The Anger Debrief for Workers

In every situation, good or bad, there is always something to be learned. Whether it is a ‘yes, I really got that right’, to an ‘oops, I really screwed up there, must have a rethink’ or somewhere in-between, progress will only be made if we open ourselves up to critical reflection and constantly try to improve.

This is often the fundamental barrier that we try to overcome when helping others. Often they do ‘screw up’, problem is their solution is often to bury their heads in the sand and continue to make the same decisions and act in the same way. What they need to do is take the time to honestly reflect on their decisions and actions and to assess whether there is a better way.

In last week’s post, ‘The Anger Debrief for Teens’ we looked at the importance of stopping, reflecting and reassessing for teens. This week it’s time to turn the mirror around and to take a look at ourselves.

Nobody likes to look in a mirror and face the possibility of having to reflect on how they’ve stuffed up. It requires honesty, a desire to improve and a willingness to accept and embrace our vulnerability so we can make ourselves better. This applies to teens. This applies to us as their workers or their parents. We can’t expect them to do what we ourselves are not prepared to do.

In the context of debriefing an anger incident (or series of incidents) from your perspective there is one overriding question that needs to be asked:
What was my role in it?

By turning our attention to trying to answer this question we can take the positives, the ‘what worked’ and add it to our permanent toolkit. We can also pick apart the ‘what didn’t work’, assess why and decide whether it is a strategy that needs to be resigned to a great big hole in the ground never to see the light of day again, or whether it needs to be used more carefully, in the right situation with the right person. We can then consider more appropriate strategies for a particular teen and good strategies in general. In doing this we can only get better at what we do. Our work evolves, it becomes a refined, nuanced, sensitive, responsive, informed engagement with teens rather than a generalised, clumsy, all-power-to-me and none-to-you disengaging process.

So what do I mean by ‘your role in it?’. Well it can be broken down into a number of questions.

Did I encourage it?

This particularly applies when talking about manipulative anger or anger that is purely a performance to get you Teen Anger Management Explicit book advert 125or others to comply with their wishes (see post ‘Reading Anger: Performance or Rage?’ for the difference).

Teens are strategically shrewd beings. If they see a strategy that works, they will use it whenever they can (even when they don’t particularly need to). So if you are going round and round in the same behavioural dance with a teen it is really important to stop and ask yourself if you are perpetuating it as much as they are. Do you always accede to their demands and on their terms? These demands may not be verbally expressed but is what they are essentially demanding with their behaviour.

Like picking a fight with someone in the group for saying something, not because they really care what was said but because they are manipulating the situation to get some attention from you. After all negative attention is better than no attention. If you give them no attention beyond telling them off for their poor behaviour, sending them out etc. then all you are doing is meeting their need on their terms. Why on earth would they stop? Instead, make the time and effort to meet their need in a more constructive way like giving them unsolicited positive attention so they learn that they don’t need to create a situation to get your attention.

Meet the need but don’t reward the negative behaviour or you’ll see a lot more of it. Also be aware that they may meet their underlying need in a variety of ways- they may have a whole repertoire of strategies. So just because they don’t use the same strategy each time you still need to question whether it is all essentially coming from the same ‘need toolbag’ and are you encouraging them to get their old trusted tools out instead of giving them some nice new ones?

Am I just applying elastoplasts / bandaids?

If you never scrape below the surface of their behaviour and try to establish what underlying need they are trying to meet with it and help them to find appropriate alternatives (which could be achieved in your sessions with them or may require outside involvement) then you will probably not see the behaviour disappear. You can’t apply elastoplasts to teenagers. They just won’t stick. So ask yourself, ‘In dealing with this teen have I just been applying quick surface fixes?’ They might solve the problem in the very short-term but will have no longevity. This is where the anger debrief for teens is so vital. It is your way of genuinely trying to help them by going deeper.

Do I have a big-head?

