Pete remembers the day he nearly failed his mid-term, but not so much because of the red “65/D” marked on the front page of the returned exam. He remembers it because that afternoon, just four weeks after getting his driver’s license, he got a speeding ticket and a summons to appear in court for driving 50 mph in a 30 mph speed zone. Then, of course, he had to tell his parents. They took away his driving privileges for two weeks.
The anger Pete felt about his math grade led to a bad attitude behind the wheel, an argument at home, and the loss of the car keys at the very time he was beginning to be able to enjoy his independence.
The episode helped Pete understand a few things about dealing with anger.
Anger hardly needs a definition. Everyone experiences the emotion. In fact, feeling anger is normal and can be healthy. “Sometimes, our anger and frustration are caused by very real and inescapable problems in our lives,” says a spokesperson from the American Psychological Association (APA). “Not all anger is misplaced, and often it’s a healthy, natural response to these difficulties.” In fact, states the APA, “A certain amount of anger is necessary to our survival.”
For teens, there are all sorts of circumstances where “a certain amount of anger” can arise quite naturally. Maybe it’s a rule at home (a curfew, an ultimatum to clean up your room before you go out, a grounding). Maybe it’s a fight with a friend, or learning you didn’t make the play cast or the varsity squad. If you think about it rationally, you will realize that acknowledging and channeling your anger can help you accomplish things. You might negotiate a new curfew if you believe yours is unfair, or strive to become a stand-out member of the junior varsity team.
Anger also can arise from situations not usually associated with the emotion. A person grieving over the loss of a friend, close relative, or a beloved pet may not only feel sad, but angry. Stress at school, home, or work can be redirected as anger at someone or something not even related to the stress.
But there is also anger that can build over time, be reinforced by new circumstances or peer behavior, and spin out of control into rage and violence.
A Frightening Emotion
Regardless of its source, says teen counselor Linda Labelle, anger is a frightening emotion. “Its negative expressions can include physical and verbal violence, prejudice, malicious gossip, antisocial behavior, sarcasm, addictions, withdrawal, and psychosomatic disorders,” says Labelle, who is director of Focus Adolescent Services, an Internet clearinghouse of information and resources for families with teens (www.focusas.com). “This can devastate lives–destroying relationships, harming others, disrupting work, clouding effective thinking, affecting physical health, and ruining futures.”
The clue to dealing with anger is learning self-awareness. This means understanding why you are angry, realizing that there are choices you can make, and coming up with ways to deal with the anger.
Ask Yourself …
Labelle recommends a few questions that teens can ask to help them tune into their anger:
* Where does my anger come from?
* What situations make me angry?
* Do my thoughts contain such absolutes as always (“I’m always being excluded.”) or never (“My parents never understand me.”)?
* Am I reacting to hurt, loss, or fear with anger?
* Am I communicating effectively?
* Am I focusing on what has been done to me rather than what I can do?
* Do my emotions control me, or do I control my emotions?
Anger is a subject that has been studied from many perspectives. Behavioral experts feel that some people are genetically disposed to becoming easily angered. Others may not inherit a tendency to be angry, but may pick it up from their family if the atmosphere at home is disruptive or abusive, or if family members don’t communicate well with one another.
The person who “flies off the handle” quickly may only get angrier, evoke angry responses in others, become more aggressive, and end up doing nothing to resolve whatever it was that caused the anger in the first place.
It’s a skill, experts say, to be able to recognize and express anger. Many people may be more comfortable saying they are worried, sad, or feeling down than expressing anger effectively. Some angry people don’t even show their anger. Instead, they may withdraw from friends and family and sometimes they can get physically ill.
Approaches That Work
Charles Spielberger, Ph.D., a psychologist who studies anger, says in an American Psychological Association report, “Controlling Anger–Before It Controls You” (www.apa.org/pubinfo/anger.html), that there are three main ways to deal with angry feelings:
1. Express your anger in an assertive way. This means making clear what you feel is wrong or unfair without hurting others. Spielberger cautions that being assertive is not the same as being aggressive, pushy, or demanding.
2. Convert or redirect your anger. This means simply trying to stop thinking about whatever is making you angry, at least for a moment. Instead, suggests Spielberger, focus on something positive. This may help put your problem into perspective. There is, however, the risk that anger can become bottled up inside, causing physical problems.
3. Calm yourself. Don’t just concentrate on not showing your anger outwardly, but calm down inside too. Breathe deeply, feel your heart rate slow down, and imagine your angry feelings falling away.
Which brings us back to Pete, whose anger ended up being a wake-up call to a few issues that he addressed. He faced the fact that his studies had taken a back seat to his social life when he started driving. He was reminded in court of the dangers of speeding at 50 mph on a town street where kids rode their bikes and walked to school. And he had a few talks with his parents about how he’d felt when he got the grade, the ticket, and the suspension. The result: He resolved to try to understand his anger before reacting, and make choices that put him in control.