Teen Angst or Dangerous Anger? 6 Signs
How to tell if it's normal adolescent moodiness -- or a symptom of more serious trouble.
When Angela's 15-year-old son, Mark, started hanging out exclusively with
the "death metal" crowd, wearing only dark clothes and dying his hair, she
fretted. Was this run-of-the-mill teen angst, or something more troubling? Then
Mark quit the school play, and one day Angela got a call from the principal,
saying Mark had vandalized computers in the school's library. Now she became
Erratic teenage behavior is an age-old concern for parents. But in the wake
of violent events such as Colorado's 1999 Columbine High School massacre and
the recent mass shooting at Virginia Tech -- even though such incidents are
extremely rare -- many adults find themselves taking their kids' moods
seriously. Are they wrestling with "normal" teenage emotions or showing signs
of a problem with depression or anger, perhaps even one that could spiral out
Parents are right to pay attention. Serious mental health problems are a
real issue for some teens. According to recent research reported in American
Family Physician, "At any given time, up to 15% of children and adolescents
have some symptoms of depression. Five percent of those 9 to 17 years of age
meet the criteria for major depressive disorder."
But not every instance of a teen acting out is a red flag. Jeffrey Bostic,
MD, director of the School Psychiatry Program at Massachusetts General Hospital
and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says
a certain amount of rebellion and experimental behavior is normal for
teenagers. "Everybody goes through a phase," he says, "where they will pick
more fights or get more piercings or tattoos or whatever is in vogue for their
However, Bostic explains, when a teen starts to show signs of feeling
"isolated from the herd," bad things can happen. While he notes it's dangerous
to believe that you can add up the risk factors and conclude a violent event
will result, Bostic has identified several signs that may indicate something
more serious than normal teen angst is going on.
6 Signs of Dangerous Teen Anger
- Cry for help. "When a kid tells you, 'I'm going to do some
kind of harm,'" says Bostic, "they're seeking an intervention."
- Extreme identification. Teens who start to identify exclusively with
one clique or subculture and "want to go to war with all the other groups" have
crossed the line into dangerous thinking.
- Communication blackout. When teens stop talking to other adults and
peers altogether, they are likely feeling an extreme degree of social
- Violence. It may seem obvious, but too many parents miss this
cue, says Bostic. A pattern of violent activities such as hitting or vandalism
can foreshadow future harmful acts.
- Dropping out. A sudden disengagement from activities such as music,
sports, or theater or an overnight drop in grades can lead to involvement in
more risky behavior. A teen who stops identifying with others may have no
qualms about doing them harm.
- Substance abuse: Especially combined with the above behaviors, drug
and alcohol use may relax mental barriers and lead teens to harmful activities
they otherwise might avoid. Keep in mind that street drugs aren't the only
hazard; teens also can abuse household cleaning products, aerosol sprays, adult
prescription drugs, and over-the-counter cold medications.
Originally published in the September/October 2007 issue of WebMD the