The Epidemic of Teen Anger

Teenage anger burst into the media headlines in recent years, due to the dramatic number of school shootings. From February 2, 1996, to March 7, 2001, 15 incidences of school violence resulted in many injuries and 36 deaths. During that time the media reported 11 similar plans thwarted by law enforcement officials.

Unmet Needs

What is the reason for the degree of anger we see today in teenagers? When they shoot their classmates, fight with others, blow up repeatedly at home, or cheat in classes, those activities ultimately make their lives more difficult. So why do teens get on, or stay on, such a path to destruction?

Their behavior is intentional. It fills an unmet need. When we see the purpose behind their actions, we can know how to effectively deal with their anger. In order to find out what needs kids are trying to meet, we must know what those needs are. I have found that typically the reasons for anger stem from various types of unmet needs.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow developed what he called the “Hierarchy of Needs.” His premise was that we are all motivated by unsatisfied needs and that certain lower needs must be taken care of before higher needs can be met. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is:


Maslow’s model is a way to describe the needs we all have. I like summarizing the needs of kids today with the acronym “H.E.L.P.”--Health, Environment, Love, Purpose. All these areas represent the categories of needs in kids’ lives. The most essential need, though, is in the area of health.


Health involves our most basic needs, such as water, food, sleep, shelter, and so on. If those are not met, every other area of life is affected. Without clean water, disease from bacteria can cause severe health problems.

The lack of food causes hunger and impacts the ability to learn. A scenario regarding the need for food was evident in an elementary school where I taught. A boy kept stealing other students’ lunches. After several disciplinary actions, we learned that his family ate only one meal of refried beans and tortillas per day. His single mom had six kids. The school started providing the boy with a lunch each day. With his need met, the stealing stopped.

At one school where I counseled, about ten percent of our students lived in shacks with no glass in the windows. They were at the mercy of the weather and other threats, such as being robbed. How could they concentrate on their schoolwork after being robbed the night before? Other kids I’ve worked with have had the electricity shut off in their house because bills weren’t paid. How can we blame kids when some of the reasons for their anger result from their living conditions?


When we were young, the most influential people in our lives were probably our parents. Today young people are influenced by their environment--their cultural heritage, their neighborhood, their school and church, the influence of the media, and society as a whole. Peer pressure is powerful.

As adults, we’re shocked when sons or daughters come home with tattoos, piercings, or blue hair. Sometimes these startling changes in appearance are signs of rebellion, and sometimes they’re just acts of curiosity or creative expressions. Sometimes they’re attempts to get our attention.

Our society has a powerful impact on our kids. So many expectations are tempting young people to bypass much of their childhood. They’re forced to grow up too fast, and as a result, they lose a lot of their innocence. Many behaviors we’re seeing in teens today are behaviors we previously expected from adults.

Adolescents are confused about how they’re supposed to act. The media says one thing, and the Church says another. Their peers may tell them to do something they know would be against their parents’ values. That’s why we have to pray and count on the solid foundation we’ve set in their lives. It’s never too late to continue building upon that foundation. That foundation is love.


Many of our kids experience three types of love in their world:

1. I’ll love you if you do this for me, or if you let me . . .
2. I love you because when I’m with you I’m in the popular crowd.
3. I love you no matter who you are or what you’ve done.

One of the few places kids receive the third kind of love is at home. Even though we know the influence society and their peers have on them, parents still have the lasting impact in their lives. The most grounded and successful kids I’ve worked with in full-time ministry and in schools are those who have a parent or parents to love them. As long as we constantly seek God’s will regarding our kids and are willing to learn and grow in our parenting skills, He will take care of the rest. We’ll make mistakes, but when we do, it’s important that we remember to admit our mistakes to our children.

Some of the most powerful times in my counseling office are when a parent who misunderstood something about a son or daughter apologizes to the teen. That does more for a kid than any words anyone else could ever say to them. Teens notice when their parents do wrong. If we repeatedly discipline our teens for bad behaviors but then turn around and display those same behaviors, our teens naturally think, That’s not fair! This builds anger in their lives.

When you do make a mistake, such as losing your temper with your children, acknowledge your wrong actions to your children. When appropriate, ask your children for forgiveness. We must strive to model appropriate and good behavior to our children but must also be realistic about our failures. When we fail, we also need to model to our kids how to deal with it. Humility and willingness to be the first to admit we were wrong can melt a teen’s angry heart.

When teens don’t have a good relationship with their parents, they will seek to meet those needs through other people. Kids need to feel a sense of belonging, and they will keep looking until they find it. Even if they can get it from home, they still look for it from their peers. Young people need to belong to a group. If someone is shunned by a group in church or school, they’ll keep looking until they find a group that will let them in. That’s why gangs are so popular. They provide a sense of acceptance and belonging, even if their activities are wrong.

Once the need to feel accepted is met, teens are free to be themselves instead of feeling the need to put on masks. If they get into the wrong group by pretending to be something they’re not, they’ll have to maintain that persona the entire time they’re a part of that group. That’s why it’s important for parents to present opportunities for them to get into situations in which they’ll have contact with positive groups. Hopefully, with the love and acceptance we provide, they’ll feel secure enough to face rejection and won’t place such a high priority on being liked by others.

The greatest picture of God’s love for us is the relationship between a parent and a child. If there is open communication, acceptance of who they are, a lack of judgmental attitudes, and security in the relationship, kids will grow up to love God and not be afraid to commit their lives to Him. Once kids know they’re loved, they’ll be able to look to their futures.


Young people need a cause. They want to strive for something bigger than themselves. When they have the security that comes from their needs being met, they can give of themselves to help others.

Everyone has gifts and talents. In working with kids and parents on plans for after high school, I ask the students about their special talents. Most don’t know. Their parents immediately chime in to say what they’ve seen in their children. When parents validate adolescents’ gifts in that way, the teens brighten up and can see how those gifts relate to career areas they might be successful in--whether as homemaker, auto mechanic, attorney, or computer programmer.

It’s important for Christians to realize what their spiritual gifts are. See if your church has a spiritual gifts test you can take. It’s so exciting to see how your natural abilities complement the spiritual gifts God has given you. When you’re involved in work in which your natural gifts and spiritual gifts are being used, you experience immeasurable fulfillment. God has placed within all of us exactly what we need in order to fulfill the purpose He has for our lives.

God’s purpose for you as a parent may seem discouraging at times. Even though there may be times you feel like giving up, you’re making an incredible difference in your kids’ lives. It may not seem like it at times, but hang in there.

This article is excerpted from the book Angry Teens and the Parents who love them by Sandy J. Austin, published by Beacon Hill Press, 2002.