Getting Angry About Anger Management

You all know the scene. The violent husband is confronted on the TV chat show. The audience boos. The host gives him a long spiel about how he needs to change. The wife nods patiently. Then the host offers him the chance to save his marriage by signing up for anger management with the show’s in-house psychologist. The husband gratefully agrees, the audience cheers and the credits roll.

What happens next? Quite possibly he goes along to six sessions of anger management, dutifully completes them…and then goes back to merrily knocking seven bells out of his wife.

In CAMHS we keep getting requests for anger management from parents, GPs, teachers and social workers, because a child “has an anger problem”. Anger management came into vogue a few years ago, and I can see why it’s attractive –  especially to policymakers. Disruption in the classroom? Youth offending? Antisocial behaviour?  Not to worry, it can all be therapied away in 6 sessions. I’ve no doubt that if I spent a while on Google Scholar I could come up with a few research papers to say that anger management is an effective, evidence-based intervention for children.

But here’s the problem. Of all the kids I’ve seen who’ve been sent for anger management, I’ve been struck by how many of them have actually benefited from it.

None of them.

A lot of anger management classes are, quite frankly, a bit dire. They talk about the causes of anger, the fight-or-flight response, about breathing techniques and distraction. All too often, what they don’t ask is, “Why is this child angry?”

Children usually don’t become automatically angry. More likely, something has made them angry. Abuse, trauma, neglect, being in an environment where anger is a default way of expressing emotion. Labelling the child as having “an anger problem” ignores the wider context.

Worse, it can reinforce child-blaming. Sending the child for anger management can give out the message from services, “Yes, we agree. The child is the problem. He’s the bad one, it’s his fault and he needs to go away and sort out the problem.” I’ve seen kids attend an anger management class, and then be handed back to their parents, who start bellowing and swearing at him before they’ve even left the reception. Those parents are the first to us that we’re rubbish, because we still haven’t sorted out their kids “anger problem”. Often they tell us this while going into a long, loud tirade about what a terrible kid he is, while jabbing an accusing finger in his direction.

Anger management not only ignores the wider context, it also focuses on one particular emotion at the expense of others. An angry child is usually a distressed child. Anger just happens to be the problem that others (parents, teachers etc) want dealt with, because they want the child to behave. Others may say that the kid has an anger problem. The kid might just feel he has a problem. Or indeed, a world of problems.

Anger management may have come into vogue, but it’s showing distinct signs of going out of vogue again, and thank God for that. Increasing numbers of my colleagues seem to be abandoning anger management in favour of actually sitting down with the child and the family to work out what the real problem is.

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8 responses to “Getting Angry About Anger Management

  1. Pingback: This Week in Mentalists – The Rhinestone Cowgirl Edition « This Week in Mentalists

  2. Great post. Interesting that I was reading this through the eyes of what we see at the other ‘end’ of the age spectrum when older adults who may have some kind of cognitive deficit are labelled as ‘aggressive’ when really what we need to be thinking of is why they are displaying the types of behaviour that they are – and all too often it relates to ways of being spoken to, inabilities to communicate or just plain frustration/boredom. Unfortunately looking for easy answers is a natural response especially in the era of increasing targets and outcome measures.

    Great blog by the way 🙂 look forward to following

  3. Pingback: Weekly Social Work Links 30 « Fighting Monsters

  4. This is an excellent post! I say this all the time; the anger comes from somewhere. (or the withdrawal, or the bullying, or the depression or self harm, or the eating disorder….~ there is a root) Something is wrong and no one seems to want to look for what it might be. And these kids grow up with that same “root” still driving them and end up as adults with difficult issues and struggles they don’t understand. That same root still has to be looked at and healed.
    Darlene

  5. Working on the problem underneath the anger just seems like common sense to me. I’m glad to see that more professionals are taking this approach now.

  6. What an excellent post I really could not agree more! I have worked with kids for many years and to be quite frank I get sick to death of kids being sent out of the lesson to go to anger management classes and for a mere 10-20mins. The result, disruption to the child’s education and a session barely long enough to say hi, you ok and see you next week! Personally, the only thing I ever got out of anger management myself years ago was more anger and more frustration…it did not help at all, it was irritating and in no way helpful because it was not dealing with the root cause. Thank you for a good read and to see something written that just goes to show exactly how I have felt for years!

  7. Excellent post. In my own experience children are often angry about a lot of things that are not within their control and the anger is an expression of feeling that they are being disadvanteaged and are unable to anything about it. I also think that for children “authority” needs to have “legitmacy” and you cant have one without the other.
    In trying to understand why children are angry do we ever ask if they feel that those who are expressing their authority have the legitimacy to do so? Perhaps if we did we would be better placed to support children and their families

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