Seeing red!

So footballer Louis Suarez has received a 10 match ban after he bit another player during a match.  But, amid press stories calling for him to receive help, as well as those reporting apparent copycat incidents amongst school children, what DO you do if you know that anger, at times, gets the better of you?  And how as parents do we support our kids to learn how to manage anger well?

About ANGER …
Anger can be a very powerful emotion.  Like all emotions, it is triggered when your brain detects something going on which is significant to you.  Anger, along with its close cousin, frustration, is generally triggered by situations where a goal you have is being obstructed or challenged.  But in reality all kinds of things can make us feel angry, and it isn't always that easy to predict what is going to wind us up the most.

As I have written about before (eg see 'All about emotions') there are a variety of components involved In our experience of an emotion.  The first of these is a physical, or physiological, change.  Anger triggers perhaps our most basic emotional response system, the fight or flight response.  The moment your anger grows, your body is flooded with hormones such as adrenaline, which trigger a host of physical changes.  You may notice your heart beating faster as it diverts blood to your muscles in case you need to react, but a host of other things are happening too.  Your blood sugar rises as your body mobilises glucose, your blood pressure goes up in readiness for action.  Even your awareness of sounds and other things around you  becomes more sensitive as your body is primed to respond to any threat.  

Alongside this physical change is another thing which is very key in anger - the sense of your body being prepared for action.  Anger is an emotion which is experienced as a strong desire to do certain things - shout, hit out, etc.  These urges are often described as a sense of feeling about to 'lose control', but they needn't be.  Anger primes us to act but doesn't necessarily need to be about our acting against our better judgement.

The red mist

So why does anger cause people to act in ways they would never even dream of acting at any other time?  A recent phone in to bbc radio 5 live heard callers sharing stories of their own experiences of what was referred to as 'the red mist.'  What was striking about this phone in, apart from the host of negative consequences each caller had experienced as a result of their behaviour, was the shame and horror each shared at what they had done.  The idea that an emotion can cause us to act so out of character is shocking.  But everyone has their breaking point.

The key in understanding these anger outbursts is around something often referred to as 'emotional hijack.'  This refers to a neural pathway that your brain has, which enables fast reactions in moments of acute danger.  In those moments - say when your life is at risk - to leave time for your thinking brain to analyse the situation and select an appropriate response might be impossible.  If you have just stepped into the road and a bus is coming, fast, right at you, thinking about what to do next wastes valuable time!  Therefore your brain can bypass this usual route, and trigger a reaction, long before you have had time to think about what you are doing.  In a genuine life threatening circumstance that may well save your life.  But what if your brain got it wrong, and bypassed your thinking centres at the wrong time?

Think of anger on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is not angry at all and 10 is really really, blow your top, out of control FURIOUS.  Where would you be now, as you are reading this?  Hopefully fairly low as I hope I'm not annoying you too much so far!   But it doesn't take much to raise your anger levels.  For most of us they would remain in the 0-5 range most of the time, but sometimes things happen that really make us mad!  In those moments the key thing is when you start to hit somewhere around 8 or 9.  Somewhere around this level, you start to enter the hijack zone - that point of no return where your anger is at risk of boiling over.  Some people liken anger to a volcano - as long as the lava doesn't bubble up too high you can keep control, but if it gets too far, boom, your anger volcano erupts!  

So what does anger management aim to do to help people who struggle with that 'red mist' - with losing control and doing things they regret because of their anger.  Good anger management is about two things - recognising and being aware of your anger before it gets to those critical levels, and responding appropriately, taking actions to do things which can help to get your anger under control before you blow.  People who snap and lost control tend not to be aware they are angry until it is too late.  Anger creeps up on them, comes out of nowhere and as far as they are concerned they go from 0 to 10 in one critical second.  They feel a sense of helplessness, of there being nothing they can do, and often fail to take responsibility for their anger, perhaps blaming other people who 'wound them up'. 

If you struggle with anger here are 3 simple steps you need to take NOW before your anger lands you in trouble:

(1)  Accept it and admit it - you have a problem with anger.  It doesn't matter who is triggering your anger, what you do when you are angry is down to you.  It is vital that you take responsibility - even if you feel you are not in control when you act, you CAN learn to control your anger, and this is the only way to deal with it.  If your anger lands you in hot water, it is you who has the problem, no matter what caused it.

(2) Become more anger aware.  Use the 0 to 10 scale, and think about what each level on that scale feels like for you.  Over a couple of weeks, stop at different times of day and think - where are you on that scale right now?  Start to note down how each level feels - how do you know when you are at level 6, say, compared to 2?  Is it something about how you feel physically or is it more to do with some of the thoughts going through your head?  Get better at recognising the signs of your anger rising.  In particular the zone you need to recognise better is around 5-8 or so.  THis is when your anger has risen above what you might call normal day to day levels.  Once you are in that zone you are at risk of an outburst.  Recognise it then, when you can still do something about it, before your anger rises more and you pass the point of no return. 

