Helping young people understand anger and how they experience it

We all learn about anger and ways to express it as we grow up, usually through modelling by our parents or other role models.  For many young people in out-of-home care, these lessons have been inconsistent or potentially detrimental, particularly if they have been in an environment where violence is the primary means of dealing with conflict and expressing anger.  Helping young people develop their knowledge and insight can support them to realise it is possible to manage their anger in more acceptable and beneficial ways. 

Things that are useful for young people to know:

  • Beneficial aspects of anger
  • Reasons why people get angry
  • Difference between feeling angry and acting on anger
  • Constructive ways to express anger
  • Physiological signs of anger
  • When anger becomes problematic and unhelpful
  • The stages of an anger-related episode

Things to consider when discussing anger with a young person

This is often a really sensitive issue and talking about anger itself may be a trigger so have a think of the environment and timing of these conversations.  Like many things, young people are more likely to discuss this issue when they feel safe and respected.  A well-established relationship with good rapport will go a long way to benefit such conversations.

Hear their story. While there are things you have probably noticed about a young person’s experience with anger by asking them to provide their story is a way for you and them to truly understand the meaning of their anger to them.  

Try questions such as:

  • Who do you get angry with?  How often? Where and when?
  • How do you show your anger? How do you react when you’re angry?
  • Who in your life models constructive ways to manage anger?
  • What did you learn about anger from your caregivers?
  • What did you learn about when you should get angry?
  • How do you feel about your anger?

Explore the ways that anger works for them.  When is it helpful?

Help them take responsibility for their own anger and behaviour.  Provide messages that acknowledge that they may feel ‘out of control’ however this never means they are ‘out of responsibility’.  Reinforce messages that: 

  • Violence is not okay
  • Provocation is not an excuse for violence
  • They are responsible for their behaviour regardless of the behaviours of others
  • Being provocative is not ok

Sometimes young people experience a lot of shame and stigma associated with their anger and behaviour.  Helping them to see themselves as separate to these feelings and behaviour is crucial for them to understand that nothing is ‘wrong with them’.   Rather they learn that it has developed for a number of reasons such as their childhood experiences and therefore they have control over how they manage and express it. 

A good way to explore and help a young person learn about their anger is through unpacking a recent experience.

Tom is 14 and has lived in residential care since he was 11. 

Tom grew up in an environment that he rarely felt safe.  His dad drank a lot and would often fight with his mum, at times this would get physical.  When Tom was about 7, his dad started being violent towards him as well.  Tom found it really hard to relax and sleep as he never knew what mood his dad would be in.  Tom never really saw any other ways of dealing with conflict than violence.  When Tom went to school, he noticed that he seemed to get frustrated more easily than other young people and found it hard to calm down when he felt like this.  The teachers also noticed that Tom would hit himself and start fights for what often seemed like no reason.  Tom tried cannabis and soon began smoking it most days as he found it helped him relax and stay calm.

Things that influence how Tom expresses anger are:

  • Learnt behaviour/modelling
  • Experience of abuse and insecure attachment
  • Physical hyper-vigilance
  • Low frustration tolerance
  • Gender (male)

Young people in out-of-home care have often had early life experiences of trauma such as abuse or neglect that make it more challenging for them to manage their anger.  Not only have they learnt that anger is always expressed through violence, they can often exist physically at a high level of hyper-vigilance and hence have a ‘low tolerance’ to frustration.

Further Resources