By Terry Maher, MSW, LCSW
Perhaps your child tends to lose his/her cool, has tantrums, or reacts to stressors in a manner that seems out of proportion to the trigger. Harvard Medical School estimates that almost two-thirds of American adolescents have had at least one moment of expressing anger through an attack that involved threatening violence, or actual violent behavior. Uncontrollable anger attacks are much more common than you might think. Almost six million (or one in twelve) young people meet the criteria for a diagnosis of Intermittent Explosive Disorder (IED). This disorder is characterized by persistent, uncontrollable anger attacks that are out of proportion to the stressor that the person is experiencing. (ScienceDaily.com)
If you are a parent of one these kids, what do you do to help your child? Therapy and perhaps medication can be effective in helping people cope with their anger. The problem for many parents is, “how do I get my angry, oppositional child to come to therapy?” You might begin with dispelling some of the myths about anger and having a conversation about the problems associated with anger when it is expressed in an overly aggressive manner.
Myth: Anger is inherited and cannot be changed.
Research has indicated that people are not born with set and specific ways of dealing with anger. Anger is a learned behavior; more appropriate ways of expressing anger can also be learned.
Myth: Aggression automatically leads to aggression.
Aggression is not the most effective way to express anger. There are constructive and assertive ways to express anger.
When does anger become a problem?
When it is felt too intensely, occurs too frequently, becomes a habit, or when it is expressed inappropriately.
Feeling anger too intensely or frequently places extreme physical strain on the body.
Anger results in the body being flooded with stress hormones, adrenalin, and cortisol.
Short and long-term health problems linked to anger:
Headaches, digestion problems, insomnia, increased anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, skin problems, heart attack, and strokes.
Ok, enough about the myths and effects, let’s talk about interventions.
There are three basic steps to anger management:
Identify rising agitation. Analyze the physiological response that comes just before we get angry. People may say that they don’t have this early warning system, that they just explode, but this usually means that they are ignoring the warning. Ask them to pay attention to their body next time that they lose their temper. Generally people will eventually say something like, I felt the blood rush to my head, or my neck gets really tight, or my stomach feels like it is in a knot.
Disengage. Remove yourself from the trigger. If this is a child, allow him to take a break and coach them to go to a place where they can be alone while they recover.
Self-soothe. Teach them breathing techniques (in through the nose, then out through the mouth, in a long and slow pattern until the lungs are completely empty). Muscle relaxation (tense up muscle, hold for a few seconds, then release). Listen to music, or whatever works for them. The key is knowing your pattern for recovery time. Do not re-engage until you have had plenty of time to calm down, and then add a few more minutes to that before re-engaging.
If you can teach your child those three steps, you are more than halfway home in reducing the harm that unmanaged anger can cause. A bit more advanced work comes when you add conflict resolution to the plan. Obviously, this is geared toward older children, but you can help younger kids learn by modeling it for them:
Conflict resolution: skills are taught through assertiveness.
Teach them to reflect
Identify the problem
Identify the feeling
Identify the specific impact of the conflict
Decide if the conflict is important enough to take it on
Prepare and build self-confidence
Address issue and resolve conflict
-set a timeline for action
-describe how to take action
-determine their feeling about taking the action.
Keep in mind that anger management is a process. Don’t expect overnight success, but if you are consistent in your response to their anger, (try to be unemotional), and reward them if they utilize one or more the strategies listed above it is possible to shape less reactive responses to triggers.
Terry Maher is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), with a B.A. in Psychology from California State University Long Beach, and an MSW from University of Southern California with an emphasis on mental health services.
If you want to help your child manage anger, contact Terry to make an appointment. Contact: 714-432-9857 ext. 6 or via email: TerryM@pathways2wellness.com