A young person is most likely to seek out new and better ways to manage anger when they recognise that it is having a detrimental effect in their lives. This can occur when anger has a direct harmful effect and also when it interferes with their chances of achieving their goals.
Behaviour change is a process that unfolds over time. It requires motivation and is based on the decision-making of each individual yet can also be influenced and supported by others. At times young people will be coerced to change by those responsible for their care or the criminal justice system.
Anger and the stages of change
The ‘stages of change’ model is a useful construct that enables practitioners to assess each young person’s motivation and readiness to change and is a guide to the approaches that might best facilitate change (see the Intervention planning module).
Anger and the pre-contemplation stage
Young people who are in the pre-contemplation stage are not interested in developing a better understanding of the anger and how to handle it more constructively. This can be the case even when a young person’s anger problem is obvious to others. At times a young person’s lack of knowledge and experience is mistaken for a lack of interest in changing problematic anger-related behaviour. In other cases, anger-related behaviour is a form of defiance that a young person has no intention of ceasing or modifying, despite recognising that there are negative consequences. Even in these cases it is important to recognise that young people are in a development phase that involves leaning about their emotions and developing their identity. For this reason it is worth:
- Building a respectful connection featuring open and honest communication with the young person about anger and the way it is expressed (Note: Take special care not to reinforce any justifications a young person has for using anger to victimise or manipulate others)
- Educating the young person about anger and raising awareness of that change is possible (ie. there are a range of constructive ways to express anger)
- Modeling constructive ways of managing and expressing anger
- Help young person address underlying issues and life stressors to prevent or minimise the regularity of anger problems occurring
- Working with the young person to minimise the harm that their anger–related behaviour causes them and others
- Strengthening the young person’s social networks so that they have feedback about their anger and supports in place should they decide to make changes
- Seeking expert assistance where appropriate
Anger and the contemplation stage
Young people who are in the Contemplation stage have typically experienced and can recognise some the problems or costs (see below) associated with their anger and what it means for how they think and behave. These young people are deciding whether or not to change. At the same time as recognising problems, young people in contemplation may still find that their way of managing their anger works for them and so are not ready to change. Some may be unsure whether changing is a viable option and don’t feel ready to attempt it. Support and guidance is required as these young people weigh-up the pros and cons of making a change. The most effective therapeutic model that practitioners can draw from to help young people resolve their ambivalence is Motivational Interviewing (MI).
Anger and the preparation stage
Young people who are in the Preparation stage have decided to change but have not yet commenced. A young person’s previous efforts to manage their anger better should be discussed to determine what worked well and what didn’t. Motivational Interviewing can also be used to elicit from young people:
- The specific improvements they would like to see in there life as a result of working on their anger
- The incentives that are likely to keep them motivated
The focus is then on setting SMART goals, selecting change strategies and strengthening social networks to support change. Also, expert assistance can be sought where necessary.
Anger and the action and maintenance stages
Young people in the Action stage have set their goals and commenced making changes to their anger-related behaviour. Support and guidance is required for the young person as they enact change strategies. This includes reviewing and resetting goals.
Young people in the Maintenance stage have modified their anger-related behaviour and need useful strategies and supports that enable them to maintain the change. Both young people in the action and maintenance stages can benefit from effective relapse prevention.
The pros and cons of changing and not changing
Building the motivation of young people to learn more about their anger and to manage it more effectively requires practitioners to develop a better understanding of the how each young person’s anger and related behaviour works for them and how it is reinforced. This will also give the practitioner an insight into what the young person will lose as a result of changing.
Possible motivation for not changing
Many young people are not interested in changing their anger-related behaviour regardless of how problematic it is. Each young person’s unique reasons for not changing will differ according to their whether their anger-related behaviour is explosive or focused on suppression.
Anger explosions can be an effective way of venting tensions and frustrations and provide young people with a rest from feelings of vulnerability. Where these explosions involve aggression, some young people are not prepared to let go of power and control that is associated with intimidating or threatening others. Some young people might believe that this earns them status among their peers. Feelings of righteousness and the illusory feeling of moral superiority that comes with anger for some people can also reinforce a false sense of entitlement.
Young people can find anger suppression difficult to let go of if they don’t believe the angry feelings will be acknowledged and respected. Some young people suppress anger because expressing it would be shameful. There are others who can feel that their anger if expressed would be so powerful and uncontrollable that they couldn’t trust themselves to keep it in check. These young people might prefer to harm themselves rather than others. Those that engage in passive-aggressive behaviour might not believe that confronting others directly will allow them to exert the same control over other people and in certain situations. This can also compensate for feelings of vulnerability.
Possible motivation for changing
There are a number of compelling reasons why young people would seek to make changes to how they experience and deal with anger. The presence of these reasons doesn’t mean that a young person will simply change or even start planning to change. This depends on:
- The number or reasons and the importance of each reason to the young person
- How important the anger and anger-related behaviour to the young person (what function does it serve and what will be lost if change occurs)
- If the young person believes that change is possible and realistic
- If the person has the capacity to change (determined by the combination of meaningful internal and external resources and assets available)
Young people place a lot of importance on their relationships, particularly with peers. Chronic anger problems featuring hostility and aggression towards others reduce the likelihood that healthy supportive relationships can be maintained. The Australian Psychological Society explain that chronic anger reduces the intimacy within personal relationships; partners and other family members tend to be more guarded and less able to relax in their interactions with hostile people. Hostility can also prevent young people from turning to others for help or when they do, making the most of help. This is an issue because healthy supportive relationships have been shown to have a protective influence on people’s physical and emotional health (Holt-Lunstad, 2010).
Young people of both genders tend to be very concerned about their reputations as their identity develops. In particular, young people want to project a competent identity and do not wish to develop a reputation as someone who cannot control their anger; a person others are not comfortable to be around. This applies for young people prone to anger explosions as well as those that are passive-aggressive or manipulative as a result of unexpressed anger. By taking control of their anger a young person might be able to gain respect for standing up for their own core values, having greater self-respect and increased confidence.
A low frustration point and a tendency to be stressed for prolonged periods can have a negative impact on people’s physical and emotional health. Young people are unlikely to be concerned but there is a direct connection between chronic anger problems, heart disease and high blood pressure. This puts people at risk of heart attack or stroke. Some of health problems linked to recurrent unmanaged anger that young people might be more concerned about include:
- Digestion problems, such as abdominal pain
- Increased anxiety
- Skin problems, such as eczema