Why young people may be feeling angry right now and how to talk to them about it

There are many reasons why children or teens may be feeling angry these days. University of Waterloo clinical psychologist Dillon Browne offers his insights on how parents can talk to young people about that anger.

University of Waterloo clinical psychologist offers his insights

Dr. Dillon Browne is a clinical psychologist and an assistant professor at the University of Waterloo. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Are the kids alright?

Some in Waterloo region may be asking that question after recent reports of threats made at schools and a large fight of 150 young people near the Kitchener Market that involved weapons. 

Dillon Browne is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo and a Canada Research Chair in child and family clinical psychology.

He joined CBC Kitchener-Waterloo's The Morning Edition to talk about what parents should and should not say to their teens who may be feeling angry.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

CBC K-W: We've seen some violence recently involving younger people here in the community. It may seem to people from the outside in and observers that there's a lot of anger in our youth right now. From your perspective as a researcher, is there any indication about what might be happening here? 

I don't want to begin by invalidating anyone's perspective and certainly during the pandemic, there's a lot of anger going around in young people and teachers and school staff and it looks like we're facing a bit more of a disruption in the new year. 

That being said, year after year since probably the early 90s, there has been a reduction in youth offending. 

So my initial inclination is to caution folks to not over interpret an increase in one year out of the context of decreases over the past few decades. 

I hope that parents, teachers and school staff can take some solace in the fact that for the past few decades, youth criminality and youth offending has been decreasing in Canada and actually nationally. Ontario is one of the lower provinces across the Canadian landscape. 

CBC K-W: But if we look at what has happened a couple of times here in the region. What role do you think the pandemic is playing there? 

Well, if we were to focus on these numbers this year, I think it actually does make some sense to consider the pandemic playing some role in contributing to. the possibility of youth violence happening in schools right now.

As we've seen over the past, I guess almost two years now, there have been a number of closures and disruptions in youth activities, youth clubs, neighborhood organizations, community centers, all of the things that social distancing has kind of gotten in the way of.

So there is a framework in the psychological literature that youth seek agency and mastery and the capacity to be good or to perform well in whatever area of life where there is an avenue. 

When other things go away, youth will find ways to organize and to be "good at something" and unfortunately, sometimes that can be manifesting as acts of aggression, or other times it can be a TikTok challenge that goes viral and results in damage happening at the school. 

So I think it is really important for our elected officials and policymakers to not only be considering the contagion of the COVID-19 pandemic per se, but also the secondary consequences for mental health, loneliness, depression, anxiety, boredom and how that can have a ripple effect and show up in other areas of society, including the school. 

CBC K-W: We're two years into the pandemic. Is the research saying that there is obviously more of an effect on mental and physical health of children and teens? 

Yes. So even before the pandemic in Ontario and across the country, we were talking about a youth epidemic in mental health. 

Now, given what we've seen over the last two years with increases in prevalence in youth and children's mental health problems, I think that we have a pandemic upon the pandemic in terms of youth mental health problems. 

That being said, I don't want to exclusively paint a doom and gloom scenario because many youth, many children, many schools, many communities, and many families are thriving at this time. 

And actually, I've been fortunate enough to do some research with an organization in Waterloo region called the Child and Youth Planning Table. And what we're seeing in the data among a survey of 1,000 youth regionally in the year 2021 is that youth who report a perceived sense of belonging to their community have the highest rates of mental health and have higher rates of self-reported well-being. 

CBC K-W: You are an expert in trauma, would you say the pandemic and what's been going on with all of the things you've talked about — masks, shutdowns, reopening, shutdowns and so on — could that be called traumatic for young people? 

I'm reluctant to throw around the word trauma too lightly. 

Sometimes people distinguish between capital T traumas and lowercase t traumas. And when we think about capital T traumas, that's what we genuinely think of in regards to post-traumatic stress disorder and in childhood things like child abuse, neglect, maltreatment, witnessing accidents and that kind of thing. 

