Aggression In Teens: Types, Causes, Symptoms

Aggression in teens refers to any behavior aimed at causing pain, harm, or injury physically, psychologically, and verbally. According to a 2023 study by Fauzi, F. A., et al, on aggressive behavior in adolescents, published in Frontiers in Public Health journal, aggression in teens normally takes two forms: overt (fighting, shouting) and covert (spreading rumors, isolating the victim).

Types of aggression in teens are physical aggression (physical harm or the threat of harm), verbal aggression (name-calling, insults, and threats), relational aggression (harming someone’s social relationships or status), and cyber aggression (using online platforms to harass, threaten, or humiliate others).

Aggression in teens is caused by biological factors (hormonal changes, genetics), environmental factors (family issues, peer influence), and psychological factors (personality traits, mental disorders).

Aggressive behaviors in teens present in various forms including verbal aggression, physical violence, and antisocial behaviors.

Strategies for managing and preventing teen aggression include psychotherapy (cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), parent management training (PMT), medication, and school-based interventions.

What is Aggression in Teens?

what is aggression in teens

Aggression in adolescents is defined as behavior intended to cause harm or pain, whether physically, verbally, or psychologically. This behavior can be directed toward others, oneself, or objects. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), youth who exhibit aggressive behavior, are not only likely to harm themselves but also their families, communities, and society.

The 2023 study by Fauzi, shows that aggression in teens normally takes two forms: overt actions and covert actions. Overt aggression includes outward confrontational physical acts such as fighting and verbal actions including shouting. Covert aggression is more secretive, and manipulative. It takes the form of isolating the target of the aggression and spreading rumors about the victim.

What Are The Types of Aggression in Teens?

types of aggression in teens

Types of aggression in teens are physical aggression (physical harm or the threat of harm), verbal aggression (use of words to cause harm, including name-calling, insults, and threats), relational aggression (harming someone’s social relationships or status), and cyber aggression (using online platforms to harass, threaten, or humiliate others).

1. Physical Aggression

Physical aggression is the most overt and recognizable form of aggression among teens. It involves direct physical harm or the threat of such harm. This includes hitting, kicking, pushing, and other forms of physical assault. Physical aggression is often more prevalent among boys than girls and is influenced by factors such as peer pressure, exposure to violent media, and family dynamics.

Research indicates that physical aggression in teens leads to serious long-term consequences. According to a 2021 study by Henriksen, M., et al, on developmental course and risk factors of physical aggression in late adolescence, published in the Child Psychiatry and Human Development journal, teens who frequently engage in physical aggression are at a higher risk of substance abuse, academic problems, and legal issues later in life. Additionally, victims of physical aggression suffer from physical injuries, emotional trauma, and decreased academic performance.

2. Verbal Aggression

Verbal aggression involves the use of words to cause harm, including name-calling, insults, threats, and other forms of verbal harassment. This form of aggression is prevalent in both boys and girls. According to the 2023 study by Fauzi, verbal aggression is usually more subtle and insidious than physical aggression. Verbal aggression often occurs in school settings and online, where supervision by adults is limited​.

The impact of verbal aggression on teens is devastating. Victims experience anxiety, depression, and a decline in self-esteem. Unlike physical aggression, verbal aggression is more difficult to detect and address, as it often takes place away from the eyes of authority figures. This form of bullying leads to long-term emotional scars and mental health issues for the victims​.

3. Relational Aggression

According to a 2007 study by NR Crick, on relational aggression and gender, published in the Cambridge Handbook of Violent Behavior and Aggression, relational aggression involves nonphysical tactics where the aggressor manipulates the victim’s social standing or reputation. This includes spreading rumors, exclusion from social groups, and manipulating friendships to isolate the victim. Relational aggression is particularly common among girls, although boys are also perpetrators and victims​​.

This type of aggression is often harder to recognize because it is more covert and manipulative. The consequences of relational aggression are usually severe, leading to feelings of loneliness, social anxiety, and depression. Studies show that teens who experience relational aggression usually struggle with trust issues and maintaining healthy relationships in the future​.

4. Cyber Aggression

Cyber aggression, or cyberbullying, has become increasingly common with the rise of digital communication platforms. It involves using electronic devices and online platforms to harass, threaten, or humiliate others. Common methods include sending malicious messages, posting embarrassing photos or videos, and spreading rumors online​.

Cyber aggression is particularly damaging because it can occur at any time and reach a wide audience quickly. Victims of cyber aggression often feel that there is no escape from their tormentors, leading to heightened levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. The permanence of online posts means that the harmful content can resurface, continually affecting the victim’s mental health and social life​.

According to an article by the Center for Violence Prevention, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, cyber aggression poses unique challenges for intervention. Many teens do not report cyberbullying to adults due to fear of losing access to their devices or social media accounts. 

What Are The Causes of Aggression in Teens?

