something that I really stuffed up in his childhood for him to be acting this way. The problem with all these explanations is that, while they might have some validity, all of them render the parents powerless to do anything about the problem. My point would be that parents can do something. They can have an influence on their angry son.
Withdrawal, lack of motivation, apathy — are these other manifestations of teenage anger?
Yes. There's no doubt about that. Parents can get abused one moment, then the next the adolescent withdraws and doesn't want to talk.
So yelling at their teenagers doesn't generally help. But what about the broader idea of parents getting tough?
Some parents take up a very authoritarian stance, trying to lay down the rules. This doesn't help an adolescent boy at all because it means the rules are imposed from outside, like a moral law. Parents need to be involved in a dialogue with their son. They need to fill the role of intellectual midwife: engage them in a conversation where the rules, the laws, what's right and what's wrong are talked about and not imposed. Sometimes parents have to forbid. But that doesn't mean the forbidding should happen in the absence of a dialogue.
What's going on in the head of the angry boy? What have most parents forgotten about adolescence?
Adolescent anger is an assertion, and the assertion is: I am not wrong about myself. Boys are busy building an image or an identity of themselves, and this is vulnerable to being smashed and destroyed. That is a threat that causes anger, and the accompanying act to anger can be aggression.
But what if the self-image the son is building up is loathsome to his parents? Do they have to respect it?
No, because that's where parents can and do have some authority over their children, and they absolutely need to know where he is and what he's doing. One of the difficulties of boys joining gangs is that they often celebrate an ideal of who can be the most ruthless, the most destructive, the most violent. There's this violent ideal that boys can fall into, and by following that ideal it sort of assuages their negative self-feelings. Absolutely this is a time to intervene, while at the same time trying to find out why he's drawn to that ideal in the first place.