So certainly for a sizeable minority of young people during the pandemic, there have been events like this. We know that many families have lost loved ones, especially in the older generation. So certainly some of those big events have been happening. 

That being said, in regards to the lower case t traumas, there is a framework that exists right now that there is a collective trauma happening across society as we're seeing many of the things that we love go away and then come back and then go away again. 

So I think with caution, one could say that this has been a traumatic season for many of our young people. 

CBC K-W: What kind of long term effect do you think the past couple of years is going to have on young people as they grow older? 

It's difficult to say and one thing that I would like to put out front is that youth are remarkably resilient. 

They're probably more resilient than you or I because we know about this idea called neuroplasticity. And that even when young people are exposed to difficult and challenging situations when life can change and get better, many youth, if not the majority of youth, do have the capacity to bounce back, as we say.

That being said, there are concerns around implications of the lock down for early learning, early literacy, social emotional development. And we have seen a lot of those big milestones of adolescence disrupted, things like graduations and proms and other transitional moments like the first year of university for, you know, an entire cohort of young people.

So it's too early to say for certain, because as I mentioned, one of the core findings in developmental psychology is that young people are almost always more resilient than we might think at first. 

That being said, among those with pre-existing vulnerabilities, specifically including pre-existing mental health difficulties, this pandemic is likely exerting a significant challenge and burden 

CBC K-W: For parents who may be noticing that their children or their teens seem to be feeling more angry these days, what advice do you have for them to help their children through these feelings? 

One thing that we might try to avoid, and this not only applies to children, it can apply to our our partners, to our parents, to our colleagues, to our co-workers [is] when we're initially faced with distress or negative emotions in a loved one, often, our first inclination is to provide reassurance and dismiss. We say things like, "Oh, don't worry, honey, it's going to be okay."

And actually, we don't want to do that because, while it's well-intentioned, that can actually run the risk of telling, for this example, the young person in our life that we don't understand how difficult it's been. 

So rather than doing that, we want to first validate. We validate the perceived emotional experience in our child or loved one. 

We say something like, 'you know, it makes sense that you're really angry right now because it looked like things were getting back to normal. And now we're hearing that in the new year, it might not be getting back to normal. If anything, it might be getting worse."

 'So it completely makes sense that you're angry and you're frustrated. You know what? I'm angry and frustrated too.'

That's step one. And then step two is to provide some emotional support or some comfort or some reassurance. It could be a redirection to try and do something else right now. Try to find another activity to, you know, plan an outing, have a special moment to connect, to redirect, as we say. 

CBC K-W: What are ways that parents or maybe even young people themselves can reach out if they feel like they're just not in the head space that they want to be in? 

Well, one thing I say and this is coming as a licensed clinical child psychologist is to reach out for help. 

I think over the last number of years, the stigma around professional help seeking has reduced, I believe, and I think that that's a good thing. 

So I always suggest to parents and to young people, even if they want to speak to their folks about it, to reach out for help before you think it's too late. 

A simple Google search for psychotherapy or therapy or counselling in Waterloo region will yield a host of clinics and professionals and counselors to do this type of work. 

And thanks to technology, a lot of this work is now available online.

At the University of Waterloo we have a clinic where many of our students are providing psychotherapy services online during the pandemic season. 

Now that being said, we still do have a systemic issue in Ontario, in Canada, where we don't have fully publicly funded therapy and counselling services for anyone, including young people. 

The publicly funded services have a notoriously long wait line, so this remains to be a pressing issue and something that I think we need to continue to lobby our elected officials around.

LISTEN | UW's Dillon Browne on what parents can do if they find their children are feeling a lot more anger lately.

Some in Waterloo region may be asking if youth in the community are doing OK after recent reports of threats made at schools and a large fight of 150 young people near the Kitchener Market that involved weapons. Dillon Browne, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo and a Canada Research Chair in child and family clinical psychology, offers his perspective.

People looking for mental health supports can reach out to: