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Frustration, Aggression and Violence: Tips for Teens

About 16% of high school kids carried a weapon at least once during the 30 days before they were surveyed. Also, about 7% reported that they have been threatened or injured with a weapon. Many different factors cause aggressive behavior. The more these factors are present in your life, the more likely you are to commit an act of aggression.

What causes someone to punch, kick, stab or fire a gun at other people? There is never a simple answer to that question. But teens often commit aggression because of one or more of the following:
  • Aggression is a learned behavior. Like all learned behaviors, it can be changed. This isn't easy, though. Since there is no single cause of aggression, there is no one simple solution. The best you can do is learn to recognize the “red flags” (i.e., warning signs) of aggression and to get help when you see them in your peers or yourself.
  • Some teens use aggression to release emotions of rage or frustration. They think there are no answers to their problems and turn to aggression to express their out of control emotions.
  • Aggression is used as a way to control others or get something they want.
  • Aggression is used to retaliate against those who have hurt them or someone they care about.

Teens who act aggressively have trouble controlling their emotions. They may have been hurt by others. Some think that making others fear them through aggression (or threats of aggression) will solve their problems or earn them respect. This isn't true. Some aggression occurs as a response to prolonged hurt, trauma, bullying or victimization. Teens may use aggression to get something, while others may act out of self-protection or desperation. In any event, remember that teens who behave aggressively lose respect. They eventually find themselves isolated or disliked, and they still feel angry and frustrated.

Rage itself is not always a sign that aggression or an act of violence is imminent. What is most important to look at is if there are “new” signs and significant changes in behavior. The presence of some of the signs listed below should alert you to the possibility that a particular teenager may be at risk of aggression or violence. Some signs of potential for aggression may be historical factors like:
  • Being callous or lacking empathy for others
  • Early childhood abuse or neglect
  • Family or parent condones use of aggression
  • Having a major mental illness
  • Having been a victim of bullying
  • Having witnessed aggression at home
  • History of aggressive or aggressive behavior
  • History of cruelty to animals
  • History of discipline problems or frequent conflicts with authority
  • History of vandalism or property damage
  • Young age at first aggressive incident

Other signs of potential aggression may be present over time and may contribute to the risk of aggression given a certain event or activity. These might include:
  • Access to or fascination with weapons, especially guns
  • Feeling constantly disrespected
  • Gang membership or strong desire to be in a gang
  • Regularly feeling rejected or alone
  • Serious drug or alcohol use
  • Trouble controlling emotions like rage
  • Withdrawal from friends and usual activities

Some signs of potential aggression may be new or active signs, for example:
  • Acute episode of major mental illness
  • Announcing threats or plans for hurting others
  • Declining school performance
  • Frequent physical fighting
  • Increased loss of temper
  • Increased risk-taking behavior
  • Increased use of alcohol or drugs
  • Obtaining or carrying a weapon
  • Planning how to commit acts of aggression

When you recognize signs of aggression in someone else, there are things you can do:
  • Don’t resort to aggression or use a weapon to protect yourself.
  • Don't spend time alone with teens who show signs of aggression.
  • If you are worried about being a victim of aggression, get someone in authority to protect you.
  • Tell someone you trust and respect about your concerns and ask for help (e.g., family member, guidance counselor, teacher, school psychologist, coach, clergy, school resource officer, peer, etc.).
  • The key to really preventing aggressive behavior is asking an experienced professional for help.
  • The most important thing to remember is to not go it alone and to take any signs or threats seriously.

It's normal to feel upset when you've been let down or betrayed. But rage and frustration don't justify aggressive action. Rage is a strong emotion that can be difficult to keep in check, but the right response is to always stay cool. Here are some ways to deal with rage without resorting to aggression:
  • Express criticism, disappointment, rage or displeasure without losing your temper or fighting. Ask yourself if your response is safe and reasonable.
  • If you're afraid to talk or if you can't find the right words to describe what you're going through, find a trusted friend or grown-up to help you one-on-one.
  • Listen to others and respond without getting upset when someone gives you negative feedback. Ask yourself if you can really see the other person's point of view.
  • Negotiate and work out your problems with someone else by looking at alternative solutions and compromises.
  • Take a time-out and calm yourself before you respond to the situation or person who is triggering your rage.

