Reading Anger: performance or rage?

In the previous post, ‘Anger is my friend’, we explored the vulnerability, the confusion and some of the seeming contradictions of anger through the voice of a teen. In this and future posts I want to take this further and explore how to practically achieve some of the things mentioned in that post so that we can help angry teens break out of negative self-defeating behaviour and help them process their anger in a more positive way.

One of the first steps in effectively dealing with anger in a teen is knowing what you are really dealing with, and this will vary from person to person, from situation to situation. At its very base level it is all about ‘reading’ their anger and establishing what they are trying to achieve by being angry and assessing the level of control of their actions. It is only by taking this step that we can appropriately deal with the angry teen in front of us.

The core distinction is between a controlled performance and out-of-control rage. Often ‘anger’ is merely a ‘baring of teeth’ performance like when you initially step on a dog’s territory. They are very much in control of what they are doing and in essence they are trying to manipulate you or a situation with their anger. They may experience a physical feeling of anger so it isn’t completely fake, but it is something they control. Their anger is a means to an end, with the end making you go away, or making you chuck them out of class, for example. With out-of-control rage, however, there is a sense that they are a savage dog that really could bite, although they might not. You just don’t know what’s going to happen next, and that’s a bit scary.

It is vital that you can tell the difference between these two sorts of anger as your approach to each will vary massively. You will be better able to target your response in the midst of it all, later in terms of sanctions, and in the long-term in how you ultimately try to help them address their underlying anger issues. Use the wrong approach for the wrong type of anger and you will likely get absolutely nowhere.

One classic example of misread and misunderstood anger that led to inappropriate sanctions within my workplace Lose the person TWinvolved a lad who repeatedly told workers to ‘fuck off’, no matter what they were talking about. They were incensed, told him this was outrageous behaviour, reported him to their managers (and to the courts on a couple of occasions), ‘I’m not tolerating this angry rude boy’ and he was moved onto someone else’s caseload.

Then his file landed on my desk. And surprise, surprise, when I met with him, he repeatedly told me to ‘fuck off’ through our first session, then the second, and so it went on until about the fifth session. It was unpleasant, but he wasn’t in my face with it, and it was obviously a fairly benign strategy to make me go away. So I ignored it and eventually he stopped. He then even started to engage with me and we did some great work that led to significant change in his life.

The problem was that he had used his swearing strategy with so many workers before me and with great success. They had responded in exactly the way he wanted them to. His swearing was a calculated strategy that worked a treat for him and protected him from the vulnerability of addressing his real anger issue- that he had repeatedly experienced violence at the hands of the men in his life. So for him, being allocated yet another worker wasn’t a sanction, it was a present.

Furthermore, by workers repeatedly not ‘reading’ his anger correctly and employing the wrong sanction, his negative and confused view of workers and adults in general was confirmed. On a very deep level his confusion about attachment was reinforced. He needed and deep-down wanted attachment, but he was scared of the reaction to ‘putting himself out there’, of being rejected again. So he threw up a smokescreen of anger to divert people from his real issue and to make them go away, which only reinforced his idea that workers didn’t really give a damn about him because they ended up dumping him. His self-fulfilling prophecy worked brilliantly.

So going for a heavy-handed, ‘I’ll report you’ approach was completely counterproductive. It didn’t help him one jot and gave him exactly what he wanted. Perseverance and a gently-gently approach was required while he tested me out. On the sixth time of meeting with him he clearly decided I wasn’t so bad and we took the first steps to really interacting and getting to the root of his real anger. That couldn’t have happened however, without that initial step of reading his anger and establishing what he was trying to achieve with it.

It is not only the young person that benefits if you read their anger accurately either. A personal benefit for you is that you better preserve your emotions and your sanity. You don’t end up feeling and exhibiting a danger response when it is only a performance. When you see the manipulation for what it is, it is far easier to stay perfectly calm and respond in a measured way, benefiting them and you.

Obviously ignoring a behaviour isn’t always the best strategy. With the swearing lad, ignoring him was the most powerful and appropriate sanction in that situation. His sanction from me was that he didn’t get what he wanted. Sometimes it feels like we need to be seen to be doing something to deal with inappropriate behaviour. Actually it is often doing nothing (on the surface anyway) that garners the best results. Being ‘all over a kid’ for performance behaviour is often the biggest reward you can give them and only encourages them to continue this behaviour.

I appreciate that this approach is easier to adopt in a one-on-one situation (although there are clearly limits as to what you can ignore) and is much harder to apply in a group setting like a classroom or youth club. You want to send out a consistent behaviour message to all of the kids, so nipping poor behaviour in the bud is important, and consequently ignoring isn’t always really an option.

In this context you need to consider what they are trying to achieve with their behaviour. Are they just trying to wind you up because they’re bored? Do they want to be thrown out the class so they can meet up with some mates they’ve seen out the window? Are they stressing out that you’ve just suggested an activity that they think they are hopeless at and they don’t want to be embarrassed in front of their mates? Are they finding the work too hard and want to avoid having to do it? What’s their game? Once you work this out, which will require some quick thinking, make sure you do not give them what they want. By all means, meet the underlying need if appropriate, like assisting them with the work, or indirectly reassuring them that you are THE worst basketballer in history and distract them from their embarrassment with a demo, but don’t inadvertently meet the need in the way they want you to. It will only reinforce this negative behaviour response. This is your opportunity to show them that there are more positive, constructive methods of meeting their needs and overcoming their fears than running away.

More often than not, the anger you see will be primarily about manipulation and will be a performance. Rage is also a form of manipulation and it often appears when other forms of manipulation have failed. The young person descends into a blind panic and will do anything to get what they want. However, at the point when the ‘fight or flight’ response kicks in, the adrenaline surge occurs and they can’t think straight, the manipulation ceases to be controlled and enters out-of-control rage territory.

The beginnings of rage are usually identifiable when verbally expressed anger becomes physical- when violence is expressed towards another person, when the wall has to be punched, or when the angry crying starts. It doesn’t have to result in violence towards another, just in an outward physical manifestation. This is when you really start to wonder what they are going to do next. There is a sense that they might explode. This is the golden moment where you reading the situation accurately and quickly will maximise the chances of you being able to de-escalate their anger and for you to stay in control of the situation.

Your top priority at this point is to de-escalate. Even if the beginnings of their rage is as a result of you already discussing their behaviour, drop it. It can be picked up again later when they are calmer and you might approach it slightly differently in light of this response.

We dont want anger management tw SITEThe keys to de-escalation are ensuring they have physical space and are at least a room away from whatever or whoever is stimulating their anger (this may well be you or another teen), you need to stay calm yourself and you need to give them mental space to calm down.

When people are panicking about what someone might do, they often talk more than they usually do, and this applies to professionals too. In this situation it is imperative that you resist the urge to over-talk. You’ll only end up further overstimulating an emotionally overstimulated person and it will only wind them up more. Don’t choose that moment to tell them that their behaviour is unacceptable and to deliver your moral sermon. Don’t deliver notice of your sanction either. You’ll only be told where to go. There is plenty of time for that later. I have witnessed the catastrophic effects of such an approach, many a time. The results are not pretty- don’t go there.

Try and stay as cool and calm as possible. If they sense you are riled, then their anger will only feed off your anger and de-escalation becomes much much harder. This is where saying less and keeping it very simple often helps.
Your top priority is to get them down from the peak of their anger and to give them the mental and physical space they need to calm down. Give them the barest and simplest of instructions- “go and wait outside please. I will come and speak to you in five minutes” for example. If they want to leave the building, let them. The alternative is a bop on the nose, a broken window, or a hole in a wall. I know which one I opt for every time. Yes, it would be better if they didn’t walk out, but you can factor that into the sanctions equation when you deal with them later. Top priority is to keep yourselves and others safe (and them) and letting them choose the ‘flight’ rather than ‘fight’ option is one way to do this.

In tackling their rage in this way, you preserve your own dignity and save them from doing something that they could really regret. No serious damage is done and they will come to respect you at some level, for having retained control of the situation. When children and teens are angry and it is allowed to spiral, they themselves feel very unsafe because they don’t know what they are going to do next either. By staying in control of the situation and managing them effectively, they will begin to associate you with safeness. This can only help them to feel safe enough to hopefully eventually share with you the deeply personal issues of their lives, and allow themselves to be emotionally vulnerable in your presence. Then you can get down to really helping them change their lives and their behaviour.

No anger intervention works unless the anger is read correctly and treated for what it is- controlled manipulation or out-of-control rage. You could deliver the most kick-ass anger management interventions but if you apply the wrong sort of intervention or sanction to the wrong sort of anger, then I’m sorry, but you’ll get nowhere. I think that’s why so many anger management interventions just don’t work. They’re too general and they don’t appreciate the complexities of anger as an emotion. For most young people, the vast majority of the material is irrelevant to them as individuals. Considering what you really have in front of you is the first and arguably most important step in addressing a young person’s anger, because from that point, all else follows.

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7 comments On Reading Anger: performance or rage?

  • So much good advice here! Both Shae and I have worked with youth that have anger problems and there’s a lot of wisdom in what you’ve written.

    A couple of other things I’d add:

    1) Talk in a relatively quiet voice with youth that seem like they’re going to get physical. This not only makes you seem less threatening, but it can also help encourage them to tone things down a little, rather than you escalating their behavior through trying to shout over them.

    2) Give them a better option than their current behavior. This is something we were taught when working as group home parents. They suggested we say “What you’re doing right now is…….., a better choice is …….”

    You obviously don’t want to make this patronising, but giving an alternative choice can help with de-escalation as their anger means they’re not always thinking straight about what the best option is.

  • Hi Stephen,
    Thanks for the encouragement and additional excellent advice!

  • i like how u r going toward the heat here. it’s scary for everyone. very contagious too. keep on.

  • Another aspect of anger with teens, is some teens feed their anger through angry music. They identify with it, connect, and adds fuel to their negative emotions, and in real life, emulate the anger that they consumer through their iPods, YouTube, MTV and car stereos.

  • Really good point. Shall definitely pay more attention to that in future work. Thanks for commenting.

  • Sometimes rage and aggression are related to a physical state called “immature adrenaline system overreactivity” by my father inlaw, who recently published a book about it.

    This sort of behavior is often mistakenly associated with bipolar, autism, MR and other MH disorders. Sometimes it is even misdiagnosed as Bipolar NOS (from DSM-IV).

    He published his information because he has successfully treated patients in all those categories *without psych drugs*. Sometimes the results are rapid.

    If you know of a family dealing unsucessfully with rage, let them know about this new information so they can find out if it is applicable to them. The book title (website same name) is Hope for the Violently Aggressive Child.

  • Thanks I find this post very useful, my son is very in touch with his anger, and all that you explain is what I and his care workers face. I will certainly share this article with them.

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