Teens often don’t know what they are doing or why they are doing it. They ‘live in the now’ in a way that adults often dream of. Yesterday was old news, tomorrow is a millennia away. They are also single-minded forces of nature. They are human juggernauts. They just plough on, full steam ahead.
All of this is what can make teenagers so resilient. Their interminable drive takes them places and even when they get knocked down, that momentum means they get right back up again. The problems come however, when they have taken a wrong-turn, like going down the pot-holed road of destructive anger. They often don’t know how, or even have a desire to press the brake, look at a map and correct their direction. Instead they plough on ahead, going down a road full of potholes, somehow thinking that this route is just fine.
Even when they are lying in a pothole with their wheels in the air, they don’t take the time to reassess their direction and they flip themselves over and carry on as before . Their ability to completely live in the moment prevents them from properly assessing how today’s pothole was the same as yesterday’s and tomorrow’s is likely to be the same. Even if they could do this their raging hormones and conflicting emotions damage their eye-sight so even though the holes are the same, they probably don’t look that way. Their blurred vision also means that they have little realisation that every time they land in a pothole they take out passers-by. On and on they go. Is there no stopping them?
Well the good news is that you can stop them, or at least slow them down, pot-hole by pot-hole, but timing and technique is everything. It requires a commitment of time, of patience and learning. And your tool? The anger debrief.
The Anger Debrief
In short, it is when you sit down with a young person and go over what has happened in an anger incident to try and find ways to avoid it happening again. You are gathering information so that lessons can be learned – for you and for them. Depending on the complexity of the incident and the complexity of the teen this might take ten minutes or it might require a longer term commitment of time.
Military debriefs happen after a mission has been completed. They do not happen when soldiers are firing off rounds. Same applies with anger incidents- it has to be over before you start. You don’t walk into the middle of an active battlefield, people will get hurt and plus there is too much noise. You won’t be able to hear each other.
So make sure that the battle is well and truly over. One night’s sleep is the minimum I usually give it. The emotions will be less raw “cos yesterday was like a hundred years ago”, right?
The core principle- stop and think
The baseline thing you are trying to achieve is to get them to stop moving for half a second and to get them to think. You might have to steal their wheels and they will certainly display their disgust (usually through the body language that screams ‘get lost’), but it is vital that they think. Even if they scowl and pout through the entire process and say precious little (to save face), if you are talking about the right things, I can guarantee they will at least think. Reflection is a vital thinking and life skill and important to self-development and ultimately self-regulation.
So what to talk about? Well really, what to listen about?
Make a point of emphasising that you are trying to understand what happened and are really interested in listening to them. You want to avoid this happening again and want to see what you can both do to help. This will prick their ears up if nothing else. Teens are used to you spouting, less so to you listening and talking about sorting the problem collaboratively. They are used to hearing ‘you must do this’, ‘you must do that’. Start talking about ‘we’ and they will quickly get the idea that you are serious about helping them.
Then simply ask them what was winding them up? Giving them an opportunity to voice their grievance (even if it was unfounded) is the first step to them beginning to understand, express and regulate their emotions. Try to say as little as possible, and certainly at this point don’t judge or criticise what they are saying, even if you strongly disagree. The fact that you have listened or are willing to listen even if they are not talking, counts for so much. You can then discuss with them in a very supportive manner how their behaviour affected others and how, if they really think that they have a genuine grievance that they can more appropriately address them. It’s a simple formula really: if you listen to them, they are way more likely to listen to what you have to say in return.
In many cases, they will come to realise for themselves that their problem with so-and-so wasn’t really that big after all and was actually because they were in a bad mood and that their reaction was totally over-the-top. Or they’ll admit that they were being manipulative. Teenagers can be refreshingly honest if you give them the chance and don’t force them into a defensive position.
So often if you make teenagers stop and think and let them voice their issues, they give themselves the best therapy. Don’t be tempted to talk too much at first or to give them a lecture because you can prevent them from learning and practising the art of self-talk as a way of thinking through and managing their emotions.
I know some professionals who try to avoid asking the ‘what’s winding you up?’ question to the more emotionally volatile and aggressive teens because they believe that asking it will only cause them to fly-off-the-handle again. “It revisits the site of their anger”. However, if you don’t ever ask them what was winding them up, how can you possibly help them to deal with that issue in a more appropriate way? You’ll only end up giving them generic and therefore not the best advice. You have to enter their world through enquiry if you are to ever begin to help them and when the stakes are even higher, the asking of the question is all the more important.
Whatever the level of volatility, just telling teens that their behaviour is unacceptable and going no deeper will achieve very little. While the outburst may have been unacceptable, the underlying reason may not have been. Remember they are allowed to feel angry, it’s just what they do with it that can cause problems. You can’t sweep anger under the rug with a quick ‘its unacceptable’ approach . If you want to solve the negative manifestations of it, you have to talk about the roots of it.
