Pack lunch or buy it? Headband or hairclip? Tell the truth or spare her feelings with a little white lie? Every day, kids face dozens of choices, from the ordinary to the complicated. One of the most important decisions a young person makes each day has to do with how he handles angry feelings.
Anger is a basic, spontaneous, temporary internalized feeling, usually triggered by frustration and experienced as an unpleasant state (Long, Long & Whitson, 2008). It comes and goes in all of our lives and can be experienced as mild, medium, and intense. While anger is a universal of the human experience, its expression is diverse. Consider these four basic choices Leslie can makes to express her anger at being excluded:
Leslie brings her Chinese jump rope outside during school recess. She invites a group of classmates to play. The kids quickly organize the order in which each person will jump. When play begins, Leslie soon realizes that she is left out of the line and is stuck holding the rope the whole time. She is feeling cheated and angry.
Leslie’s first instinct is to act her anger out aggressively. In her head, she envisions grabbing the jump rope and storming away from her classmates, yelling, “Next time, I jump first. It’s my jump rope!”
Aggression is usually impulsive and unplanned. Whether physical (hitting, grabbing, kicking) or verbal (calling names, threatening), aggression is destructive to relationships.
On the other hand, Leslie thinks to herself, “It’s okay if I don’t get to play today. The kids will like me more if I just let them play and don’t ask for a turn.”
A passive person feels that her needs are not as important as the needs of others, so she behaves in ways that allow her rights to be ignored or violated by others.
Leslie also considers lifting the rope suddenly while Madison is jumping, causing Madison to trip and fall. When Madison asks, “What did you do that for?” Leslie innocently shrugs and says, “Oh—sorry. It was an accident.”
Passive aggressive behavior is a deliberate and masked way of expressing feelings of anger. It involves a variety of behaviors designed to get back at another person without the person recognizing the hidden anger.
In the end, Leslie explains to her classmates that she brought the Chinese jump rope so that she could play and she would be happy to continue sharing, as long as she is included in game.
Assertiveness is a style that is used to express anger in a verbal, non-blaming, respectful way. It is an honest form of communication in which a person expresses their wants and needs without hurting or violating the rights of others.
Adults play a powerful role in helping kids make constructive choices when it comes to anger expression. By talking about everyday situations as they arise and role-playing various scenarios and outcomes, young people develop specific skills for assertive anger expression which, in turn, helps them form healthier interpersonal relationships. With regular practice, handling angry feelings effectively can become as routine for young people as deciding on lunch menus and selecting hairstyles.
Signe Whitson is a licensed social worker and Chief Operating Officer of the Life Space Crisis Intervention (LSCI) Institute, USA, an international certification program that trains adults in turning crisis situations into learning opportunities for children and youth with chronic patterns of self-defeating behaviour. Signe has over ten years’ experience working as a staff trainer and therapist for children and adolescents in individual, family, group, and school settings.
For more information on teaching young people skills to communicate anger effectively, check out How to Be Angry: An Assertive Anger Expression Group Guide for Kids and Teens.
Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2011.