I love anger. You’re probably not supposed to have a favourite feeling because all feelings are important, but I do love anger. Anger has so many great functions. It can energise us. If unleashed, our anger can help us run faster, bite harder, and throw, move and break bigger things than we can when we are not so angry.
If emotions are the human dashboard that guides us through our body’s journey through life, when someone’s anger flares, it’s a great warning sign. Anger is a way our body and brain use to yell at us to pull over and make sure we pay attention to something that is not quite right.
Often, anger is behind us when we finally decide to do something about a problem that has been building or neglected for quite some time. Anger can be useful to get stuff done.
However, anger can also be dangerous and debilitating. When anger gets out of control, it can be the emotion behind hurtful and destructive behaviour. Anger can give kids, and adults, a bad reputation and make others disinclined to want to spend time with them.
An important part of parenting or educating a child is helping them to know how to get the best of their anger – helping a child get the best of the motivating and problem solving aspects of anger without hurting someone, breaking something or making a rash decision.
Sometimes we need to consider is the anger a problem, or is the child’s situation the problem. Some young people have plenty of legitimate things to be upset and angry about.
Managing anger is one of those Goldilocks kind of things. It’s important that we get the balance “just right” – Expressing too much anger in the wrong kinds of ways at one end and holding anger in and letting it build on the other end. When we consider anger, we need to consider the problems that might go with externalising anger (letting it out) as well as internalising anger (holding it in). So, just like belly buttons, anger problems in kids and adults are usually of two kinds – “outie” anger issues or “innie” anger issues.
“Outie” anger issues are probably those that usually come to mind when we think of anger problems – yelling, profanity, damage to property, verbal abuse, road rage and physically hurting others. Typically we help people manage outwardly expressed anger by understanding the things that trigger them and learning to take alternative action to deal with the tension that rises in them – to take a slow breath, take other’s perspectives, think about consequences, take a “time out”, exercise or do some hard physical work and learn to problem solve. There are also new programs emerging that assist those to manage their outwardly expressed anger by tuning into the part of themselves that is grateful for what they have and to be compassionate towards others. These processes take time, but do work as long as they are modified for each individual’s age and circumstances.
“Innie” anger or anger that is held in or internalised is also a problem and can have big implications for mental health and interpersonal functioning. Some will hold their anger in until they reach a point where the smallest of things will set them off. For those watching from the outside, the reactions seem out of proportion with the trigger. That’s usually because the trigger may have little to do with all of the other problems that have been held in and not expressed or dealt with. When this kind of anger erupts it can take everyone by surprise. It can seem confusing and can be very hard for a person to control.
“Innie” anger can also be linked to experiences of shame or self loathing. A young person may learn to respond to something that makes them angry by appearing cheerful for a range of reasons – they may not want to bother others or stand out, they may be told by people who are important to them not to be angry, they may feel that others won’t like them if they are angry or they may be punished for expressing anger. Instead, they develop a strategy for dealing with things where the outside part of them doesn’t match the inside. They lose touch with their ability to feel and express healthy emotions and this can have substantial mental health consequences.
It’s important that we help young people to know, label and understand emotions in themselves and other and learn how to express them in ways that are healthy.
Properly expressed anger is a fine and powerful thing for everyone to have in their interpersonal armor and coping tool box.
To encourage young people to express their anger in useful and safe ways we need to:
- Model appropriate anger – Speak up in appropriate ways, let people know when we are upset by things and take necessary, responsible action – join a protest, start a group, write a strongly-worded letter, articulate the problem and ask for what they would like to be done
- If you are responding to a child’s anger, be sure to help them label the feelings and be clear that you want them to manage the feeling differently rather than to banish the feeling
- Encourage the safe expression of individual opinion in your household or school
- If someone hurts someone else with their anger outbursts, be sure to have them make some amends – again for the behaviour and not for the feeling
- Encourage exercise, loud vocalisations (some, myself included, might call that singing) and asking for help.
- Develop compassion for others and for ourselves by modelling kindness and recognising others needs and our own needs, too.
Anger can be awesome, ferocious, strong, protective and proud. Without anger we can be vulnerable and taken for granted. Turned in, anger can fuel shame and sadness. The key to anger is feeling it, knowing it, showing it in the right kinds or ways and then using it’s powers to get problems fixed.
How long has it been since you gave your anger some attention?