Aggression in teens is caused by biological factors (hormonal changes, genetics), environmental factors (family issues, peer influence), and psychological factors (personality traits, mental disorders). Neurological factors also play a role; for instance, the prefrontal cortex, responsible for impulse control and decision-making, is not fully developed in teenagers, potentially leading to poor judgment and aggressive outbursts

Biological Factors

  1. Genetics: Genes play a significant role in teenage aggression through the influence of specific genes that regulate neurotransmitter activity and interact with environmental factors. Key among these genetic factors is the monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) gene, also known as the “warrior gene.” According to a 1996 study by Brunner HG., people with abnormally low levels of MAOA in their brains and the low-activity version of the MAOA gene display aggressive behavior.
  1. Brain chemistry: Hormonal changes during puberty heighten emotional responses and impulsivity. According to a 2008 review by Steinberg, L., on the social neuroscience perspective on adolescent risk-taking, published in the Developmental Review journal, adolescents engage in risky behavior due to thrill-seeking sensation linked to an increase in dopaminergic activity during teenage.
  1. Neurobiological Factors: Conditions like traumatic brain injury, which affects the prefrontal cortex and temporal lobes, can lead to problems with impulse control and mood regulation, thereby increasing the likelihood of aggressive behavior. Additionally, a 2008 study by Casey, B. J., et al, shows that if the prefrontal cortex, responsible for impulse control and decision-making, is not fully developed in teenagers, it has the potential to lead to poor judgment and aggressive outbursts.

 Environmental Factors

  1. Family Dynamics: Parenting styles and family environment play crucial roles in shaping a teenager’s behavior. Lack of supervision, inconsistent discipline, harsh punishment, or exposure to domestic violence contribute to the development of aggressive behaviors.
  1. Peer Influence: Peer relationships and social dynamics also impact aggression. Bullying, peer rejection, and involvement with delinquent peer groups reinforce aggressive behaviors. According to a 2021 study by Wright, M. F., et al, on adolescents’ popularity-motivated aggression and prosocial behaviors, published in the Frontiers in Psychology journal, adolescents often use aggression to gain popularity among their peers. 

Psychological Factors

  1. Mental Health Disorders: Aggression is a symptom of various mental health disorders, including oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). According to an article by the Johns Hopkins Medicine Organization, ODD is characterized by a pattern of defiant, uncooperative, and hostile behavior toward parents, peers, teachers, and other authority figures. Conduct disorder (CD), bipolar disorder, and major depressive disorder also hold the potential to cause aggression. These disorders usually disrupt a teen’s ability to regulate emotions and behavior, leading to aggressive outbursts.
  1. Trauma and Abuse: Experiencing physical or sexual abuse significantly increases the risk of aggressive behavior in teens. Trauma leads to heightened arousal and an exaggerated stress response, which may manifest as aggression

What Are The Signs and Symptoms of Aggression in Teens?

signs and symptoms of aggression in teens

Aggressive behaviors in teens present in various forms including verbal aggression, physical violence, and antisocial behaviors. According to a 2017 article by The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, violent behavior in children and adolescents, warning signs of aggression in teens include extreme irritability, impulsiveness, and frequent blowups.

  1. Verbal Aggression: This includes shouting, cursing, sarcasm, and insults. Verbal aggression is often a way for teens to express frustration or anger when they struggle to communicate their feelings effectively.
  1. Physical Symptoms: Physical manifestations of aggression include hitting, pushing, and taunting others to get a reaction. Teens also engage in destructive behaviors such as vandalizing property or harming animals.
  1. Antisocial Behaviors: Aggressive teens usually engage in behaviors that violate social norms, such as bullying, cyberbullying, stealing, or truancy. These behaviors often result in serious consequences at home, school, or within the community

What Are The Consequences of Untreated Aggression in Teens

Untreated aggression in teenagers results in academic problems including poor performance, relationship problems (social isolation and lack of support), and legal issues (criminal activities). When aggression in teens is not addressed, it has far-reaching and severe consequences, impacting not only the individuals themselves but also their families, schools, and communities. This leads to various negative outcomes in their mental health, academic performance, social relationships, and even interactions with the criminal justice system.

1. Academic Problems

Aggressive behavior significantly hinders a teenager’s educational progress. Such behaviors often result in disciplinary actions, suspensions, or expulsions from school, which disrupt their learning and contribute to academic underachievement.  According to 2022 study by Vuoksimaa E,. et al, on higher aggression, is related to poorer academic performance in compulsory education, published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, aggressive behavior and poor academic performance are linked.

Aggressive youths are more likely to receive poor grades and less likely to finish high school. This educational disruption sets off a chain reaction, limiting future employment opportunities and perpetuating cycles of poverty and instability. 

2. Relationship Difficulties

Socially, aggressive teens isolate themselves from their peers and family members. Their behavior often leads to strained relationships and a lack of social support, which exacerbates feelings of loneliness and frustration. Teens who display aggression usually become involved in bullying, both as perpetrators and victims, further damaging their social standing and emotional well-being​. This social isolation, in turn, reinforces aggressive behaviors, creating a vicious cycle that is difficult to break.

3. Legal Problems

Adolescents who exhibit violent behaviors are at a higher risk of engaging in criminal activities, ranging from minor offenses to serious violent crimes​​. In a 2017 article published by the US Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), statistics showed that about 70 percent of youths in the juvenile justice system have underlying mental health issues, including untreated aggression. This involvement with the justice system can have long-term consequences, including incarceration, a criminal record, and limited life prospects post-incarceration.

