Anger and Aggression

Anger is a normal emotion experienced by everyone at different times.  It is, in fact, a natural response to a threat, helping prime ourselves for protection or stand up for ourselves.  It can also be useful to motivate people to meet challenges or make changes.  More often than not it happens as a reaction to thoughts or emotions - hurt, frustration, worry, jealousy, confusion, rejection, embarrassment or powerlessness. Whatever the reason behind it, there’s nothing wrong with feeling angry.  What is important is how they cope with, and express, angry feelings.  Anger that isn’t managed well can have an impact on relationships, as well as physical and emotional health.

When Anger is Aggression

While anger is a feeling/emotion, aggression is the behaviour or action taken that is hostile, destructive and/or violent.  It can be physical assault, throwing objects, property damage, self-harming behaviours or verbal threats or insults. 

Many young people become aggressive in response to a real or perceived threat or it may be a learnt behaviour that helps them get their needs met.

Managing and understanding difficult emotions, such as anger, is something young people are still learning, in fact it is a big part of their development.  While they are still trying to work it out though, they can be quite volatile, more sensitive to stress and susceptible to frustration.  Like anyone else, anger can often be a way young people communicate that they are:

  • Fearful
  • Frustrated or don’t understand
  • Misunderstood or not listened to
  • Embarrassed or Humiliated
  • Experiencing injustice
  • Trying to control a situation
  • Experiencing Pain (including withdrawal from substances)
  • Physically uncomfortable (tired, hungry or in pain)

The experience of anger for young people will be varied, influenced by:

  • How easily they get angry
  • How often it occurs
  • How intensely it is felt
  • How long it lasts
  • How comfortable they are with feeling angry and expressing it

For most, they soon find effective ways to regulate such emotions, however for some, their experiences of anger can be persistent, unpredictable and overwhelming.  In these cases, their experiences of anger can lead to other problems such as eating problems, depression, risky behaviours, absence from school, self-harm, violence or drug and alcohol use.  While some of these may help them cope in the short term they will often create more problems later on.

Why so angry?

Why do some young people seem to cope quite well with conflict and others get angry over the smallest of things?  Why does one young person express their anger through aggression and other supress it?  There is no simple answer, instead many varied and often interrelated things can contribute to why anger becomes a problem.

Genetic or physiological factors

Some people are simply easily irritated

Developmental influences

Simply being an adolescent means you are more volatile as you develop the strategies to manage strong emotions such as anger.  Also a young person’s experiences growing up of poor caregiving can be debilitating to their ability to self-regulate.

Past Trauma

Experiences of trauma, particularly during early childhood, can often leave someone with an impaired stress/hormone system that makes regulating anger more challenging.  Many of young people in out-of-home care have such experiences.

Psychological or internal sources  

Some people have really rigid views or unreasonable expectations about how other should act or about how things should happen.  Frustration is a common experience for these people as they struggle to solve these problems and be flexible in their thinking.  There are some specific ways of thinking that mean people experience anger more.  There are:

  • Emotional reasoning – misinterpret normal events and things others say as being directly threatening – see it as attack on themselves
  • Low frustration tolerance – stress related anxiety
  • Unreasonable expectations – expecting others to act a certain way or for uncontrollable events to behave predictably – when things don’t go their way anger and frustration set in
  • People-rating – applying a derogatory label on someone else. Labelling them this way dehumanises them and makes it easier to focus anger on them

Socio-cultural or external sources

Frustration from not having sufficient resources to meet their basic needs and fulfil their goals.

Acquired Brain Injuries (ABI)

Some young people have ABIs due to chronic substance use or accidents.  Depending on what part of their brain has been injured it may impact on their impulsivity and experience of emotions such as anger. 

Learning Difficulties

Many young people in out-of-home care have slipped through the cracks in the system and can often have poor literacy and numeracy or undiagnosed learning difficulties or intellectual disabilities.  This can impact their ability to understand processes and communications which often will get expressed through anger. If this gets ignored, young people will get labels as just another angry young person and often end up in the justice system. By considering such things, the underlying reasons for their anger can be identified and addressed.

What influences how anger is expressed and dealt with?

From a very early age, people learn how to express anger by copying what they see, what gets reinforced and by testing the boundaries of what is allowed.  For young people in out-of-home care, many have had negative or confusing messages about how to manage difficult emotions such as anger.  The more they understand about what has influenced their own behaviours the better they will be able to stop ‘blaming themselves’, seeing it as ‘a problem with them’ and start feeling like they can take responsibility and makes changes.

Each person is different but some common ways people deal with anger are:

  • They experience a loss of control and explode in rages that may lead to physical abuse or violence
  • They may sit with their anger and either wait for it to pass or redirect it to a healthy outlet such as exercise
  • They may supress it, bottle it up or ignore it which may lead to passive-aggressive behaviour or turning their behaviour inward leading to negative self-appraisal or mental health difficulties.

These responses are influenced by:

  • Beliefs about what’s acceptable and why
  • Learned habitual behaviour often from childhood modelling
  • Gender
  • Underlying issues and conditions that impact a person ability to deal effectively with anger such as physical and mental health issues or an acquired brain injury (ABI)
  • Alcohol and other drug related factors impacting mood or using as a strategy to manage emotions
  • Stress and Recent Irritation can lower our tolerance for frustration
  • Effectiveness to manage ones anger – level of self-awareness and emotional literacy

Myth Busting: “Let It Rip” “Get it out of your system” “Bottle it Up”

These are dangerous myths that can end up with people feeling like they have permission to let their anger out against others or things.  In fact, “letting it rip” will actually escalate the person experiences of anger and aggression leaving it more difficult to reign it in rather than having any helpful impact or resolve a situation.  Alternatively, some young people will suppress their anger often meaning they can experience other emotional or physical problems as a result. 

Always Consider

  • Substance Use - Some young people use substances as a way of suppressing or releasing their anger. Substances can also be used to find relief from the shame or negative self-appraisal associated with anger expressed in an antisocial way, particularly when the consequence has been harm to others.  Substances can also affect people’s experience of anger.
  • Stress - When a young person is operating with a constantly high level of stress, even the smallest things can tip them over the edge. 
  • Sleep and Diet
  • Developmental Stage

Consequences of Anger

When a young person feels unable to control their anger it can create significant problems in many areas of their life.  It may lead to:

  • Damaged personal relationships
  • Problems at school or work
  • Substance Use
  • Mental Health problems
  • Physical Health problems
  • Legal Ramifications

So what can I do?

There are really useful things to consider when looking for ways to manage anger. Convey a message of hope that the young person can learn new ways to understand and manage their angry feelings.

Also consider thinking about your own role, and that of others. Are there things people around the young person might be doing that are impacting their behaviour?  Maybe expectations of them are higher than are developmentally possible?  Is there always a focus on what they are doing wrong - are they getting enough good attention?  Are there clear explanations for boundaries or limits, especially when you’re saying ‘no’?

Click here to find out more about responding to anger and aggression.

Further Resources