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Is your teen anxious or confrontational?


September 6, 2023 Parent-Child Relationship


Par Catherine Giard et Maryse Samuel

Psychosocial worker and Psychoeducator

Does your teen refuse to go to school? Do they argue about homework? Do they throw a tantrum when you say no to one of their ideas? At first glance, it might seem like opposition, right? 

In counselling, we often use the image of the iceberg to illustrate that behind every observable behavior lies a multitude of unseen thoughts, emotions, and physical signs. So, what may be perceived as confrontation (the tip of the iceberg) may in fact be a symptom of another problem, such as anxiety.  

As Dr. Laura Prager (Director of Emergency Child Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital) explains, "anxiety is an imposter diagnosis," meaning that it can manifest itself in many ways and is often confused with other disorders.   

How can we distinguish between adversity and anxiety? 

Keeping in mind that anxiety can manifest itself in many ways, take a moment to assess whether your teenager's actions and words are a challenge to your authority, or whether they are a reaction caused by anxiety. 

Here are some guidelines to help you identify symptoms of anxiety in your teenager. 

  • Your teen complains of physical aches and pains (headaches, nausea, chest tightness, dizziness, etc.). 
  • They are tired and/or has trouble sleeping. 
  • They are sensitive to changes or modifications in their daily routine.  
  • Needs to be in control 
  • Irritability 
  • Agitated 
  • Excessive worry about seemingly trivial things  

Why does the anxious adolescent resist?  

Dr. Benoît Hammarrenger (neuropsychologist with expertise in oppositional disorders) explains that the anxious child seeks to achieve a sense of security and protection, and may show resistance if confronted in this process. They may become rigid in the face of change, and try at all costs to avoid stressful situations by opposing or confronting authority. 

Biological mechanisms may help explain these reactions. Research into human stress reveals that, when we perceive a threat, the brain sends signals to the body and mobilizes energy to defend itself ("fight or flight"). So, if a fire breaks out in your home, your reaction will (hopefully!) be to get out of the house quickly. Energy is therefore spent on the flight reaction. However, in the face of a perceived danger (e.g. an exam), the energy mobilized to cope with stress is usually not spent naturally and must be released. Anger is often the result. 

What factors are likely to trigger a stress reaction? 

The Centre de Recherche sur le Stress Humain identifies four categories of stressors: Loss of Control, Unpredictability, Novelty, and Ego Threat (C.I.N.É., in French).  

For example, your teenager makes a scene because you've postponed today's outing until tomorrow. The unexpectedness and loss of control may have activated his stress response.   

Adolescence is a pivotal time for the development of self-esteem. Young people's egos can more easily feel threatened. 

Adolescents may be particularly concerned about what their friends and family think of them. In front of their parents, they may try to appear independent and self-confident, using anger as a weapon. This emotion gives them the impression of regaining control, rather than the emotion of stress, which can make them feel vulnerable.  

How should I react?  

Rather than simply punishing the inappropriate behavior, it can be helpful to have a discussion with your teen about what is triggering their opposition. Wait until everyone has calmed down and take some time to review the sequence of events. Even if the reaction seemed disproportionate, don't minimize it, and avoid phrases like "you're overreacting" or "you're freaking out over nothing." 

If your teen feels heard, they'll be more likely to open up to you.  

Don't forget that they're still learning and may have difficulty understanding themselves. By working together to identify the emotions and thoughts behind the behavior (the part of the iceberg under the water), you can help them develop strategies to better manage their reactions over time. 

If you'd like support to help you better understand your teenager's behaviours, don't hesitate to seek professional advice. 

In Laval, requests can be made by calling Info-Social at 811 option 2.