Anger is a normal human emotion, we all experience it in the same way we experience other emotions such as happiness, sadness and worry. Young people becoming angry can be the result of feeling attacked, frustrated, invalidated or deceived.
Anger can be a useful response as it can help to identify problems, help us defend ourselves and stay safe as part of our fight or flight response and can help us to move on by creating change. Constructive anger can help young people to find the strength and courage to protect themselves and stand up to injustice.
For young people that have developed a healthy way of managing their emotions, anger is often transitory; feeling manageable and not having a big impact on their lives. Experiencing anger in a manageable way relies on having healthy ways to recognise, express and deal with anger when it arises. However, some young people find it difficult to control their emotions which can then result in anger being expressed in destructive or unhelpful ways that have detrimental effects on their mental wellbeing.
Anger becomes a problem when it harms you or those around you.
Unhelpful ways of expressing anger can include Outward aggression and violence – hitting, shouting, throwing things, Inward aggression – self-harm, negative self-talk, or Non-violent or passive aggression – resistance to demands or sullenness.
Anger is a very physical emotion and as such there are a number of physiological changes that occur such as feeling hot, sweating, tense muscles, fast breathing, heart beating quickly, churning stomach, or a flushed face.
On the psychological side of things, we release neurotransmitters known as catecholamines. These chemicals cause a young person to experience a burst of energy that lasts several minutes. Therefore, a desire to take protective action is related to this burst of energy. Anger results in a narrower focus of attention making it difficult to focus on anything other than the source of their anger. Further neurotransmitters and hormones including adrenaline and noradrenaline are released these chemicals result in a longer lasting state of arousal.
Anger may be the most objective response a person displays, however it often is an expression of a range of emotions under the surface.
Uncontrolled anger is harmful for the angry person and their target. It can result in the breakdown of relationships, difficulty concentrating at school, loneliness and a marked impact on physical and emotional health. A person’s tendency to develop problematic anger is influenced by a variety of factors such as:
Without healthy the physiological response to anger, and the adrenaline that gets released in the process, can mean result in a young person being in a heightened emotional state lasting from hours to sometimes days. Entering these states regularly reduces a young person’s threshold for anger, making it is easier to for them to activate their fight or flight response even for minor irritations that would not usually trigger this response.
This heightened state also interferes with a young person’s ability to clearly remember details of an angry outburst. Moderate levels of arousal are necessary to help the brain learn, concentrate and for memory however when the optimum level of arousal is exceeded it is more difficult for new memories to be formed due to the shutting down of the prefrontal cortex.
Anger’s ability to affect a young person’s thoughts, physical sensations, behaviour and mood can become cyclical result in what is termed the cycle of anger.
Whether adult or a young person we all experience feeling angry at some points in life however there are some indicators to when anger can become concerning:
Feeling angry a lot of the time (intense or overwhelming experience of anger)
Difficulty controlling anger
Distress or sadness as a result of getting angry
Using substances to manage anger
Using anger as a way to control people’s behaviour
Isolating oneself or withdrawing from people or situations
Suppressing emotions or bottling things up rather than coping with them
Regretting your angry behaviour
Expression of anger through aggression or violence
If anger is ignored or not expressed properly, it can lead to expressing it in a disruptive way or internalizing anger which increases the risk of self-harm, anxiety and low mood.
As with all matters of wellbeing taking time to focus on areas such as anger helps to build an outlook that feeds into the interactions a teacher has with the young people they support. Whilst we are preparing ourselves to help others we must also look after ourselves, we’ve got some advice and guidance on this in our teacher wellbeing section.
Ways of helping a young person varies for person to person and therefore spending time with young people, helping them to recognise their triggers and identifying which calming activities work for them will help you to help them during periods of increased frustration or anger.
In order to counter a young person’s losing their temper, we first need to reframe the behaviour of the child or young person from a view point that this is someone that is not simply losing control but has an impaired capacity for monitoring and managing their own emotions. With this in mind it is important to talk calmly to a young person when they are angry to try reduce some of the physiological and psychological effects they are experiencing.
Although anger can take over an individual’s attention, the prefrontal cortex of the brain can keep emotions in proportion. Helping a young person to emotionally regulate themselves involves developing ways to allow their prefrontal cortex to their advantage and use to control their fight or flight response. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain associated with exercising judgement and keep emotions in proportion. Therefore anger management techniques that aim to support prefrontal cortex functioning help young people to have more control over how they react when face with anger provoking situations.
One of these technique is to help children recognise the signs of anger and frustration which can help them to better communicate their feelings. This may involve talking to young people of the physical effects of anger and frustration and the situations or circumstances that may trigger feelings of anger. Putting emotions into words helps young people to study emotions without having to feel them, and all of the negative impacts that come this
Talking about helpful strategies with young people will help young people to explore which strategies they may find helpful in times of increased frustration or anger.
Examples might be:
Progressive breathing activities can be difficult for young people to engage in independently and therefore practicing these techniques during calmer periods will help provide them with the skills to use at other times.
Physical activities such as clenching and unclenching their fists, tearing up newspaper, holding ice or throwing pillows may help some young people to deescalate from a period of increased arousal. Other young people may respond well to being offered a distraction activity that they enjoy in order to divert their focus from the source of anger or frustration.
Making young people aware of who they can talk to and where to go if worried about themselves or someone else experiencing angry feelings is important in to provide young people with the environment that promotes young people exploring ways of managing difficult or distressing scenarios. This might be in the form of posters or displays that you can involve young people in creating and then stick around the school.
Remember young people need to know that anger is not necessarily a bad emotion, however the ability to tolerate and deal constructively with anger are crucial features of and maintaining healthy mental wellbeing.