CHILDREN CAN LEARN TO MANAGE ANGER
Millicent H. Kellner, Ph.D., LCSW
©1999 CPC Behavioral Healthcare, Inc.
There is no question about it. For many of us, learning to handle our angry feelings is similar, to learning to ride a bucking bronco, Anger is a powerful feeling whose gyrations can toss our rational self right to the ground. Left unchecked, anger can become a stampede that destroys the people and things we value most. It is encouraging, therefore, that human behavior scientists and helping professionals have been figuring out the specific steps that we can take to manage this normal human emotion. We now have the knowledge to teach specific anger management skills to children. Given many recent tragedies involving youth and school violence, this appears to be an opportune time to ensure that our children have these skills.
Researchers like Dr. Arnold Goldstein and Dr. Eva Feindler originally studied how to teach anger management to children in out-of-home placements. The next step, of course, was to create programs for children in the community. Today, many communities offer anger management and violence prevention programs in schools, agencies, churches and other organizations that serve children. The establishment of these programs is a positive sign that society is able to acknowledge how difficult it can be for children to learn to handle their feelings of anger.
Several anger management programs are now available. Although they target children of different ages and grade levels, they nonetheless share several principles which form the basis of an anger management program.
In anger management programs, the term "trigger" is used to refer to the situations that set us off and lead us to feel angry, Sometimes, children think that no one else could possibly understand or have the same "triggers". However, when children have the opportunity to share their "triggers," they soon learn that their angry responses are not unusual. In fact. they learn that they have many "triggers" in common with other people, peers as well as adults.
Degrees of Anger
Children can be taught to notice that some "triggers" make us a little angry, while others make us very angry. Many factors determine how angry we get. One factor is whether we judge the incident that "triggered" us to be accidental or deliberate. We would probably be less angry if someone accidentally stepped on our toe than if they intentionally punched us. Another factor is how we feel about the other person. Presented with the same "trigger," we are more likely to react with less anger to people we like than to people we do not like. Helping children understand that there are degrees to their anger will help them understand that successful anger management requires many different tools. A child may use one tool when slightly angry, but may need to draw on many tools when burning mad, Every child is encouraged to develop tools for his or her own anger management tool box.
The Physiology of Anger
Most programs focus on teaching children the skills to identify the physiological reactions of anger. We can help children understand that there are many different ways that anger shows itself in their bodies. Moreover, several important goals are accomplished by raising awareness about the physical accompaniments of a childs angry feelings. First, we help to raise a child's awareness of his or her unique set of physical responses when angry. Next, we tend support to a youngster's taking steps to identify and acknowledge his or her angry feelings. A child cannot appropriately manage angry feelings if he or she is not in touch with or is ashamed of these feelings. Finally, and perhaps most important, we can help children understand that knowledge about the physiology of anger leads to useful techniques for handling anger. We can modify our angry state by manipulating our own physiological reactions. By breathing slowly and deeply, we can transform anger into a calmer emotional state, Likewise, by relaxing our tense muscles we can begin to calm ourselves. Since we always have our breathing apparatus and our muscles with us, we always possess tools to help us stay calm and in control.
Children can be taught to use their thoughts to manage their anger. Thinking, also known as "self-talk" is another tool that youngsters can use to keep themselves calm and in control. Children can easily experience the difference in their own emotional states when their thinking is directed toward increasing their anger (e,g., by thinking, "I'm gonna make him pay ") rather than decreasing it (e.g., by thinking, "I'm gonna walk away,"). Conducting a role play in which children get to use their thoughts, first to heat things up and then to cool things off, is a valuable exercise.
Children can be encouraged to develop a personal word or phrase that they can use to interrupt an angry state and redirect themselves to a calmer state. This special word or phrase is known as a "self-statement". "Stay calm," "walk away," and "it's not worth it" are all examples of "self-statements."
Encouraging children to write their angry reactions provides for their developing another useful coping skill. Children can benefit from a self-monitoring device that helps them track:
1)the anger-related incidents in their lives;
2)the degree of their anger; and
3)the way they handled their anger.
Making a log available provides children with the opportunity to develop the skill of directing themselves to use the log in an effort to appropriately manage their anger.
Children can learn to exert self-control and handle their anger in a positive way. They can learn to transfom their physical responses and thoughts into powerful tools to calm their anger. As they succeed in mastering the tools which help them manage this potent feeling, they feel a sense of accomplishment that feeds their self-esteem. They are ready to enter the rodeo as champions. After all, it takes real skill to ride a bucking bronco.
REFERENCESFeindler, E.L. (1995). Ideal treatment package for children and adolescents with anger disorders (pp. 173 -195). In H. Kassinove (Ed.), Anger disorders: Definition, diagnosis and treatment. Washington, DC: Taylor and Francis. Feindler, E L. (1991). Cognitive strategies in anger control interventions for children and adolescents. In P.C. Kendall (Ed.). Child and adolescent therapy: Cognitive-behavioral procedures pp, (56 97). New York: Guilford Press.
Feindler, E.L.,& Ecton, R,B, (1986). Adolescent anger control Cognative-behavioral techniques. New York: Pergamon Press.
Goldstein, A.P. (1988), The Prepare Curriculum: Teaching prosocial competencies. Champaign, IL: Research Press
Goldstein, A.P.,& Glick, B. (1987). Aggression replacement training: A comprehensive intervention for aggressive youth. Champaign, IL: Research Press.
Kellner, M.H. (1997). Weaving Anger Management into the Classroom Culture. Classroom Leadership, 1,4.
Kellner, M.H., & Bry, B.H. (In press), The effects of anger management groups in a day schol for emotonally distrbed adolcentsAdole ence.
Kellner, M.H., & Tutin J. (1995)- A school-based anger management program for developmentally and emotionally disabled high school students. Adolescence, 30, 813-824.
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