Dealing with the Angry Ant
An issue that frequently co-exists with the dysfunctional behaviour displayed by the children who have suffered from childhood trauma and/or neglect is their inability to express anger in an appropriate manner. Anger is just an emotional state like happiness, sadness, disgust, etc. that is a result of the child’s interaction with the circumstances in which they find themselves. It should be a healthy reaction to a clash between what they want to happen and when that doesn’t happen. Unlike feelings of fear and anxiety, anger has the potential to lead to destructive behaviour especially in the children on which we focus. Everyone needs to be taught to deal with anger, there are times when it provides the energy to address unfair treatment towards you, it primes you to assert your rights in the group.
Like all emotions, anger is initiated by the clash between the child’s internal expectation and their observations of the situation in which they find themselves. For those children, who have developed a healthy sense of self, the anger in most cases is justified, that is they should be angry because they are being, in a sense violated. Things such as someone cheating on them, making fun of them or they are being betrayed by someone they trust. These kids have a better chance of dealing with anger in a functional way because they have a healthy and valued sense of their ‘self’.
However, the students who struggle to control their anger, those we focus on do not have the same healthy sense of their ‘self’. In an early Newsletter (Toxic Shame – 3 July 2017) we discussed how these children developed a detrimental sense of their worth. This sense of toxic shame is incredibly significant as their internal expectations are of their sense of worthlessness, they don’t make mistakes they are mistakes’ sums up their sense of who they are and what they deserve. When they are faced with situations as outlined above, cheated on, ridiculed or being betrayed their initial emotional response is shame, frustration and this proceeds on to anger but instead of analysing the source of their anger they blame themselves, their anger is self-destructive.
There is, as with all dysfunctional behaviours related to kids who suffered early childhood trauma, a difference between the response of the boys and the girls. Although it is not exclusively the case in general girls internalise their emotions while the boys act out. This difference can be seen in the proportions of males incarcerated compared to females. This does not mean the girls don’t experience anger, for the same reasons but they are more likely to deny they are angry, they pretend the confrontations do not matter, they are not offended. Their response is something like ‘I don’t care’ or ‘I didn’t want that anyway’. It is easy to overlook the girls because they don’t really upset anyone else but they do deserve to be taught how to deal with anger! Boys, on the other hand act out either to ‘punish’ the person who precipitated the anger or ‘self-destruct’ by hitting walls or destroying property.
It really is worth the effort to try to teach these kids how to deal with anger, first by reassuring them that anger is a healthy emotion that is informing them that something is wrong! The best way is to teach them boundaries! (see Teaching Practical Boundaries – 31 July, 2017 and Boundary Considerations – 22 October, 2018)!
It is worth revising the steps in setting boundaries and connecting these to outbursts of anger. The steps are:
- Stay Calm – you know your boundaries are being traversed because your emotions change, in this case you feel the frustration growing to anger. If possible, this is the time to take charge of the emotions (see Mindfulness - June 17 2019 for tips on how to control these strong feelings)!
- Ask the questions
- ‘What is really happening’?
- ‘Who is responsible’?
- If the answer is me – then I have to change what I’m doing
- If the answer is not me – then I have to work out what I want to happen and act to make that happen
The second step – ‘what is really happening’ is a time you can teach the students about their faulty beliefs, that is how their perception is affected because of their expectations. These faulty expectations come from their toxic shame base. Even though there are huge variations on this process the major ones are:
- Over-Generalisation – this is where some small part of the interaction is hurtful or unfair and so the whole situation is contaminated.
- Magnification – this is much like the previous point but the reactive anger grows until it is way out of proportion to the real situation.
- Mind Reading – This is really the student’s expectation in action, the situation isn’t defective they are. They know things will be painful and so they are primed to react in a negative manner.
This is when you can teach the student how to identify the type of anger they are experiencing.
The next step, ‘who is responsible’ provides the opportunity to identify if the anger is justified or not. Life is not fair, for all of us but for these kids it has been blatantly unfair. The hard part of this step is to convince them that sometimes their anger reflects the very random nature of life. Kids get caught in the rain, they get in the canteen line that is slower than all the others, they stub their toe just before a game of soccer, this is a time when anger is an inappropriate exaggeration of the natural feelings of disappointment. The answer to the question is no one is responsible for the situation but you are responsible for the anger. Therefore, if that is the case then you need to teach the child to be more rational about life expectations.
However, as stated anger is a healthy emotion so it follows it is justified and someone else is responsible. Typical situations that provoke justified anger are things like someone cheats on you, they may steal your turn, spoil your work or tell lies about what you have done. Other personal attacks are when others exclude you for no reason or make fun of you or you are betrayed by someone you trusted. The answer in these cases is others are responsible.
The problem here is the kids expect that by pointing out the validation of your anger is enough to solve the problem. However, in the real world those others who deliberately hurt others are rarely going to accept that responsibility. This is the time you need to get the student to identify what they want to happen in the future and what they need to do to achieve that goal.
After this process has been completed and the situation is unresolved then it is time to revisit the process and if things can’t be resolve then ‘let it go’. This step is a mature approach but it doesn’t come with the passing of years, it is learned wisdom and if it’s learned it should be taught! The next Newsletter will focus on the development of assertive behaviour and much of what to do when wronged is down to the child’s self-confidence. The serenity pray, used by recovering addicts to deal with their sense of powerlessness is equally relevant to the process of dealing with anger. Grant me the serenity:
- To accept the things I cannot change
- Courage to change the things I can
- And wisdom to know the difference