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 another article (not on this website) 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 contact and conflict.
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 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 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.
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