Each month, Dr. Levy answers a common question he has received from professionals, caregivers and parents during three decades of pioneering work on attachment theory, treatment and training.
The ability to regulate emotions and control impulses is an important stage of childhood development that typically occurs during the first three years of life. Children with attachment disorders often lack the skills to self-regulate because they have failed to master this stage-specific task. For these kids, anger management is particularly important to learn as they often act out in aggressive and violent ways.
Fortunately, anger management is a skill that can be learned by both children and adults. In therapy, we build anger management skills by teaching clients a sequence of steps they must go through to identify and understand their emotions and then, come up with ways to better cope with them. We first practice these steps in a safe setting via role-playing (i.e., therapy sessions). Next, the client practices these same steps in real-life situations.
Identify, Understand and Address
1. Identify and address underlying emotions. Anger is often just the tip of the iceberg. There are other emotions beneath the surface. Think about a situation where you become angry and name the underlying emotions.
2. Be aware of external and internal triggers (what “pushes your buttons”). There are certain situations or actions that trigger angry feelings and behavior. When someone pushes your buttons, you always have a choice in how you respond. By being aware of your triggers you can plan for a more controlled response.
3. Understand early messages received from role models. People often behave in the same ways they were taught, based on messages received and behaviors demonstrated by role models early in life. When you identify the anger messages you received, you can choose which values about anger you want to keep and which ones you want to let go of.
4. Recognize self-talk (inner dialogue). Self-talk is what you tell yourself about yourself, others and situations. These preconceived ideas and beliefs have a major impact on how you deal with conflict and anger because feelings follow thoughts. Self-talk can be positive or negative. Increasing your positive “scripts” can lead to a more positive attitude and behaviors.
5. Know your anger sequence. Anger often feels like a sudden explosion, but we know that specific thoughts and feelings come before anger. Being aware of how you think and feel in certain situations and that your thoughts and feelings usually lead to anger, will help you to de-escalate before you explode.
6. Be aware of body signals and body language. Identify what happens to your body when your anger is escalating (a fast heartbeat, clenched jaw, flushed face, stomachache, etc.). Also, know your body language. Do you seem physically or emotionally threatening? Your goal is to send non-verbal cues that lead to conflict resolution by not making others feel threatened.
7. Identify your conflict style. When you are dealing with conflict or anger are you passive, passive-aggressive, aggressive, or assertive? Assertive means you are confident, send clear messages and are in control of your emotions. If you know your conflict style you can decide how to adjust your behaviors so that you stand up for yourself, but also respect the rights of others.
Previous articles addressed questions about the Seven Functions of Secure Attachment, the Dependency Paradox, the importance of talking about trauma, the First Year Attachment Cycle, traits of successful and healthy adult relationships, the importance of hope as a part of treatment for trauma, the core concepts of child development, parenting strategies for deescalating conflict and the importance of touch to fostering attachment.