An intelligent person’s short introduction to anger management


Angry Talk (Comic Style)
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“I’ve got a bad temper.  I feel terrible after the event and recently there are times when I don’t even remember what I’ve done.  She started playing up the moment I came in, and I just wanted to relax.  She didn’t stop so I started shouting.  Before I knew it I had hit her and she was crying.  But I didn’t really hurt her –  I even thought she deserved it for shouting at me.”

‘T’ (M40, husband and father)

“Sometimes my rage scares the hell out of me, but it’s like I can’t stop myself once I go beyond a certain point.  Afterwards, always afterwards, I really regret it; my body shakes and then I feel sick.  I can see how much it scares those around me, and to be honest, I really don’t want it to continue.”

‘S’ (F18, mother)

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Anger Management uses proven behavioural research and psychotherapeutic techniques to further our awareness of anger and aggressivity and their different modalities, whether for ourselves or to cope with others. I aim here will be to discuss being angry or aggressive in response to difficult and complex emotional situations and briefly try to contextualise some links to anxiety and other social factors. It is clear that anger and aggressivity can range from feeling annoyance to full-blown rage. However, anger clouds our thinking and blurs our faculties of judgement to such a degree that it can lead to some unreasonable expectations and demands aimed toward others and primarily, perhaps, ourselves.

Aggressivity & Anti-social Behaviour

“The history of the human race indicates that aggression and violence are frequent occurrences.  There have been about 15,000 wars in the last 5600 years, which works out at almost 2.7 wars per year.” Michael Eysenck

Anthropological evidence on cross-cultural differences in aggressivity is quite interesting in that it does appear to point to the existence of some peaceful human cultures (Gorer, 1968; Mead, 1935). It was certainly something of a personal surprise to have found Gorer (in Montague, 1968: p. 34), writing from an embedded situation within the heart of one such peaceful culture that speaks of emotional development taking place within contained boundaries and well-defined parameters, such that ‘the model for the growing child is of concrete performance and frank enjoyment, not of … symbolic achievements or of ordeals to be surmounted.’ However, one can say that the likelihood of peaceful human cultures, one might say, does not deal with the imminent problems of those cultures which are not so peaceful.  And what of gender differences as another factor in understanding aggressivity?  Interestingly enough – and perhaps surprising for those who do not spend much time with children – when researchers recently (Lagerspetz & Kaukainen, 1992) studied the behaviours of adolescent boys and girls in terms which focused upon direct physical aggression, verbal aggression and indirect aggression (e.g. gossiping, writing unkind notes, spreading false stories), the boys showed significantly higher rates of direct physical aggression and the girls showed significantly higher rates of indirect aggression, but neither had any notable difference in terms of verbal aggression. All of which appears to suggest that, among other more important thoughts, the different genders certainly suggest themselves to be equally prone to verbal aggressivity. So what one might wonder does genetic research have to say on the matter at hand? Perhaps aggressivity is something which people are or are not bold with. Recent research (McGue, Brown & Lykken, 1992) into aggressivity in twins and non-twins suggests that the fact of the higher correlation in twins points to genetics as another important factor in the complex story of aggressivity. Let us pragmatically assume therefore that the current position on aggressive behaviour is that it has many component factors which each demand our fullest consideration and further psycho-social research.


A Conceptual Introduction to Aggressivity


“The specific forms that aggressive behaviour takes, the frequency with which it is displayed, and the specific targets selected for attack are largely determined by social learning factors.” Albert Bandura

Experience shows us that anger is a powerful emotion that can vent (into aggressive behaviour) if we do not have a method of releasing the energetic discharge safely.  Often it begins, however, with a different feeling-tone altogether, perhaps pain or frustration or anxiety, which can then build into anger and aggressive behaviours.  But what, one might ask, is theoretically meant by the terms under scrutiny here?  Psychologists have identified different types of aggression, for example, person-oriented and instrumental aggression, proactive and reactive aggression.  Here then, person-oriented aggression is designed to hurt someone else, and as such the goal of this modality of aggression is simply to cause harm to another.  In contradistinction, the goal of instrumental aggression may be that of obtaining some desirable object in the world, for instance, a toy, or even, say, a position within an organised group.  Proactive aggression is characterised by an initiation by an individual of aggressive behaviours in order to achieve or obtain or possess some desirable object (see instrumental aggression).  And last, but by no means least, reactive aggression is broadly conceived as an individual’s reaction to the perceived aggression of others.