Rage and frustration is part of life, but you can free yourself from the cycle of aggression by learning to talk about your emotions. If you recognize any of these signs for aggressive behavior in yourself, talk with someone who can help (e.g., a friend or a grown-up you trust). You don't have to live with the guilt, sadness and frustration that comes from hurting others. Admitting you have a concern about hurting others is the first step. Talking to a trusted grown-up (e.g., school counselor or psychologist, teacher, family member, friend, clergy, etc.) is the second step. They can get you in touch with a professional who cares and can help.

Everyone feels rage in his or her own way. Start managing it by recognizing how rage feels to you. When you are very upset about something, you probably feel:
  • A "knot" or "butterflies" in your stomach
  • Accelerated heartbeat
  • Changes in your breathing
  • Flushed in the face
  • Goose bumps
  • Muscle tension
  • Trembling

You can reduce the rush of adrenaline that's responsible for your heart beating faster, your voice sounding louder and your fists clenching if you:
  • Imagine yourself at the beach, by a lake, or anywhere that makes you feel calm and peaceful.
  • Take a few slow, deep breaths and concentrate on your breathing.
  • Try other thoughts or actions that have helped you relax in the past.

Keep telling yourself:
  • "I'm not going to let him get to me."
  • "I don't need to prove myself."
  • "Calm down."

More tips to staying calm:
  • Consider the consequences.
  • Don't argue in front of other teens.
  • Learn to recognize what sets you off and how rage feels to you.
  • Learn to think through the benefits of controlling your rage and the consequences of losing control. 
  • Make your goal to defeat the problem, not the other person.
  • Only you have the power to control your own aggressive behavior – don't let rage control you.
  • Stay cool and think. 
  • Think before you act.
  • Try to find positive or neutral explanations for what that person did that provoked you.

Some teens who have trouble dealing with their emotions don't react by lashing out at others. Instead, they direct aggression toward themselves. The most devastating expression of this kind of aggression is suicide. Like teens who are aggressive toward others, potential suicide victims often behave in recognizable ways before they try to end their lives. Suicide, like other forms of aggression, is preventable. The two most important steps in prevention are recognizing red flags and getting help. Red flags of potential self-aggression may include:
  • Drop in quality of school performance or interest
  • Emotions of hopelessness, guilt or worthlessness
  • Feeling like a burden to others
  • Getting into trouble with authority figures
  • Giving away important possessions
  • Hinting at not being around in the future or saying good-bye
  • Impulsive, aggressive behavior
  • Lack of interest in usual activity
  • Major change in eating or sleeping habits
  • News reports of other suicides by teens in the same school or community
  • Perfectionism
  • Poor control over behavior
  • Previous suicide attempts
  • Recent break-up with a boyfriend or girlfriend or conflict with moms and dads
  • Recent death or suicide of a friend or family member
  • Significant alcohol or drug use
  • Sudden increase in moodiness, withdrawal or isolation
  • Threatening or communicating thoughts of suicide, death, dying or the afterlife

Oftentimes, suicidal thinking comes from a wish to end emotional pain. But keep in mind that pain often diminishes and emotions change. There are almost always options to something as final as suicide. Sometimes we just need some help to see them. If a peer mentions suicide, take it seriously. Listen carefully and then seek help immediately. Never keep their talk of suicide a secret, even if they ask you to. Remember, you risk losing that friend forever. When you recognize the red flags for suicidal behavior, do something about it. Tell a trusted grown-up what you have seen or heard. Get help from a professional as soon as possible. They can help work out the problems that seem so unsolvable but, in fact, are not.


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