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 relational trauma has often failed to master this stage-specific task because of a lack of healthy role models and internalization. A therapist can provide that healthy role modeling and encourage the child to practice self-control skills, including the following:

  • think before taking action,
  • time out to calm down,
  • positive self-talk,
  • verbal expression of feelings,
  • asking for feedback and help,
  • monitoring the body for cues of tension and emotions, and
  • mind–body relaxation techniques.

Anger management skills are particularly important to learn, as children with attachment trauma are inclined to act out in aggressive and impulsive ways (e.g., temper tantrums, aggression, destruction of property). A primary goal is to learn to manage anger constructively — to achieve appropriate self-control and to be able to cope effectively.

However, before anger can be managed, it must be understood. Anger is an emotion often resulting from your thinking: your attitude and beliefs about anger and conflict; early messages you received from role models; and your “self-talk,” which typically determines feelings and actions. Anger is typically a secondary emotion that covers up depression and other emotions, such as fear, loss, rejection, shame and sadness. For example, anger routinely results from unresolved grief: children who lost birth parents will act out anger toward foster and adoptive parents. This covers their pain, loss and grief, and provides protection against future loss (“I’ll push you away before you reject me.”).

Anger commonly results from feeling threatened. Children with backgrounds of maltreatment and compromised attachment feel threatened when they perceive a loss of control (control is associated with survival). Early trauma and lack of secure attachment also results in changes in the developing brain that makes it difficult to handle impulses, arousal, and anger. These children lack frustration tolerance and emotional flexibility. They become distressed, agitated, and angry easily.

A child’s physical condition is also important to understand. High levels of stress caused by lack of sleep, poor diet, and lack of exercise can lead to anger. For example, a drop in blood sugar (hypoglycemia) or too much sugar in the blood can trigger stress and anger.

Anger management is a skill and can be learned by children and adults. Learning involves practice. First, practice skills in a safe setting via role-playing (i.e., therapy sessions). Next, practice these same skills in real-life situations. Anger management includes the following skills and steps:

  • identify and address underlying emotions,
  • be aware of external and internal triggers (what “pushes your buttons”),
  • understand early messages received from role models,
  • recognize self-talk (inner dialogue),
  • know your anger sequence,
  • be aware of body signals and body language, and
  • identify your conflict style.

Evergreen Psychotherapy can help

Contact us to learn more about how to help someone you love develop appropriate anger management skills.