You do not have all the answers. If you think you can fix all teenagers, single-handedly then you are Lose the person TWdeluded. If you think you can just talk them all better then you are also deluded. Different teens have different needs and therefore require different methods of help. So after anger incidents you seriously have to ask, ‘Is my strategy way off-the-mark?’ ‘Is it me that is getting in the way of progress?’, ‘Do I need to try something else?’, ‘Do I need to loosen my grip over the intervention?’

Also ask yourself ‘Am I communicating my message to them in a way that they can grasp?’ If their anger comes from a place of low self-esteem, talking about how to boost their self-esteem probably won’t work and the anger outbursts will continue. Often trying to talk to them about what makes them feel crap is precisely what will press their buttons. Getting them involved in something like volunteering that gives them that feeling of worth to other people and gets them thinking outside of themselves speaks way more than words. Their self-esteem will likely rise and their anger subside.

Are their anger eruptions as a result of high stress levels and no appropriate output? In which case putting them on spot all the time asking them about their feelings will probably push their stress levels into the danger zone and may cause an eruption. It might be that getting them involved in a sport to release tension, to channel their adrenaline into something positive may be the tool they need to help them control their emotions.

Whoever the teen, a whole package of measures usually works the best in my experience and often your role can end up being quite small in the general scheme of things. Don’t think you have all the answers. Having as broad a range of strategies and tools at your disposal and learning from experience when and where to use them is all part of your anger debrief learning experience.

Am I disengaged?

Teens have an astounding ability to make us feel totally useless. We try as hard as we can to help them, but they continue to play up. In these situations it is so easy to withdraw into our shells, tolerate their intolerable behaviour and never actually address the behaviour or the issues because no matter how we try we get nowhere. We declare that we just don’t care any more.

This is when we seriously have to consider whether we are disengaged and why. Have we withdrawn because we feel ashamed that we have not been able to help them, that they have somehow beaten us? And instead of doing what is best for us, and for the teen, which is to reach out to colleagues or experts and get advice and talk about various strategies to tackle their behaviour and needs, do we trudge on, going through the motions, sabotaging any hope of change? The end result is that negative behaviours are reinforced as they are not challenged. And from this place of shame, vengeful button-pushing can occur. Their anger makes us angry and into a downward spiral we descend. They sense we don’t care, which only feeds their anger.

So you need to reflect and assess what buttons of yours they push. How do they make you feel? If you feel ashamed, why do they make you feel ashamed? Do you have personal issues that get in the way of you being able to help them? Are you obsessed with perfection or control? Does your inability to be the perfect worker or teacher and to be in complete control in this situation cause you to unravel internally? Is this why you just don’t care anymore? Do they somehow sense this? Or is it just that they sense your lack of interest in them with their finely-honed radar and is this why they keep on kicking off?

This really requires soul-searching and a real hearty dose of honesty. Yet by searching our own selves we can also end up with the positive by-product of gaining insight into the teen’s behaviour and having a new level of compassion and desire to help them.

Did I unnecessarily push them over the edge?

You will almost always play a part in them getting angry, even if it’s just because you’re wearing the same colour sweater as their Mum or Dad was when they had a big ding-dong with them that morning. But really, honestly, critically reflect on whether there is anything you can and should have done or not done to stop a situation from escalating from ‘narkiness’ and irritability to outright anger.

Do you take them to the point where their behaviour enters the unacceptability stratosphere. Yes it is they who are always ultimately responsible for their words and actions, but do you lead them there?

We dont want anger management tw SITE

I say is there anything you ‘can’ and ‘should’ do because it is ever so important that you do not cave in to avoid an escalation. If you do then you all that your teen will see is that by ‘pretend’ escalating that they will get exactly what they want. Your caving will just reinforce this behaviour, not sort it.

