As we’ve discussed in a previous blog, the ability to regulate and control impulses, emotions, and level of arousal is usually learned in the context of the secure attachment relationship during the first three years of life. A child with an attachment disorder, who has been abused or neglected and has not engaged in a “mutual regulatory process” with a trusted attachment figure, fails to master this stage-specific task.
For these children, a feeling of anger tends to completely overwhelm them resulting in temper tantrums as young children and acts of aggression, destruction and even violence as they get older.
As a clinician, my goal is to help my patients manage anger constructively and achieve a level of self-control that will allow them to cope effectively with their feelings. This starts with being a positive role model for self-control and helping them build general self-control skills. I encourage them to practice thinking before acting, taking time outs to calm down, using positive self-talk and expressing their feelings verbally. We work together on monitoring the body for cues of tension and emotions and mind-body relaxation techniques.
In therapy, we build anger management skills by teaching clients a sequence of steps they must go through to identify and understand their emotions and then, come up with ways to better cope with them. We first practice these steps in a safe setting via role-playing (i.e., therapy sessions). Next, the client practices these same steps in real-life situations.
Identify, Understand and Address
1. Identify and address underlying emotions. Anger is often just the tip of the iceberg. There are other emotions beneath the surface. Think about a situation where you become angry and name the underlying emotions.
2. Be aware of external and internal triggers (what “pushes your buttons”). There are certain situations or actions that trigger angry feelings and behavior. When someone pushes your buttons, you always have a choice in how you respond. By being aware of your triggers you can plan for a more controlled response.
3. Understand early messages received from role models. People often behave in the same ways they were taught, based on messages received and behaviors demonstrated by role models early in life. When you identify the anger messages you received, you can choose which values about anger you want to keep and which ones you want to let go of.
4. Recognize self-talk (inner dialogue). Self-talk is what you tell yourself about yourself, others and situations. These preconceived ideas and beliefs have a major impact on how you deal with conflict and anger because feelings follow thoughts. Self-talk can be positive or negative. Increasing your positive “scripts” can lead to a more positive attitude and behaviors.
5. Know your anger sequence. Anger often feels like a sudden explosion, but we know that specific thoughts and feelings come before anger. Being aware of how you think and feel in certain situations and that your thoughts and feelings usually lead to anger, will help you to de-escalate before you explode.
6. Be aware of body signals and body language. Identify what happens to your body when your anger is escalating (a fast heartbeat, clenched jaw, flushed face, stomachache, etc.). Also know your body language. Do you seem physically or emotionally threatening? Your goal is to send non-verbal cues that lead to conflict resolution by not making others feel threatened.
7. Identify your conflict style. When you are dealing with conflict or anger are you passive, passive-aggressive, aggressive, or assertive? Assertive means you are confident, send clear messages and are in control of your emotions. If you know your conflict style you can decide how to adjust your behaviors so that you stand up for yourself, but also respect the rights of others.