Exploring both sides of anger
Written by Mike Giresi,
in Section Family Resources
Clinical Focus Weeks are a central part of our therapeutic curriculum. The format is simple: each week we tackle a new concept or emotion, and approach it from multiple angles in experiential and psycho-educational therapy sessions. We use things like paint, blocks, and magazines, self-defense gear, role playing, cinema props and a range of activities.
In large and small groups, our clients can explore complex topics in a safe and non-judgmental environment. They’re able to share as openly and honestly as they wish, and can get support from their peers, and compassionate feedback from our clinical team.
Our goal is to help adolescents learn how to see themselves more clearly in real-time: to explore how their thoughts, feelings, beliefs, physical sensations in their body, and their behaviors affect their relationship with themselves and their environment.
The purpose of Clinical Focus Weeks is to help our adolescent clients explore their relationship with an emotion or concept. An individual’s relationship with an emotion determines essential things—how he understands his own identity, how he understands the world around him, and how he sees himself as part of (or apart from) his environment.
Teaching him to track his inner world is something we believe helps our clients maintain lasting healing as they move out of their childhood years and into adulthood.
When, where, and how an emotion shows up (or doesn’t)
When, where, and how an emotion shows up (or doesn’t) is what we think of as a red flag for a child in crisis. If it’s an emotion he’s leaning on hard, or one he’s avoiding at all costs, this relationship is a the root of his suffering.
It’s easy to confuse anger with the behaviors that come out of anger, especially when those include violent outbursts, destruction, screaming, arguing and defiance. But anger can manifest very quietly in some teenagers as depression, anxiety, shame and self-hatred. Both of these extremes demonstrate that a child has a dysfunctional relationship with their anger.
While the negative behaviors associated with anger can be problematic, the feeling of anger isn’t the problem. The solution for a child in crisis isn’t to “turn off" his anger or “turn on” his anger, but to explore and eventually understand how his relationship to anger affects him and the people around him.
Anger isn’t a “bad” emotion. When anger is accessed, processed and expressed in a healthy way it is a beautiful emotion that shows up as inner strength, authenticity, courage, resiliency, growth and creativity.
When a child has a dysfunctional relationship with the emotion it causes disconnection from himself, his environment, and his loved ones, creating challenges and uncomfortable consequences. He has difficulty standing up for himself, setting boundaries for himself, and striding confidently towards what he most wants and needs for his life. We most often see children on one side or the other of this complex emotion:
On one side, there is the child who regularly lashes out angrily, and might appear to have a strong connection with his anger. These violent or aggressive outbursts might be his only way of regaining control when he feels another emotion that is far more threatening. This child cannot handle feelings of vulnerability like sadness, fear or shame. These feelings are so intolerable to him that he copes by turning away from these emotions as hard and fast as he can. Vulnerability opens him up to being rejected by his environment, and that rejection feels like a direct attack on his survival. Anger becomes his shield from vulnerability.
On the other side, there is the child who appears to be totally unbothered at times when you think he should have been angry, and who is instead quiet, sad or withdrawn. He may show up as a more agreeable child because he’s not argumentative or defiant, but his quiet exterior is a sign that anger feels extremely unsafe. If this child is being bullied or finds himself being treated unfairly, he will blame himself, belief that it’s his fault, and simply accept the unfair situation. He doesn’t feel safe standing up for himself. He feels the anger inside, but it is so intolerable, threatening and frightening that he dare not let it rise to the surface.
If we think of anger directed outward as a way of managing sadness and vulnerability for one boy, and depression and shame as anger directed inward for the other boy we can see that both boys get stuck in patterns that reinforce low self-esteem, self-rejection, negative self-concept, and interpersonal difficulties
Clinical Focus Week: Anger
The purpose of Anger Week is to help our adolescent clients witness in themselves what they feel, what they experience, and how they react in the context of anger. The activities of the week provide important insight into how each client relates to anger, and the roadmap for supporting their shift into healthier ways of being during individual and family therapy sessions.
Our Anger Week curriculum is stacked with a variety of exercises, both psycho-educational and experiential, that help our clients explore the concept of anger, and what feels safe or threatening about accessing and expressing it. In the group setting they get to learn about anger in the context of self-love and non-judgmental acceptance, empathy and compassion.
An example of one of the exercises we do is Somatic Mindfulness; we call it The Anger Exchange. In pairs, our clients take turns expressing anger. One boy begins with “I feel angry when…” and completes the sentence with something that feels true for him. When he’s finished speaking, his parter, without judgement or comment, thanks him for his share and expresses his own experience of anger. The boys go back and forth, expressing anger and receiving acceptance, then listening to an experience of anger and offering acceptance.
Throughout this exercise, our clients are guided to consider the thoughts, emotions and physical sensations they’re experiencing while sharing with their partner. We invite them to think about their experience without judgement of themselves or trying to change or moderate any part of what they’re feeling: only to notice and be curious about these things.
Once all the boys feel they’ve shared enough, the therapist draws the outline of a body on a whiteboard. Each pair is invited to talk about the different experiences they had during the exercise. Using a colored marker, they illustrate on the body outline where they noticed different emotions and physical sensations during the exchange with their partner.
Each boy sees that the thoughts, feelings and sensations he experienced are unique to him, and that others may have a different and equally valid experience of anger.
The purpose of this exercise is to demonstrate that there is no right or wrong way to experience anger—and to promote a greater with connection how they relate to their anger and all that comes with it.
Moving toward a new experience of emotion
Teenagers use shame, self-criticism, and self-judgement to disconnect from themselves and their environment. By holding onto a belief about an emotion such as anger—that it is good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, right or wrong—teens organize their identity around dysfunction. They see themselves as bad, wrong or unhealthy.
By connecting with adolescent clients through the curriculum of Clinical Focus Weeks, we teach them how to know themselves through presence and empathy, how to shelve judgement in favor of curiosity, and how to accept that they are emotional beings by seeing all the ways their hearts, minds and bodies react. We empower our young clients to take ownership of their own healing.
Is your child acting out at home or school? Are they lashing out angrily or withdrawing into themselves? We can help your child explore his thoughts, feelings, and experiences in a safe and non-judgement space where he can learn how to access and express himself in a more grounded and self-supportive way.
After reading this article, how do you feel about your own relationship with anger? Does it feel like a shield, or like something you want to shield yourself from? How is anger processed and expressed in your family? How about when you were a child?
There is so much to learn from this dynamic emotion, and Family First is just the beginning.
Call us to learn if Family First Adolescent Services is right for you and your child (561) 328-7370.