(3) Learn to bail!  It's good to practice all kinds of things you can do in order to help yourself calm down and deal with anger levels that are rising.  But probably the most important thing is to learn to WALK AWAY!  Anger's least helpful impulse is the one which keeps you pushing and pushing, keeps you in the situation long after it is wise to stay.  So learn to leave.  Set yourself an anger level at which you need to get some space and a chance to cool down.  This needn't be a long time - sometimes all it takes is a quick 5 minute break from the situation or conversation.  Much better to take 5 minutes out than risk doing something you might later regret.

Meanwhile … for those of us who have a role in supporting and mentoring children and young people, anger (along with other emotions) awareness is something that can be hugely valuable.  Think - do the kids you support have a good understanding of anger?  Do they know what it is, what its purpose is, how it makes you feel?  Are they aware of how anger can make you act?  What kind of example do you set in terms of how you respond to your anger.  Do you demonstrate good anger management, or are you yourself prone to acting badly when you are cross? 

As well as these general pointers, here are some more thoughts on how to support children and young people who are struggling with issues around anger and/or frustration:

Pre-school:  Younger children need to learn about anger from the most basic level.  When very young they have no idea what this is or why they feel this way.  They often can't express their frustrations and all this can boil over into temper tantrums.  Helping them to recognise and - often literally - to name anger ('from the way you are acting it looks like you are feeling very angry.  What do you think?')can be very helpful, as can teaching them to step back and give themselves space to calm down.  The various strategies recommended around time out can be really helpful with this - and often also give you as the adult a chance to calm down too - dealing with a screaming toddler is a huge challenge to your own anger management skills!

Good resources - There are lots of books written to help younger children think about anger.  Try 'When Sophie gets angry' - a helpful book for older pre-schoolers exploring how one child copes with her feelings of anger.  'Marvin gets mad'  is a fun book, part of the series of Marvin books.  This is a great one exploring Marvin's frustration when  another sheep eats the apple he wanted …

Primary school:  As children get older their understanding of their emotions, and their ability to control them, grows.  Children may find images or illustrations like that of a volcano helpful as they start to form ways of understanding of their anger.  Teaching them to recognise the early signs of anger and take steps to control control it is important, but simple steps often help a lot - for example stopping and counting to ten before answering or responding.  At this age children still may find that their emotions flare up very powerfully and quickly.  If you are supporting a child who becomes frustrated very easily, explore the reasons for their frustration.  Remember with this age group that they often find it hard to express or deal with other emotions like fear or sadness.  Anger is often the emotion which is expressed, when there may be other things going on beneath the surface.  If there are other things happening for them which are likely to be disruptive/emotionally tricky, find time for them to talk about these things too - don't only focus on the anger.

Good resources - BBC learning zone has some good pages around anger, including this video of kids talking about anger, and this one which particularly talks about the physical feelings you get when feeling angry. 

Young minds also have a host of resources around anger - including a comic book style leaflet about a girl dealing with anger issues

Secondary school:  Just when you thought you were in the clear with kids, out of the blue comes puberty! 
Children usually enter puberty somewhere around 12-14, though it can be earlier or later than this.  The physical changes are obvious, but along with these are a host of changes going on in their brains.  Teenagers often struggle with their emotions feeling very out of control and powerful and anger is no exception.  Boys in particular can find that they react very aggressively and unpredictably, sometimes to apparently minor situations.  Try to avoid phrases like 'what were you thinking?!' - it may be that the problem was that they weren't thinking!  Work on recognising early warning signs of anger, and helping them thing of strategies they can use to calm down.  Teenagers will make mistakes - the key is protecting them where possible from the worst mistake and helping them learn from the times things do go wrong rather than just carrying on making the same mistake again and again.  Think about practicalities - how can they take time out if they are in situations where they cannot just walk away - eg school, playing sports etc.  Again remember that issues with anger may mask other problems such as depression - think of the whole person and not just the anger. 

Good resources:  At this age resources are much more about helping young people take control of their anger themselves and gain a more adult underestanding of anger and how it affects them.  Try 'Starving the anger gremlin' or 'A volcano in my tummy' which also has some useful exercises/ideas, but is more for younger teens. 

Also check out the Tracy Beaker survival files edition on anger.

Got more ideas and tips to share for resources to use for anger management?  Add your comments and tips! 

Kate Middleton, 29/04/2013
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