Anger and the importance of teaching self-control

In my work with teens, I am often confronted by the challenges young people can face when negotiating big emotions. From the broad list of emotions that young people will experience, there is perhaps none that holds more power to influence their behaviour than anger. Anger can be so very powerful as it comes with an added complexity; if not managed appropriately, consequences for self and others around them can follow.

In many ways, particularly for young men, anger has been seen as part of their masculinity. When I ask boys about what they think the most masculine emotion is, their response is most commonly ‘anger’. Girls too can feel that anger is a masculine emotion, often communicating that it isn’t appropriate for them to show anger. It seems as though society has some major misunderstandings about what anger is, who is allowed to feel it, and the appropriate ways to manage it. It’s critical for us to take charge of the conversation and teach our young people that anger is a completely natural emotion for all humans to experience. More importantly, teenagers need to learn about the counteracting discipline of self-control.

Self-control is restraint exercised over one’s own impulses, emotions, or desires (Merriam-Webster). 

Over the years, even as an adult, I have struggled at times to practice self-control when experiencing anger. How to walk away, how to be respectful in the midst of such big emotions, and how to think clearly when I’m facing an anger-inflicting scenario. Empathy is key as we consider just how challenging it can be for young people who have a less developed understanding of self-control as well as less life experience.

Teaching our teens about self-control will equip them to navigate their anger in any situation that might cause the feeling to surface. For example, instead of lashing out at their sibling or unleashing hurtful words towards a classmate, we can give our kids some preventable exercises, allowing them to take a hold of their emotions.

So here are three ways that we can support our young people when they’re experiencing anger and help them practice self-control.

  1. Label the emotion: In most cases, anger is a secondary emotion. This means we will often show anger in place of other emotions like sadness, loneliness, rejection, etc.  When young people feel angry, they can struggle to think clearly. Helping our kids to label their emotions can be a powerful skill in developing their ability to activate reasoning during a strong surge of emotion. By using simple phrases like “that made you angry didn’t it?”, you are validating their feelings and helping them build the skills to recognise what they are experiencing.
  2. Give space: Allowing space and time will give them room to calm down. For example, placing an emphasis on their breathing or getting them to slowly count to ten will give an opportunity for their prefrontal cortex (the reasoning part of the brain) to gain control.
  3. Respond by example: Respond in a way that models how you want them to behave. When our child gets angry, it’s very easy to respond with anger. If our anger mirrors their anger, we risk creating a cycle. If our response to this kind of emotional-inducing interaction prompts an angry response from us, how can we expect them to react differently? Instead, if we respond in a calm, measured, controlled way, this will guide our children around how to react in the future.

These three simple steps can help us in supporting our kids as they learn to negotiate anger. We have a window of opportunity to instill in our kids the skill set required to develop and hone these healthy behaviours that will prove invaluable for any kind of future relationship they might have.

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