What I am talking about is things that you say and do that can make things worse and unnecessarily push them over the edge. If you are staying calm and sticking to your ‘message’ and this winds them up purely because they disagree, then so be it. This will be a situation where they will learn that you have boundaries, you mean it, and you are not going to be moved, even by a force ten anger hurricane. You will then have to deal with the consequences and so will they.

Several classic unnecessary petrol bombs on the barbecue I have witnessed or committed myself are as follows:

Was I ‘in their face’ longer than was necessary to get my point across?

Not backing off once you have delivered your message to give them time to process what you have said or done turns you into an insufferable nag who must be disposed of immediately, either by verbal or physical attack. To avoid this you need to give them thinking space and often actual physical space to calm down and take stock.

Did I hammer my point home with a jack-hammer?

Nobody likes being repeatedly told in a ten-minute period how their actions are unacceptable and even if you deep-down agree, the constant beration will cause you to flip. Everyone wants to maintain some sense of pride and dignity and a continuous assault will be counterproductive. Just as a jack-hammer will affect the structural integrity of concrete while a few little taps of a regular hammer will not, a tirade of disgust and disappointment will affect their core whereas a short, sharp and clear explication of the problem and why it is a problem will get through but won’t do any long-term expensive damage. If nothing else, having you continuously jabber in their ear will overstimulate an already overstimulated person. Don’t undo a good piece of intervention by overdoing it and causing them to erupt.

Did I use accusatory comments or pseudo-questions?

Things like ‘What is wrong with you?’, ‘You need to grow up’, ‘Stop being so immature’, ‘Nobody else is behaving like this’, ‘Why is it always you?’. Put yourself in their shoes. My buttons would be pressed if someone said that to me, even if there was an element of truth in it, and I’m pretty even-tempered. You are entering the territory of undermining them as a person, rather than seeking to address their behaviour. You are seeking to make them small and yourself big, a dynamic that doesn’t get good results. There are far more diplomatic ways of addressing and exploring these issues, and not in the heat of the moment, but as part of your debrief with them later when everyone is calmer.

Did I publicly ridicule them or embarrass them?

Doing this is effectively an attack on their person and they will either take flight, or most likely if they have an anger issue, fight. You should alway try to avoid dealing with them publicly and definitely not in front of their peers.

Be careful not to use them as your behavioural show-pony to demonstrate to their peers how you will not tolerate such behaviour. This is an exploitation of the situation for your ‘power’ benefits. This is not about you, it is about them.

You can’t socially ostracise or shame an often already socially ostracised and shame-filled young person into behaving. You will only push their buttons and make it ten times worse for them, and for you.

If you are in a group-setting, ask them to wait in the next room, in the corridor etc. This will hopefully give them time to calm down and will enable you to deal with them in a way that allows them to focus on themselves rather than their image management in front of their peers. They will then be much clearer that what you are saying to them is about resolution of a situation, not point-scoring.

Honest self-reflection is way more likely if you respect their emotions, even if they have not respected yours or others. Do as you would be done-by. Would you appreciate a public dressing-down in front of your peers from your manager?

Was I angry with them? Was I subsconsciously seeking revenge?

Publicly ridiculing or comparing someone in front of their peers comes from a place of anger yourself. They’ve made you look or feel little so you respond in kind by trying to make them look even smaller than you. Put simply, it’s revenge. It can also occur in private. It can also occur without you even realising.

For example, do you ever find yourself bringing up one of their biggest issues in the midst of a tense-could-tip-over-into-rage exchange?:

This could occur in public or private:
[Kid comes into school / appointment late because the bus from their group care home which is on the other side of town was late again. Worker /teacher doesn’t know this.]

‘You’re late, AGAIN. What’s the problem?’
[Grunt] I hate this bloody class/these appointments’
‘Well we all have to do things we don’t want to. You have to come so there is no point complaining.’
[Under the breath] ‘Fat git / bitch’.
‘I heard that. Don’t think that just because you are going through a difficult time at the moment that you can talk to me like that’.