4. Impact on Mental Health

Untreated aggression is often linked to more severe psychological issues. Teens exhibiting aggressive behaviors may be more likely to develop disorders such as conduct disorder or oppositional defiant disorder, which can persist into adulthood if not addressed. These conditions are characterized by chronic behavioral problems, including rule-breaking, deceitfulness, and hostility towards authority figures and peers​.

Additionally, aggressive teens are at a higher risk for substance abuse as they turn to drugs or alcohol as a means of coping with their emotions​. The 2017 OJJDP shows that adolescents in the juvenile justice system usually have other mental disorders including bipolar, anxiety disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorders. 

What Are The Strategies for Managing and Preventing Teen Aggression?

strategies for managing and preventing teen aggression

Strategies for managing and preventing teen aggression include psychotherapy (cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), parent management training (PMT), medication, and school-based interventions.

Psychotherapy

  1. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT helps teens develop strategies to manage their emotions, thoughts, and behaviors more effectively. It focuses on identifying anger triggers and developing coping mechanisms to prevent aggressive outbursts. According to a fact sheet on what causes anger, irritability, and aggression in children from Yale Child Study Center, CBT equips teens with skills for regulating anger, thoughts, and behaviors.
  1. Parent Management Training (PMT): PMT equips parents with techniques to handle their child’s aggressive behavior. This includes using positive reinforcement to encourage appropriate behavior and developing consistent and fair disciplinary practices. Denis Sukhodolsky, a clinical psychologist at the Yale Child Study Center, has this to say about PMT “We help families enjoy spending time together. It becomes a child’s biggest motivation for reducing angry outbursts,”
  2. Family Therapy: Family therapy can help address dysfunctional family dynamics that may contribute to a teen’s aggression. It aims to improve communication, establish healthy boundaries, and foster a supportive home environment.

Medication

In some cases, medication may be necessary to manage underlying mental health conditions that contribute to aggression, such as ADHD, depression, or bipolar disorder. Medication should be used in conjunction with behavioral and therapeutic interventions for optimal outcomes. According to an article on what parents should know about Risperdal from the Child Mind Institute, Risperdal, an antipsychotic, helps calm down kids with severe behavior problems.

School-based interventions

Schools can play a crucial role in addressing teenage aggression by implementing programs that promote social-emotional learning, conflict resolution skills, and anti-bullying initiatives. Providing a safe and supportive school environment is essential for reducing aggressive behaviors. 

Can Learning Disabilities Contribute To Aggressive Behavior In Teens?

Yes, learning disabilities and communication issues can lead to frustration and aggression in teens. According to a 2008 study by Milan A., et al, on learning disabilities and child altruism, anxiety, and aggression, published on the Statistics Canada website, children with learning disabilities showed less altruism, and high levels of aggression and anxiety. Addressing these challenges through educational support and tailored interventions can help reduce aggressive behavior.

Is It Normal For A Teenager To Be Angry All The Time?

Children in this phase of their life are normally moody. According to a 2022 article on 8 tips for dealing with your angry teenager from the University of Utah Health, it is normal for adolescents to have some level of irritability or anger. However, if the moods are interfering with the tee’s ability to handle daily tasks at school or home, it is time to seek professional help.

How Can Parents Help With Cyberbullying?

Parents need to reassure their teens they are loved and supported. They also need to assist their kids to stop using the device and ignore the bully. In addition, they need to take a stand against the bully by engaging with the bully’s parents and school. According to an article on how to help kids deal with cyberbullying from the Child Mind Institute, parents should also teach their teens to be assertive, and if the bullying escalates to threats, report it to the police.

Are There Any Preventive Measures To Reduce Teenage Aggression?

Preventive measures to reduce teenage aggression include promoting healthy family dynamics and effective communication, educating teens about the effects of violence and aggression, and encouraging participation in positive social activities. In addition, a 2024 article from CDC’s Youth Violence Prevention Centers, on preventing youth violence, parents, schools, and communities should help teens to make healthy choices and promote respect among parents, and peers.

How Can I Help My Aggressive Teen?

You can help the aggressive teen by maintaining open and non-judgmental communication, setting clear and consistent boundaries, and encouraging positive outlets for stress, such as sports or hobbies. According to an article from the National Health Service, on teen aggression and arguments, you should also consider seeking the help of a psychologist, counselor, and a general practitioner if the problem gets out of hand.

Author: Shantel Sullivan Ed.D., LCSW
Dr. Shantel Sullivan, Ed.D., LCSW, serves as the CEO of Bright Path with a rich background in residential adolescent treatment, adult outpatient services, and academia, leveraging over a decade of licensed social work experience in New York and North Carolina. Her academic credentials include a BA in Sociology, an MSW and a graduate certificate in addictions counseling from the University of New England, culminating in a doctoral degree in Educational Leadership focused on transformational leadership. Beyond her clinical expertise, Dr. Sullivan contributes to the field as a national speaker, educator, and editor of the Bright Path Teen Mental Health Blog, committed to enhancing access to evidence-based mental health care for adolescents and their families.
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