Yes, talking about what gets them angry can cause them to begin to feel angry. However you can ease these feelings by reassuring them, ‘I can see that this is making you feel angry and I’m only asking you about it so that we can find ways to help you cope with these feelings’. Sometimes the rawness of their emotions will then subside.
Other times they won’t and sometimes you just have to ‘run’ with their emotions and give them permission to express their anger, ‘Just let it out. Say what you want to say. You won’t get into trouble. It will help me to understand’. They will probably start expressing things that you don’t agree with, like how so-and-so is a total bitch and how she always picks on them and how that lad totally deserved to be punched etcetera, etcetera. Swearing will probably feature too. Just roll with it, don’t criticise, don’t comment. Just let them get it out.
Whether they can calmly talk about what sets them off, or whether you have to let them verbally vent, this whole process helps you help them in so many ways:
– You have given them the opportunity to be heard and they will respect you immensely for it. They are then much more likely to open up to you which can only help them.
– By listening you validate the anger emotion and clear up a big source of confusion for them- anger is not bad of itself, it is just when it is destructively expressed. Again, this increases their chances of openly and honestly talking with you as they need not feel shame about their anger.
– By not passing judgement on their initial explanation of their anger outburst they will see that you really want to understand, which will motivate then to express themselves in the clearest possible way they can. The more they do this, the less they will come to rely on derogatory terms and language. (I’m always amazed at how they self-regulate their language when they feel they are being listened to).
– With clear expression their triggers will be more easily identified and you can work to avoid them being pressed, or in situations where they do get pressed, finding ways of helping them to cope and to regulate their behaviour.
Looking for pointers
Particularly with the more emotionally volatile ones, simply asking them about their triggers will probably not get you to the absolute root of their anger. Yet by letting them voice their surface grievances uninterrupted you can be on the receiving end of a whole list of potential pointers as to what the real underlying cause may be.
One girl I worked with was forever getting in trouble for being ‘gobby’ to members of the public, to the police, pretty much everyone, or so it seemed. But by letting her talk about how ‘so-and-so really pissed her off’ and how ‘that copper deserved it’, it soon became clear that she had a major problem with men. By letting her talk it was uncovered that even though on the face of it her anger outbursts were not gender-specific, they actually were. Hidden from open-view was the vital detail that prior to every incident there would be some form of what she perceived as a negative interaction with a man. This would stress her out, and she would then go somewhere and behave in a way that caused members of the public or police, male or female to verbally object to what she was doing, and then she would vent, uncontrollably.
After further exploring this hypothesis, it then came pouring out how she had been hit by her step-father for years and this was why she found any interactions with men a stressful experience. This then physically manifested itself with her kicking rubbish everywhere or doing some sort of criminal damage, which then caused passers-by or police to intervene and then she would verbally abuse them.
We were then able to work through her experiences surrounding her step-dad and how that affected her interactions with men and how she could more appropriately deal with those feelings. After that point amazingly she didn’t get in trouble again. It was like a switch being turned off in her head.
This was after five years of fruitless anger management programmes, where triggers were explored, but that never went beyond the surface triggers. Apparently she would always say that it was ‘people telling her what to do’ that made her angry, or ‘people not minding their own business’. The person working with her would then effectively gag her and stop her from going any deeper by trying to address her surface triggers. She didn’t feel inclined to go any deeper because she didn’t feel very listened to and because the real issue was not being addressed, her behaviour didn’t change. She spent many nights in police cells and very nearly ended up in a secure unit for it.
It is so important to realise that two line explanations of triggers will often not suffice, and particularly so for the most volatile and aggressive. You will need to commit to properly exploring those triggers in your debriefs to see what the real root cause is. If after your first debrief session you feel that there is more than a simple issue to address and that you cannot commit to a full exploration make sure they are referred on to someone who can. Just leaving it and hoping it will go away will not work.
So once you have explored triggers or ‘what winds them up’ then you can work towards finding ways to avoid the triggers and/or find ways of expressing their anger more appropriately. It is only by listening first, that you will be able to provide the necessary personalised approach to addressing their anger issues.
As I said in my previous post, a one-size-fits-all approach to anger management rarely works. I think this is largely because such an approach doesn’t involve listening to them enough which is what they crave. That, and to be understood by others and to understand themselves. And to achieve this they need to overcome their teenage urge to carry on regardless and be given the time to stop and think. Just stopping them and quickly dishing out a sanction will not work without the listening element on your part and the thinking on theirs. To this end the anger debrief is a must.
To learn more about how to help teens with their anger, watch this video…
Want to read more about the book including what’s included and reviews? Click on the banner below.