Behind the Mask of Teenage Anger
By Janis Leibs Dworkis
It takes patience and determination to help a troubled teen identify and manage his feelings of anger. But a willingness to care and listen may be enough to save a young man's future.
At a camp in Oregon, a Scout picks up a large tree branch and hides behind a tree. When another boy walks by, the Scout jumps out and hits the boy with the branch. Fortunately, the boy, although stunned, is not seriously injured.
At another camp, a 15-year-old Scout screams and yells and threatens to hit another boy. Three adult leaders try to calm him down and diffuse the situation, but his rage is uncontrollable, and he violently attacks the other boy. The leaders have to separate the boys and restrain the attacker.
Although these scenes are not common in Scouting, they did happen. And they happened because the two boys, overwhelmed by anger, could no longer control the energy of their own internal frustration and pain.
In the three years since the shootings at Columbine and other schools, society has become painfully aware that anger left festering in teenage boys can erupt into violence.
Research by psychologists and other experts supports that concept of cause and effect. However, research also shows that anger, if handled properly, does not have to lead to violence.
Left to fend for themselves, these angry boys could easily be headed toward prison. But with the dedicated help of one or two adults who understand the causes and symptoms of anger, along with community support from programs such as Scouting, these boys can navigate their way to normal, productive lives.
Consider the boy who ambushed another Scout with a tree branch. He received the kind of help that enabled him to take responsibility for managing his anger, developed a deep mentoring relationship with his Scout leader, and went on to become an Eagle Scout. Today he is an assistant Scoutmaster. And the boy who attacked another in a rage? He, too, became an Eagle Scout and is a productive member of society who continues to help out with his troop.
Some unit leaders maintain a zero-tolerance approach to violence. If you hit another boy, you're out of here. Period. But while applying such rigid rules can make life easier for the Scout leader, those rules don't begin to help the angry teen.
It takes a tremendous amount of energy and determination to deal positively with a teenager who is acting out such angry behavior. That Scout already knows he shouldn't hit another boy. The lesson he needs to learn is why he is so angry and how that anger can be managed.
"Anger is what we call a cover-up emotion, a sign that says something is wrong. But the real problem is always underneath," says Lynn Weiss, Ph.D., psychotherapist and author of numerous books about child development and parenting.
"Anger is like a shield that a boy uses to protect himself, to cover vulnerable feelingsfeelings of loss, shame, helplessness, hopelessness, or fear."
Teenage boys are in the process of establishing their identity, Dr. Weiss explains. When one boy assaults the identity of anotherthrough taunting or bullying, for examplethe victim of that behavior can experience feelings of worthlessness.
But a 15-year-old boy isn't going to calmly verbalize that he is suddenly experiencing a sense of turmoil and is even questioning the meaning of his very existence. Instead, that turmoil will be expressed as anger, either as a sudden muted sense of disconnection and depression (anger turned inward) or aggression against another person (anger turned outward).
That's what happened with the Scout who picked up a tree branch and ambushed another boy.
"That young man was in my troop," says Scoutmaster Jim Hyatt of Petaluma, Calif., who witnessed the incident at camp. "He had a very short attention span, and he was somewhat shunned by the other boys. Socially, he was just not there. He was also very large for his age, and he felt like he was being picked on by the other boys.
"My initial reaction was to treat the offense with a good deal of severity," Hyatt says. "But once I was able to get him to see that he had struck an innocent boy and to understand the damage that a lad his size could do, we seemed to open the lines of communication.
"After that, we often spoke freely about his anger and the need to keep it controlled. I allowed him the opportunity to take leadership positions in the troop, but always with requirements related to his anger management.
"This Scout is now a fine young man looking at a good future and productive life. I think that his willingness to be open with me about his anger problem and to actively work to control it have resulted in success."
Experts might say that Hyatt isn't giving himself enough credit. Not all adults would have had the patience to work with this Scout. And certainly, too many boys have no adults in their lives who are willing to help them make the connection they so desperately need. Many angry, needy boys fall through the cracks in societyuntil their anger results in self-destructive behavior or explodes into violence.
"Sometimes it seems that few people really care about hurt little boys who have grown up to be violent teenagers, except as potential threats to the community," says James Garbarino, Ph.D., in his book Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them. "We are willing to incarcerate them but not to understand them. Perhaps we feel that an attempt to understand them is dangerous because it might excuse their actions."
No onecertainly not Scoutmaster Jim Hyattis trying to excuse the violent behavior that erupts from anger. All Scouts need to feel safe in their troop. And Hyatt makes it clear from the time boys enter his troop that poking, pushing, wrestling, or hitting is not permitted.
"I treat the boys with respect, and I expect them to treat me respectfully, too," he says. "I don't put up with back talk. I constantly maintain order and insist that if I am talking, others are not."
Even so, when a Scout's anger erupted into violence, Hyatt was able to recognize it as a cry for help.
"It takes a lot of patience to look beneath the surface and not take angry behavior personally. But that's what's required if you want to help an angry teen," Lynn Weiss says. "If you want to change angry behavior, you have to look for the real problem and figure out how to solve it."
Often, a Scout leader or any concerned adult will be unsuccessful in assessing and helping to solve an angry teen's underlying problems. Physical or verbal abuse at home, alcohol or drug problems in the family, divorce or loss of a loved one, economic distress, learning disabilities, or physical illness could be the root of a Scout's anger, but beyond a Scout leader's ability to "solve."
Sometimes, though, just knowing that one adult does care, is available to really listen, and willing to treat him as the honorable young man he longs to be, is enough to save a teen's future.
In fact, Scouting is exactly the type of institution that James Garbarino describes as a lifeline for angry teens.
"We can save our sons, even our temperamentally vulnerable sons, from turning violent," he says in Lost Boys, "by connecting them to positive values and embedding them in positive relationships."
These include social support from persons and programs outside the family that encourage spiritual and ethical growthprograms like Scouting.
"I certainly don't have the answers to help every angry boy," Scoutmaster Hyatt admits. "But my seven years' experience in a troop leadership position has shown me the difference Scouting can make. Scouting, and the values it teaches, can play an important part in helping boys through one of the hardest parts of their livesadolescence."
Freelance writer Janis Leibs Dworkis lives in Dallas, Tex. She also wrote the award-winning article "How Society Fails Boys [And What We Can Do About It]" in the May-June 1999 Scouting magazine. That issue is available at www.scoutingmagazine.org (click on archives).
September 2002 Table of Contents
Copyright © 2002 by the Boy Scouts of America. All rights thereunder reserved; anything appearing in Scouting magazine or on its Web site may not be reprinted either wholly or in part without written permission. Because of freedom given authors, opinions may not reflect official concurrence.