{Red button pressed. Let the fireworks commence.}

I have heard far too many versions of the above conversation. Yes it is true that there are boundaries for behaviour that exist independently of what may be going on in a young person’s life and they do need to know this, but telling them in this way is not helpful. As far as they are concerned you decided to hit them over the head with the crapness of their life at a time when they are feeling emotionally vulnerable and insecure precisely because of the crapness in their life. And what do we do when feeling vulnerable and pushed that little bit too far- we get as far away from that person as possible (flight) or we shut them up by other means (fight).

Yes by all means acknowledge the difficulties in their life, but not at a point when there is a clear power / authority differential. Used in this way it becomes a weapon to make them feel small rather than an issue that needs to be compassionately acknowledge and addressed. You are deliberately trying to push their buttons (and often this is subconscious) in exactly the same way that they have pushed yours.

Revenge will ultimately get you nowhere. You will never be able to help them sort out their anger issues if they think that you are playing power games. You don’t trust someone who you think might stab you in the back, do you?

Was I listening?

When you see that a situation might escalate there is a massive tendency to internally panic as to where this could lead on the basis of previous performances and try to shut them down without actually listening to them. You try to nip it in the bud, but instead of gently using the fingertips, you get the chainsaw out and fell the entire bush. A sure-fire method to get mild annoyance to escalate to full rage.

Book cover for website

Often the most effective way to nip it in the bud, is to actually allow the grievance to be voiced, acknowledge it and deal with it there and then if appropriate, or promise to deal with it later. Most of the time you don’t actually really have to do anything other than just listen to them because once their annoyance is voiced, it leaves them and is no longer bubbling beneath the surface. Out in the open air it seems a lot smaller to them than how it feels when it is crammed inside them. Their anger loses its fizz.

A large part of managing an angry young person is in helping them to voice their feelings, so to try and shutdown them down when you see they are a little riled about something is the worst thing you can do. You can end up leading them to the anger place that you are so desperately trying to avoid.

Was I calm?

Kids and teens reflect what is in front of them. That’s why when they are angry, you can so often get angry. And it’s not just about what you say, it’s about what you do. So when debriefing an incident consider ‘What did I do with my body?’ ‘What did I do with my voice?’ ‘How did that affect what they did?’

If you get riled and start shouting or raising your voice, they will do the same. What you want them to do- do it yourself. If you want them to stop shouting, talk quietly. If you want them to calm down, take a relaxed posture in your chair (even if it feels like the exact opposite of what you want to do and actually makes you feel quite vulnerable). Don’t discuss an issue with you both standing because whoever is the taller will naturally feel more in control. Level the playing field and they will feel less under attack and so will you. Don’t wag your fingers, don’t put your hands on your hips. Be as physically passive as you can. In these conditions more measured emotions and communication will hopefully win the day.

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So in trying to address anger issues in teens they have to be honest with themselves and so do we. Unless we constantly seek to identify and address any weaknesses in our work and celebrate and build on our successes then we are at best lazy and at worst damaging. Of course we won’t always get it right and at times it feels like we are flying by the seat of our pants. But over time the good strategies and our ability to identify when to use them becomes more natural, more intuitive. The good work lays down roots and the not-so-good stuff rots down and fertilises. We just need to take the time to identify the difference. It helps us to grow, and helps the teens we work with to grow too.

To learn more about how to help teens with their anger, watch this video…

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1 comments On The Anger Debrief for Workers

  • Stephan Friedrich

    I love this article. Sam really hits the nail on the head. I like the idea that we always mean well, our intentions are usually good as youth workers, but being human, we are susceptible to the dynamics of relationship, to what we bring into our work, and in particular to psychodynamic forces such as transference, counter-transference and projective identification. And as the article suggests the way to prevent falling into it and having our ‘buttons pushed’ is to actively reflect. This means analysis of situations, including our own reactions, placing incidents in theoretical context and truthfully answering Sam’s question; ‘What did I do..?’

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