'Rethink' offers the skills needed to control anger

July 03, 1993|By Mary Jo Kochakian | Mary Jo Kochakian,The Hartford Courant

Poorly handled anger is a deep well of misery -- the source of family unhappiness, a slew of psychopathologies, and violence both in the home and in the streets.

The crushing thing is, it doesn't have to be that way.

Anger is normal. It's a part of everyone's life. Although there has been plenty of research on what causes anger, how best to handle it and the problems it creates, that information is not common knowledge, or standard practice.

Most of us are still responding to anger in the way we saw our parents do it -- and that could include forbidding the expression of it, withdrawal, a lot of yelling, or violence -- none of which promotes emotional well-being.

Rather, it causes the opposite, notes Rhoda Baruch, president of the Institute for Mental Health Initiatives in Washington.

The list of ills linked to uncontrolled or chronic anger, she says, includes depression, low self-esteem, an inability to handle one's feelings -- "a sense of humiliation we've learned lasts a lifetime" -- substance abuse, drug addiction, school failure, child abuse.

"The flight from anger results in chronic hostility, and the effects often boomerang."

Mixing the research on anger with a real-life approach, the institute offers a program of anger management with the acronym Rethink. "We're trying to teach people that there are many options for dealing with anger," Ms. Baruch says.

"There are skills that are very teachable."

Not that it comes easily. It requires awareness and effort. "You have to catch the moment and say, 'What else can I do?" Ms. Baruch says. "It does take practice." Reinforcement helps a lot. If you're trying to learn without professional help, she suggests finding some parents to work with.

Parents' anger is often provoked by normal, if irritating, behaviorelated to a child's stage of development. For example, a 2-year-old will pour water on the floor, Ms. Baruch says.

By learning what is expectable at different stages, parents can anticipate and then plan responses.

The institute offers workshops in anger management for kids and parents, and it has developed pamphlets and videos as well.

Through a songwriting contest it held, there's also a song, "Take Another Look."

The Rethink skills are:

* Recognize anger in yourself, and in children's behavior, anrealize when it is a manifestation of other feelings, such as fear, stress, shame, fatigue or embarrassment.

* Empathize. Try to see things from the child's point of viewWhat is he or she thinking, feeling, experiencing? See if you can recall having the same childhood experiences.

Teach children to practice stepping back from an attack of anger, and then be empathetic.

Just as you are trying to understand how your child feels, help him or her understand how you are feeling.

Use "I" messages; "I feel angry when . . ." rather than "You make me angry when . . .," which blames.

* Think. Often, anger comes from how we look at things. Can you think about the same situation in a different way? Can you find humor in it? What can you tell yourself to change the way you feel? Help kids learn to do the same.

* Hear what the other person is saying. Try eye contact. Repeat what you are hearing to see if you really understand what your child is saying. You can teach children to listen "actively," to discern the feeling as well as the content of what's said.

* Integrate respect and love with an honest expression of what is making you angry.

Sometimes children are afraid to express anger for fear of losing parents' love. Let your child know love isn't contingent on good behavior. ("I was angry that you broke the glass, but I still love you.")

* Notice your body's reaction as you get angry: increased heart rate; change in breathing; a headache, stomach pains or muscle tension. Learn to bring yourself under control.

Do whatever works, such as long walks, a run, rethinking, telling yourself "I'm OK," counting to 10.

* Keep your attention on the present problem. Don't bring up old grudges. Keep your focus on the action causing the problem. Keep personalities out of it. Keep your attention on the task and on alternate solutions.

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