That having been noted, one aspect at the root of understanding the various modalities of anger is quite straightforward; the more sustained the build-up of pressure, the greater the inner energetic discharge will be upon its explosive externalisation into the other.  Thus, what can be understood from the outset of this discussion is that where anger is not controlled or expressed rationally or managed in an otherwise safe way (such as through activities) aggression can take control out of our hands – under its control we are quite literally no longer masters of our own vessel.  Clearly, therefore, we are pointing to powerful emotions which decentre us and which may also trigger aggressive reflexes or affects (symptoms).  These initial emotions, powerful and shadowy as they are, almost certainly include feelings of woundedness or persecution, fearfulness and/or powerlessness.  It is not uncommon for a long-standing grievance or a sense of injustice (e.g. as a result of being ‘looked-over’ in some way or feeling misrepresented) to reach the tipping point, resulting in aggressivity.  But the presence of anxiety, frustration or stress is not sufficient to explain cases of aggression or anti-social behaviour alone, as aggression has also been clearly demonstrated to have a relational (social) or situational component (Bandura, 1963; 1973; Zimbardo, 1973).

Nevertheless, frustration, anxiety and stress do play a significant role in the gradual accretion of pressure.  Together these factors leave us ‘split’ and feeling impelled toward introjections into self and projections of aggressivity into the other for the reward of energetic release (see also Freud, 1915, 1926, 1930, Dollard et al., 1939, Doob & Sears, 1939, Miller 1941, Klein, 1946, 1952).  The more anxious and stressed one becomes, so too the likelihood increases that one may more frequently lapse from rational functioning and descend from anger into the dark sadism of rage and violence.  And yet, in contradistinction to this apparently useful knowledge, many continue to ignore the central importance, the balancing function one might say, of finding greater time for creativity and play and dialogue in our waking lives.  Notwithstanding the call for greater time spent in dialogical, creative or playful pursuits, many stubbornly remain [knowingly?] ignorant even when faced by the factuality that when they are more relaxed (say, after a good holiday) they are able to be more tolerant of others and of situations that arise unexpectedly.  Is it not after such a restful time (and space) that when we return to our working lives – perhaps struggling through the seemingly irrational chaos that is other people – that our abilities to contain and tolerate begin to wane and be drawn back into the focus of our gaze?

Having said that, let us also be unequivocal on another important point concerning the play of the adult social lifestyle; drinking and/or abusing drugs for recreational purposes (to ‘chill-out’) when anxious or stressed only makes matters worse.  It is well understood that depressants (e.g. alcohol or marijuana) and stimulants (e.g. coffee, cocaine) alike contribute to a diminished sense of self-awareness and lead their abuser into progressively compromised behaviours.  Substance abuse can be seen to lower the threshold of our inhibitions, our otherwise censored behaviours; which in itself makes the business of hurting others far too easily achievable (which, in part, is due to factors such as the acquired lack of self-awareness or impaired judgement).  Furthermore, let us also keenly remember that in the eyes of Criminal Law in this country, and many others besides, aggressive or violent acts do not become excusable simply because one was not in control of oneself at the time of the transgression.

Reducing Aggressive Behaviour

Becoming acquainted with what aggression is understood to be appears to demand some theory of management – some coherent theory of and for the how of anger management; perhaps, never more so than the present. Anger management is indeed an imperative concern of westernised societies in late modernity, though catharsis as a notion has been in circulation since the time of Homer.  More recently a certain Sigmund Freud crashed into the debate on catharsis with psychoanalysis, ‘the talking cure,’ with his notions informed by irrational motivation and unconscious processes (as if an operating system in the background of mind).  Soon after that, John Bowlby changed the face of psychoanalysis, giving birth to Attachment Theory and reinstating a more relational focus to psychoanalytic observations as the school of psychodynamics.  Meanwhile, eminent behaviourists in the early and mid twentieth century, such as, Watson, Pavlov and Skinner have continued to emphasise the importance of the notions of conditioning and reinforcement with varying success.  Cognitive theorists since Piaget and Chomsky have also continued to persuade us that rationality, and more specifically, the processes and operations of systematic rationality hold the key to our better understanding aggressivity.  As we have seen there are many theoretical approaches to the problem at hand – but what really works?  And how can one manage anger better and find the life they want to live free of aggressive or anti-social behaviour?  In the light shed by the thoughts and findings above we can now, perhaps, attempt to approach some of the ‘tools’ which have proven useful in derailing the trajectory of aggressivity and anti-social behaviour.  The basis of any coherent theory of anger management would suggest (a) taking constructive action on the precipitating factors of anger as early as possible, and, (b) when no constructive action is possible, finding healthy ways to discharge the strong physiologic arousal of anger through exercise, laughter, or calming techniques such as meditation (Thomas, 2001).

