Focus Area 6: Behavioral Intervention
4. Addressing Anger in Particular
There is no doubt that at some point in your youth work, you will need to deal with the difficult behavior of a dysregulated youth experiencing the strong emotion of anger. Anger is a normal emotion that is displayed in a wide variety of ways. It can range from icy silence to full-blown rage.
Anger can prompt a young person to stand up for themselves and make positive changes - Yay! But anger is more often counterproductive and unhealthy. Intense, aggressive, out of control anger can lead to poor problem solving, harm relationships, and even make the young person feel sick.
Consider the three different mechanisms of anger according to the Anger Consortium of the American Psychological Association:
- Physical reactions: Usually starts with a rush of adrenaline and responses such as increased heart rate, blood pressure, and tightening muscles; often known as the “fight or flight” response. While it is not addressed here, please note this response is often very beneficial to youth living with trauma and can keep them safe.
- Cognitive experience: This is how a young person perceives and thinks about what is making them angry. For example, they might think something that happened is wrong, unfair, or undeserved.
- Behavior: The way a young person expresses anger. There is a wide range of behavior that signals anger, including raising one’s voice, clamming up, slamming doors, or storming away. They may state that they are angry, ask for an apology, or demand something or someone change.
DEALING WITH INTENSE ANGER
Envision a young person exhibiting intense anger; they are overtly hostile, aggressive, and perhaps even threatening. One of the most important things you can do is to control your own reaction to the anger being expressed by them.
As tempting as it might be, do not respond in-kind. Be sure to listen well, remain objective, communicate clearly, offer helpful ideas, and provide information more likely to generate their respect.
Being louder or angrier does nothing to help them calm down and see your point of view. You also won’t earn their respect. You have to be cool! It’s imperative you personally grow and develop ways to control your emotions and your reactions. To be sure, there is no right way to do this. This is about your coping and your style.
Here are a few strategies for maintaining your own emotional control:
- Assume the young person has a legitimate reason to be angry (from their perspective, they do and you don’t need to argue about that)
- Listen to their emotion without emotion
- Be patient with them
- Intentionally speak softly and slowly
- Take a brief pause if you need one
- Breathe deeply (calming breaths are as contagious as yawns).
- Take your time in formulating a response and moderate your initial reaction
- Keep at least three feet (or your own safe distance) away – just back away
VENTING DOES NOT CREATE CALM
There’s a very common belief that letting someone vent is a good way to deal with anger. Turns out, that’s a misconception. Research has found that venting anger actually causes aggression to escalate1. You may intuitively think that letting a youth vent their anger would help, but it doesn’t and it’s actually counterproductive.
The better strategy is to teach self-regulation and not reinforce unhealthy behaviors. A youth may even tell you it helps them to vent, but remember you are trying to extinguish unhealthy behaviors and they likely don’t understand the harmful nature of venting.
More often than not, you’ll have success in helping dysregulated young people re-regulate…but not always. So be ready for these situations. Practice what you’re learning here ahead of time. It’s going to be much harder for you to access rational thinking and try to recall best options when you’re actually in the heat of the moment with an angry youth in front of you. Preparation is the key.
WHEN DYSREGULATION BECOMES DANGEROUS
Sometimes youth become so dysregulated that it places themselves, other youth, or you and your co-workers in physical danger. If that occurs, you will likely want to remove their peers from the immediate environment or attempt to get that young person to voluntarily move to a safe place. Sometimes you may even need to call the police. Safety is always your first priority.
Please note: This module does not cover strategies for handling situations that include physical interventions or escorts of any sort. Do NOT engage in a physical restraint or escort unless you fully understand your organization’s policies regarding physical interventions and you have received proper training.
Policies about physical intervention vary between programs, leadership, amount of training, and risk tolerance. If your program does not have clear policies about what to do in dangerous situations, talk with your supervisor immediately so you are prepared to respond appropriately if such a situation occurs.
Getting good at dealing with anger and your own reaction to it is important in helping youth learn self-regulation skills
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