Anger Issues in Teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder
Does your teen with Autism Spectrum Disorder “throw tantrums” when they become frustrated or overwhelmed? This behavior is often related to a full-body shutdown and trouble processing information when consumed by intense emotions, rather than defiance. It can be difficult for teens on the spectrum to recognize their anger issues and adopt different strategies when they begin to get agitated. Efforts to understand where their anger comes from and how it manifests in their body is one of the first steps in breaking the cycle of anger management issues and anger outbursts.
The guide is meant to be comprehensive, but as such, not every section will be applicable to everyone. Instead, we invite you to click on the links in the table of contents to jump to the sections that most interest you.
What Are the Signs of Anger Issues in Teens on the Spectrum?
Teens on the spectrum have a tendency to label things in black-and-white, including emotions. Rather than being accepted as a normal human emotion, they may view it as a “bad” emotion and feel guilty for experiencing it. Resisting expressing anger is one of the primary ways that it builds up in the body and leads to difficulty expressing it appropriately over time.
Some signs of anger issues in teens may include:
- Being easily irritable
- Difficulty identifying the cause of one’s anger
- Saying things they don’t mean or regret saying
- Projecting anger onto others when feeling hurt
- Getting into frequent arguments and having difficulty backing down
- Throwing temper tantrums or shutting down verbally
- Becoming aggressive during conflict-whether directly or indirectly involving others
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Why do Teens on the Autism Spectrum Struggle with Anger Management?
Teens on the spectrum frequently struggle with inflexibility, difficulty with communicating emotions, and trouble self-regulating, which is often interpreted as defiance and anger issues but can also be explained by anxiety and rigid thinking. Think about how often you’ve seen your child “throw a temper tantrum” when changes to plans occurred or an alternative activity or way to respond was suggested when they seemed to be getting frustrated. Typically, we see this behavior as disproportionate to the situation–either it’s “not a big deal” or you were just trying to help. Instead of being able to communicate why they were hurt by these suggestions or took it as a message they weren’t doing something right or good enough, they may shut down and protest following your suggestions. This can easily turn into a power struggle rather than a dialogue about how to notice and manage anger.
Whether it’s overstimulation or some other trigger, teens on the spectrum often have problems communicating their frustrations, leading to outbursts. Or, they may resist talking about feeling angry and feel like they have to hide the fact that they are frustrated from others. This may lead to internalizing anger and directing it towards themselves or turning to the Internet to vent their frustrations. At times, they have a harder time recognizing when they’re feeling angry until they reach that “tipping point,” which can make it hard to consciously choose alternative anger management strategies. It is easier to de-escalate a situation between the triggering event and the escalation phase than at the peak of a crisis, which may be when an autistic teen’s alarm bells start going off.
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How Does Seven Stars RTC Help Teens with Anger Management Issues?
One of the ways that Seven Stars RTC helps teens manage anger is by offering psychoeducation during individual, group, and family therapy. Often, families discuss anger issues as a behavior, rather than exploring the underlying emotions or physiological symptoms. As teens on the spectrum may have a harder time developing emotional intelligence and self-awareness, it is important that psychoeducation is presented clearly and acknowledges multiple perspectives, not just black-and-white thinking.
Talking about emotions and ways to cope with them in individual and group therapy helps reduce some of the shame teens may feel about the intensity of their feelings. It also offers a platform to discuss these things openly without fear of judgment and hear feedback from multiple people. Anger management therapy acknowledges that different strategies work for different people and that certain strategies are more effective at different stages of a crisis. During an anger outburst, the most effective way to help will be by focusing on resolving the immediate crisis, rather than trying to clarify the triggering event, which at that point, is often at the back of one’s mind. When heightened emotions take over, the priority becomes in-the-moment self-soothing techniques that one can practice independently.
Group therapy encourages teens to compare and share insight that they’ve gained about their own experiences with anger and coping skills that have worked for them. Building relationships within a group setting helps teens understand how their anger and outbursts affect those around them and motivates them to make healthier decisions when angry to maintain these relationships.
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- Why Do Teens with Autism Have Difficulty Expressing Anger?
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- Kicking and Screaming: How To Help Your Teen With Autism Who Throws Tantrums
- Is your teen out of control? Tips for working with disruptive teens
- Autism and Defiance Issues: Getting Back on Track