Anger Management with Young Children: Do not teach your children never to be angry; teach them how to be angry

(a) If you have infants or toddlers one ought to be aware that this age group are still in the process of differentiating between self and other (egocentrism) and learning sensory-motor and pre-operational schema (that is, learning by assimilation and accommodation (adaptation) about their newfound environment).

(b) It is of vital importance to remain calm and rational (within earshot of the infant) during tantrums and outbursts.

(c) That said, it is also equally vital to be authoritive and consistent when disciplinary measures are considered to be required.

(d) Infants and toddlers require structured consistent lives and consistently ‘good-enough’ parent[s] or caregiver[s] if they are to understand the apparent paradox of love and parental authority issuing from the same person.

(e) ‘Timeouts’ and distraction methods (like humour) are often used methods which can help little-ones avoid emotional outbursts when they threaten to overflow into aggressive behaviour.

Anger Management with Young People

(a)  When dealing with young people one may have to substitute tact for cogent rationalization and disciplinary measures.

(b)  However, that said, there is no substitute for learning how to be an ‘empathically literate’ parent and an ‘active listener’ (rather than a passive listener).

(c)  Dialogue ought to be a regular activity within the home, and this dialogue ought also to be rational (regardless of the young person’s stance) in a style which utilises an open-questioning technique (avoid asking questions which can be answered with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’) – somebody really ought to be the adult in such matters!

(d)  Engage in an empathic manner with the child about their day, friends, social activities and concerns or problems until this becomes a commonplace feature within the home (consistent meal-times around the table are good times to show interest and other mature reflective abilities).

(e)  When you see that s/he are visibly upset about something, calmly explore that area by asking more focused questions which invite discussion but avoid pushing – let them unfold (again, open reflective questioning is appropriate here).

(f)  One ought to talk about acceptable ways of: (f1) expressing displeasure or frustration, (f2) avoiding certain situations, (f3) politely asking for changes to be considered, (f4) or suggesting alternative choices for how to approach certain situations.

(g)  Let young people know in unambiguous terms which behaviours are unacceptable and will not be tolerated; such as, substance [ab]use, swearing, throwing things, slamming doors, refusing to cooperate with reasonable requests or rage.

(h)  One ought also to perhaps invite the teenager toward co-writing some guidelines, along with suggesting appropriate consequences for infractions, and then display the list in a place which does not humiliate the young person (using the refrigerator door means that any person entering the home can pass comment on the list and thus deal a humiliating blow to the said young person).  Humiliation tactics are unbecoming of rational and responsible parents and have no place in ‘good-enough’ parenting.[1]

(i)  Reward and punishment (n.b. discipline is not the same thing as force) are often used reinforcement methods with young people.  Rewards could be extra time on the computer, telephone, or television or reduced household chores for that week.

(j)  Enable the young person to write and maintain a ‘Screwtape Diary’ (as the name suggests, it’s a place to vent in words – so, go ahead and create a credible mythology for it).

(k)  And do not allow the young person to think that their parent or caregiver does not care anymore, whilst in coincidence reinforcing the important notion that the young person ought to become responsible for managing their emotions, including anger, in better and more mature ways that are acceptable to the family and to their cultures.  Remember, young people benefit greatly by observing the site of the family as a transitional space composed between Love and forgiveness and structures linked to consequences (play and reality).

Reflections

In a world seemingly brimming with quite questionable or even negative role models – unmediated instant gratification and negligible restrictions on the internet and media alike – our children are open to influences which can fragment their perceptions and, going forward, begin to fragment the whole of the family. If one feels that ones children are starting to display uncontrolled aggressivity or even rage – or one is concerned that the measures discussed above are having little or no effect on aggressivity or otherwise anti-social behaviour – then perhaps it would seem appropriate to talk to the child’s teachers or principal, if possible. If after further discussion and cooperation with educators no change appears forthcoming then perhaps one might seek qualified professional advice from counsellors, psychotherapists, psychologists or your general practitioner.  In other words, therapy ought to not always be the first option; we would all do well to remember Chesterton’s subtle rejoinder that the child is the father to the man.


[1] ‘The dynamic is the growth process, this being inherited by each individual. Taken for granted here is the good-enough facilitating environment, which at the start of each individual’s growth and development is a sine qua non.  There are genes which determine patterns and an inherited tendency to grow and to achieve maturity, and yet nothing takes place in emotional growth except in relation to the environmental provision, which must be good enough.  It will be noticed that the word perfect does not enter into this statement – perfection belongs to machines, and the imperfections that are characteristic of human adaptation to need are an essential quality in the environment that facilitates.’  Winnicott, D. W., (1971), Playing and Reality, Hove and New York: Brunner Routledge, p. 139

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