Antecedents of Anger Management

Antecedents of Anger Management
How, when, where and what you do to express your anger depends
upon your internal construction. One or more of the six major
“conditions,” mentioned in previous articles could compromise this
process. A lesser condition, but one that is very important is
our family-of-origin training. In other words, what did we learn
when we were growing up about managing our feelings, including anger?
Most family members have squabbles, especially when there are
children. I think the amount of conflict family members
experience increases exponentially (vs. arithmetically) with each
additional child after the first one. Imagine what kind of
emotional environment likely exists when four or five kids are
running around. Conversely, there are studies that suggest when
there are more family members, each person in the family is
compelled to deal with the others, and is more likely to develop
“people skills,” including managing feelings. In this case social
intelligence is hammered out on the anvil of increasing contacts
and conflicts.
The most important source of information about how to handle
anger comes from our parents. Were they calm? Did they
communicate (with words, too)? Did they sit on their hands when
they talked? Or, did something else happen?
The dark side of anger management is when people do all the
things that are the antithesis of assertiveness. On the passive
side, that could mean shutting up for a while or even for a very long
time. (This is one source or cue for the development of Type II, vs.
Type I anger problems. It also sets the stage for later experiences
of anxiety, depression and/or addictions.) Or, your parents could
have yelled and wildly gesticulated. (The stereotype of the Italian
family with everyone waving their arms in the air while raising their
voices comes to mind. I’m not big into stereotypes and I’ve worked
with plenty of Italians who don’t do this, so don’t send me any email….)
The dark side of anger (mis)management is violence. This could be
verbal and/or physical. This does a lot of psychological damage
but first it communicates that acting out is OK when one is mad.
If it is paired with alcohol or drug use, then later, one is going
to be more prone to act out when intoxicated, or worse, will seek to
get intoxicated to let out anger. This is true of both Type I and
Type II folks. These are the folks who can become very nasty after
a few drinks.
In our family-of-origin experiences can be found the seeds of
our present biases, tendencies and/or proclivities. If Mom and Dad
were “cool” when they got angry, the chances are pretty good we will
be, too. Always? No. These are just psychological starting
points that we automatically, usually unconsciously, consider when
we are prompted to become angry and/or express/experience anger.
If Mom and Dad “rage-out,” as one recent teenaged client told me,
we will more readily consider that as an option when we get mad.
If there is violence associated with anger, a child will quickly
learn to hit or generally “aggress” when frustrated. Children have
something of a natural tendency to try hitting with or without seeing
parents or older siblings do it. If parents and/or siblings hit,
younger children quickly get the message that it is OK. This
pattern of behavior will tend to become “extinct” if curtailed.
Sometimes, simple lack of reinforcement works. In other words,
don’t give it attention. Better yet, model an assertive behavior
to deal with anger, and the tendency to hit to express anger diminishes.
This process starts early in a child’s life. We learn very
quickly how we are supposed to “be” when we have certain experiences.
So, when we are two or three years old and we see our parents or older
siblings behave in respectable ways when they are cranky, we
immediately begin to absorb that behavior pattern. The same is true
if our parents and older siblings act out. Because we are only two
or three years old, we won’t exactly be good at copying these behaviors
right away, but the blueprint is presented and quickly cements into
place. Kids, especially very young ones, are like sponges. They
absorb everything uncritically. What they absorb is the “norm” from
their point of view, because they have no basis of comparison
(with other families when they are that young) and because kids that
young have no logical or rational abstract ability. As we mature,
good and bad patterns are both reinforced. Later, the stable patterns
begin to control our thoughts and behaviors. Over time, they become
the “default” settings, so to speak, guiding us automatically,
instructing us about what might be the normative behaviors when we have
negative emotions. We learn what cues, circumstances and other
environmental triggers should or will elicit our behaviors, good or bad.
For better or worse, if not altered, this will go on for years, even a
whole lifetime.
-Dr. Griggs

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