The James Dean Syndrome

Teenagers are so misunderstood. They are angry and frustrated; they are uncommunicative and surly, combative and intentionally dense. All of this is true.

Comedian Bill Cosby once said, “My parents never smiled … because I had brain damage. My wife and I don’t smile because our children are loaded with it. Oh, my parents smile now, whenever they come over to the house and see how much trouble I’m having. Oh, they have a ball! ‘Havin’ a li’l trouble, huh, son?'”

Mark Twain once said, “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”

And, in the words of the immortal James Dean, “I think the one thing this picture shows that’s new is the psychological disproportion of the kids’ demands on the parents. Parents are often at fault, but the kids have some work to do, too. But you can’t show some far off idyllic conception of behavior if you want the kids to come and see the picture. You’ve got to show what it’s really like, and try to reach them on their own grounds.”

Even James Dean, proverbial portrayer of the consummate troubled teen, knew that a teen’s tendency toward anger was often the result of simple teenage angst. He also knew that where the anger comes from makes little difference if adults and teens can’t bridge the gap that keeps both sides from overcoming the issues that cause the angry teen to boil over.

The fact is that anger is a somewhat cumulative emotion, especially when you lack the resources or the skills to diffuse what bothers you. Just like adults, teens can explode. What makes the teen explosion deeply troubling is that teens have trouble finding control again once they’ve lost it, and, when teens explode, they often do more damage to themselves than others.

As parents, there are a few things we can do to ensure that our teens don’t let their anger get out of control. First and foremost, teens need to talk. Letting everything build up with no relief in sight can make even the best-behaved teen erupt like a volcano when the pressure gets to be too much. Making sure that your teen has an adult to talk to and to help guide her through the tough times is far more important than insisting that the go-to adult is you. Don’t force your teen to talk if she is obviously uncomfortable. Rather, keep the lines of communication open so that your teen can talk when she is ready. And make sure that any talking that does take place is done so with respect on both sides.

Avoid reacting to obvious attempts to cause trouble. Teens have a magical way of knowing exactly which buttons to push in order to ruffle the feathers of every adult within a 10-mile radius. Make sure that you not only pay attention to matters that need correcting, but behaviors that are appropriate and productive as well. It’s never a good feeling to have your each and every flaw highlighted for all to see, regardless of what age you are. So, rather than making a huge deal out of your teen’s inability to pick up his socks, make mention of how much you appreciate it when he does.

Avoid the autocratic rule. Nobody likes a dictator, especially teens. Rather than laying down the law and demanding that, without compromise, your teen sticks to the program, ensure a higher level of cooperation by allowing your teen a say in what goes on at home.

Although there are occasions when the “do as I say, not as I do” rule surely applies, all children learn by example. The advantage that parents have over other behavior role models like television characters, popular performers, and even peers is that parents have access to their kids long before these other role models come along. Take advantage of your unbridled ability to model appropriate behavior for your kids before they realize that you are not their only source for life’s lessons. Creating this bond with your teen long before you need it can go a long way toward bridging the gap later.

Although, in some cases, there’s no way to see the explosion coming, parents who have to deal with an excessively angry teen often admit that there were subtle signs of a meltdown. Keeping the lines open and the trust flowing can help any parent redirect what is many times anger born of the normal frustration of the teen years into more productive ways for the teen to vent.