Help the young person recognise the stages in their own anger-related episodes
Each young person will have a unique way of perceiving, feeling and responding to anger. Over time this becomes a patterned response that will generally be a predictable even though it may vary on occasions. Lindenfield (1993) suggests that as this patterned response is repeated be a kind of ‘neural auto-pilot’. This explains how a young persons response to anger can become habitual. Before this pattern can be changed a young person needs to recognise and understand it.
The stages of an anger-related episode (the domino effect) described in the ‘essential information about anger’ section of this module is a useful tool for helping young people identify that their own response to anger can be broken down into stages and better understood.
It is most important to identify triggering threats, thoughts and feelings and to help the young person become aware of how they experience angry feelings and the impulse to act.
One way to build awareness and understanding is to review a recent experience of anger and anger related behaviour. The following questions can be used to structure the review:
- What was the triggering threat or situation?
- What emotions were involved?
- What were your thoughts?
- How did you act?
- What does your compassionate self say?
- What would your compassionate self do?
- What was the outcome?
Where is feasible and the young person is so inclined, keeping a journal can assist a young person in developing greater awareness into their anger patterns.
Help the young person understand what sets their anger off
Each young person has triggers that set off an angry reaction. It is common for anger to arise for young people when:
- They are exposed to a physical threat
- Something valued is lost or destroyed (relationships and possessions)
- Their self-esteem and identity is threatened
- Injustice is experienced (including boundaries or rules being applied unfairly or inconsistently)
- They feel frustrated and confused
- They experiencing uncomfortable physical states (eg: tiredness, hunger, headaches, withdrawal)
- They experience racism and discrimination
The ‘Anger Gram’ and the ‘Anger Monitoring Form’ are both strategies that practitioners can use with young people to help them develop a clear understanding of the situations and events, thoughts and feelings that trigger anger for them.
The Anger Gram
Neill (2010) suggest the use of an Anger Gram, a systemic and visual map of anger inducing situations and events. This helps the young person to understand the facets of their anger and where their strong feelings are coming from. Furthermore it ‘searches for meaning and context and therefore attributes less blame to the young person’ (Neill, 2010). The anger gram can be drawn as a figure in the middle of a blank piece of paper, representing the young person and then a list of triggers written around the young person. Different types of lines can be drawn to connect the triggers to the young person’s outline, to indicate the intensity of the trigger. Some triggers might be written very close to the young person and other further away, to represent the frequency and likelihood of being triggered.
The Anger Monitoring Form
The purpose of this form is to support the young person to become mindful of the situations that tend to trigger their anger and associated responses. It also helps to develop compassionate alternatives to anger driven behaviour (Kolts, 2012).
G5i. Recognising your emotions
The following element drawn from Dialectical Behaviour Therapy can be used to help each young person to:
- Develop awareness of how they are feeling at any given time
- Understand the ways in which anger is triggered
- Understand how they are typically affected by anger
- Help the young person understand anger related feelings
Reflective skills: often a young person is not aware of the many strong emotions underneath their anger so it can useful for the practitioner to use Rogerian reflective skills and provide feedback of non-verbal behaviour, including facial expressions and tone of voice that may identify how they are feeling underneath their anger and reflect this back to the young person gently.
The iceberg exercise: draw a semi-submerged iceberg with anger being the only visible emotion above the waters surface and invite the young person to write a list of all the associated submerged feelings that sit below the water level. As these hidden emotions are often invisible to the young person when angry, the iceberg exercise can raise self-awareness around these important trigger feelings.
Anger is like a suit of armor
When exploring acceptance of anger the practitioner can use this visualisation exercise to help the young person explore how anger is often a costly defense against noticing pain that warrants attention. The young person can be invited to sit quietly in a seat, shut their eyes and be guided through the visualisation.
Anger is like wearing a heavy suit of armor that knights used to wear in battle to protect their body. Imagine you are wearing your anger like a suit of armor right now. Feel how heavy and hard it is to move around in. The armor hides the pain and vulnerability underneath. Take a moment to notice what you might be seeking to protect by wearing this armor; grief, loss, fear, shame? Or you might be wearing it to protect your reputation or image?
Now imagine yourself stepping out of the armor and putting it right beside you? Notice the feelings under the armor. Notice how much lighter your body feels, no longer tied down by the weight of the armor you can move around more easily. By stepping out of the armor and just observing it you are practicing acceptance of anger and creating more freedom to choose how you want to manage the anger and feelings underneath it.
Creative strategies: can be used to help a young person explore their anger thoughts and feelings and make changes to their behaviour (Geldard et al., 2010) Artwork can be used to assist a young person to explore feelings and develop insight. For example; free drawings, a family picture, the use of shapes, lines and colours to describe anger, having the young person draw a picture of how they feel right now.
The two-chairs technique: to conduct this Gestalt technique the practitioner will need to position two chairs facing each other. One chair is the ‘angry chair’ and the other chair is the ‘compassionate chair’. In the angry chair the young person can be invited to speak directly from the perspective of their anger, stating why they are angry and how their anger feels. When they are ready, the young person can move to the ‘compassionate chair’ and speak from the perspective of a kind and compassionate observer of their anger, exploring the emotions underneath their anger, talking directly to the ‘angry chair’ and sharing their concerns and wishes for their angry self.
Help the young person understand anger related thoughts
Trigger thoughts provoked by particular experiences tend to involve a young person making strong judgments about themselves, other people and/or the presenting situation. Trigger thoughts associated with unhelpful anger responses are often rigid and inflexible, reflecting intolerance, frustration or impatience towards themselves or others. This is often based on unrealistic expectations of themselves and others. They can be self-destructive and can sometimes bring up painful memories and feelings. Acting on anger can be a way for young people to avoid these painful memories and feelings.
Practitioners can help young people to recognise these thoughts and understand more about how they relate to anger by asking the following questions:
- Consider what happens to your thinking when you are angry. Do you ruminate? Do your thoughts come quickly? Do they feel difficult to control?
- Do your thoughts fuel or calm your anger?
- Do any memories come to mind when you are angry?
- Do your thoughts seem different that usual when you are angry?
- What judgments and assumptions are you making about yourself and what happened?
- Do you get angry when others fail to live up to your expectations. If so, what are those expectations.
Note: It is important that the young person is reminded to observe their trigger thoughts without self-judgment. The goal is to help them learn to become an observer of these automatic anger thoughts.
Unhelpful thoughts and core beliefs that can activate an angry response are triggered by an antecedent event. The young person often responds on ‘autopilot’ as automatic thoughts are triggered. These thoughts reflect core beliefs and assumptions that relate to the presenting situation. Geldard & Geldard (2010) identify the following unhelpful thinking styles:
- Shoulds, must, ought-to and have-to beliefs
- Catastrophising beliefs
- Always and never beliefs
- Intolerance of others beliefs
- Blaming beliefs
- Negative self perception beliefs
The set of elements on ‘cognitive restructuring’ from Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (see Cognitive Restructuring) provide a template for identifying the full range of triggers and unhelpful thinking styles that might precede an anger-related episode. Also presented are alternative beliefs that can challenge and possibly replace a young person’s unhelpful thoughts. The most relevant elements are:
C4ii. Understanding thoughts, feelings & facts
C4iii. Identify unhelpful thinking styles
C4iv. Use evidence to dispute unhelpful thinking
It is important that unhelpful anger-related thoughts and beliefs be validated as serving a protective purpose (for example in childhood) that may however, no longer be useful. The young person no longer needs to feel limited by these unhelpful thoughts but is free to reject them if they choose to.