Anger Management is a Team Effort
Recently I began to notice how often I hear professionals say that a child
needs to learn to regulate their emotions when they are angry. Once again, I found myself thinking about our unrealistic expectations of children in regard to their behaviour during difficult situations. Professionally and personally I struggle with the idea that somehow a child, in a heightened state, can suddenly regulate their emotions and “pull themselves together,” so to speak. I am regularly challenged myself as I drive down the motorway, and notice that many adults around me fail to regulate their emotions!
Driving around South Auckland negotiating traffic at some highly undesirable times of day in order to visit clients can be a real eye opener! These drives are punctuated frequently with some sort of experience that leaves me feeling I’m in a real rat race. I see angry faces, hear blasting horns and agitated manoeuvres that demonstrate, possibly, that we as adults have a way to go yet to regulating our own emotions. I have challenged myself to apply some behavioural strategies to these situations in order to train myself to become focused on desired driving behaviours! If someone lets me in the line of traffic, I acknowledge it with a wave. I slow down to let people make awkward turns or to allow a person to make a right hand turn across traffic. I refer to this example for two reasons. First, because I find it has helped me to remain calm and to enjoy the experience as I work to look for and promote good behaviour. Second, it demonstrates that I have the power to change the interpretation of any situation and possibly model appropriate behaviour for others. If I expect others to regulate their emotions, I am going to have a pretty frustrating experience and undeniably fail in the moment. If I choose to act as I suggested while driving, at the very least I will refrain from becoming angry and frustrated.
Emotional Regulation Anger Management is a Team Effort Behaviour analysts are often accused of disregarding emotions and even ignoring them; however, this is an unfair criticism and has grown out of a misunderstanding of the focus in any behaviour intervention planning process. Our key objective is to define a behaviour and understand the function the behaviour serves the individual before we begin to consider any interventions. It is no longer enough to simply change a behaviour using the strategies and technologies at our disposal.
Ethical considerations in regard to client welfare and identifying socially important behaviours for that individual are also a priority. By focusing on emotions and the need to regulate them, however, we may be missing some key elements that would enable us to work toward increasing desirable behaviours and in the process help manage emotions.
For example, let’s consider anger, a common emotion that has teachers and parents requesting anger management classes and other therapies. The angry child may attempt to hit others, throw furniture or leave the classroom in order to escape a demand or situation that is uncomfortable.
The behavioural approach would be to consider the following:
Possible triggers and precursor behaviours that occur before any full blown anger erupts.
What environmental changes may reduce or even eliminate the behaviour.
Clear definition of the behaviours that indicate anger: How do we know the student is angry? This may be different from student to student.
What is the outcome for the student? What do they gain access to, escape from or experience as a result of the behaviour?
Once we have this information we then ask under what conditions does this behaviour occur or not occur? When are things okay? Can we use this information to change the outcome for this child to prevent outbursts? A common, less understood reason for outbursts is that the child has a history of failure. Due to that history, any pressure to complete work, or even start some work, results in an outburst or escape behaviours. Children become highly avoidant of any pressured situation, even if it seems insignificant to us. By adapting the curriculum, breaking down instruction, providing access to reinforcement for smaller successes, we may bypass the need to implement a full blown behavioural intervention. We often fail to recognise the smallest step to starting work, such as following or listening to instructions.
We need to jump on this and reinforce it adequately in order to build a strong history of positive outcomes associated with work. By the way, a timely reminder: all behaviour requires reinforcement of some degree or it will eventually cease! This is a scientific fact! If we simply send the student off to anger management classes, we are failing to accept that feeling angry is part of
their experience within their current environment. The student needs support
not to control their anger, but to express their anger in more socially acceptable way. By supporting their efforts either through environmental changes or by changing our responses, we may also teach them to communicate their anger in a more socially acceptable way to get appropriate response from others. Anger management implies the changes need to come from the student alone and this requires a huge variety of situations to be trained for in order for generalisation to occur. Behavioural change processes acknowledge that the student needs to be taught different responses within their current environment. The behavioural training allows for generalisation and maintenance to be monitored, whereas a course in management relies on lasting change coming from the student alone. I encourage teachers and parents to run their own anger management discussions and to consider the following:
Discuss how you as an adult deal with anger.
Model “anger management” in your own life.
Use daily examples from TV shows, life experiences in the supermarket or on the road, to talk about appropriate and inappropriate ways to deal with feelings of anger.
Once we can accept that behaviour change is a dynamic event that involves environmental change, as well as those working with the student, to adapt and change what they do and how they respond, we are halfway there. As I have said before, if we lay all the responsibility on the student to regulate their
emotions, we leave ourselves wide open for disappointment.
We can only control our own behaviour and by taking charge of what we do, we are active agents of change. We are on the road to lasting change for the better of the individual, their family and for the greater good of all.