For the 7th time in seven weeks I walked into the small room and sat in the circle of chairs. Seven sets of eyes watched me, a myriad of expressions on their faces. The faces have changed since week one, from looks that expressed anger and dismay at being forced into this circle, to apathy, to receptiveness. Today those eyes reflected challenge, acceptance, comfort with the group, and in one student, passive resistance. Welcome to the Anger Management Group.
I looked around the room at my co-facilitator and then the students and posed the question, “What is one thing that you have learned about anger in the past 6 weeks?” Eyes watched me. I learned early on that I could not pose a question to this group and expect a response unless I called on them, one by one, encouraging participation. Once they start talking, however, the floodgates often open, moving the group from passive observers to active contributors.
I looked at Matt and waited. I knew I could count on him to get the ball rolling. He didn’t disappoint me. “Anger is a secondary emotion,” he answered. “What does that mean?” I returned. “It means that there are other feelings inside that come first, but those feelings turn to anger and it happens so fast!” he said. I smiled and thanked him, then looked to the young woman sitting next to him.
Sophisticated and reserved, she might be an unlikely candidate for this group. Appearances mean nothing. A fly on the wall would see little commonality between these participants. They represented a cross-section of peer groups. Students are referred to the program by an administrator, a counselor or are self-referred. There’s a waiting list.
Administration presents the group as an option to out-of-school suspension. If students choose participation in the Anger Management Group eight-week session, their OSS is suspended until completion and then waived. Theoretically, if students miss sessions, they must serve the OSS. Overall, this works and keeps attendance consistent. As with any program, there are exceptions.
Ellen looked at me thoughtfully. She answered that she had learned that people had choices when they felt angry. People could choose to walk away or change the way they think about a situation. Using the opening she presented, I reviewed the physiological and psychological aspects to anger and anger reaction that we talked about a few weeks earlier.
“Anger is triggered, ” I said. “The body goes into flight or fight, and then self-talk happens. If you choose positive self-talk, you will be able to choose your action and take positive steps to deal with your anger. If you choose negative self-talk, anger will escalate.” I framed what Ellen contributed in words we have used during the lessons. Framing concepts with language that helps people to feel they can choose their behavior and control their anger are key to success in any anger management program.
Ed speaks out, “Well if some jerk hits on my girlfriend, it makes me mad.” I look around the room, seeing the light go on in their eyes. They know what is coming. Mike, my co-facilitator asks, “Can someone “make” you mad?” “No,” several answered, however reluctantly. The consensus is that anger is triggered.
I ask, “Why is that so important to understand?” They take stabs at what I’m looking for, but none hit on the point I want to re-make and stress. “If someone “makes” you mad, who has control over your emotions? What does that language tell you about who is in control?” Steve, passive and quietly resistant answers, “The other person has control”. “If something triggers your anger, who has control? Who has the power?” I could see the light dawn in their eyes as I looked around the room. “We do,” they answered.
The goal of this program is to help these kids to see that they are not helpless victims of society. They have an opportunity to take control of their lives and emotions and choose healthier responses to anger. Understanding the social, cultural, and personal influences that shape their thinking, using empowering language and owning their behavior are key to the effectiveness of the group sessions.
My co-facilitator and I have seen the effect of the program on the student’s behavior in the halls, in the administrative office and in private session. They have a new frame of reference with which to view their thinking and behavior. They catch themselves in the process of making a choice and something clicks and they make a better choice. When we talk with them outside of session, we as role models and guides have language we can use with them that they understand.
I knew we were making a difference when one student, with a twinkle in his eyes, asked me, “How are you feeling?” Knowing what he was looking for, I answered, “Mad!” He said, “Mad is a secondary emotion. You can’t use that word. What are you really feeling?”
Anger management is learning to deal with anger constructively.
For more information about conflict education and anger management, see Susan Fitzell’s book, Transforming Anger to Personal Power.