4 Long-Term Behavioral Therapy Strategies to Help Children Manage Anger

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angry boy

Helping students on your caseload to manage their anger might sometimes feel like navigating a ship through murky waters. As challenging as it is to work with students who are dealing with anger issues, you, as a therapist in a school-based therapy job, are instrumental in helping them learn to manage their emotions with a healthy mindset.

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapists, Board-Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs) and behavioral therapists would agree, especially for school-based therapy jobs, that any issue should be treated at the root to achieve long-term results.

Thankfully, there are long-term strategies that a school-based therapist can employ to help students who express anger.  With the big picture in mind – children permanently overcoming anger – let’s focus on four key strategies:

  1. Reinforce the truth: “Anger can become habit, but you can change”

Anger is a secondary emotion – a response to fear or hurt (whether real or perceived.) Built on a desire for justice, unmanaged anger can morph into a desire to obtain power.  Students might hold onto anger because it gives them a feeling of control.  Like any negative habit, anger can even become a hard-to-break addiction, further breeding notions of futility-of-effort – even resulting in personal identification with anger (e.g. “I am an angry kid”). It’s critical for students to understand efforts to improve are not futile.

Many headlines have traced anger to a so-called “anger gene.” But, as Psychology Today acknowledges:“Epigenetics tells a different story.  We can, in fact, influence how our genes behave…Genes are like light switches. Based on what we do, some switches will turn off and some will turn off.”   Think of an epigene as a covering over the gene:  when a person acts angry, the body is negatively affected on a cellular level, triggering reactions in the brain and heart (and even the stomach, since neurons are found there too!)

As the saying goes, people are free to make choices, but not free from the consequences of those choices – at least not immediately, and not without hard work.  Be sure students struggling with anger issues understand that they can choose whether or not to express anger.  It may “feel” unnatural for them due to the negative habit, but habits can be broken if desired – and healthy habits become will become “second nature” –  their minds and bodies will gravitate toward calm and thoughtful responses to adverse situations, whether real or perceived.  As a school therapist – whether practicing speech therapy, counseling, behavioral therapy, applied behavioral analysis, psychology or social work –  you can help students imagine what victory over anger “looks like” – and help foster the hope of overcoming anger.

  1. Introduce the concept of choosing forgiveness

Forgiveness has been receiving more press in recent years.  It’s easy to see why – there is plentiful evidence – including from top-tier research universities like Stanford – that forgiveness works.  The practice (and it IS practice!) is promoted by well-known entities like The Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins Medicine.

A secular non-profit organization, the International Forgiveness Institute (IFI, @ForgiveToday), is helpful in defining what forgiveness is, and what it isn’t.  Forgiveness is one of the hardest things to give, but it is critical to freedom from anger, rage, and related negative emotions like contempt, bitterness and smoldering resentment.

Forgiveness therapy has successfully been applied in education settings, and school-based therapists helping angry children should expect positive results. In one IFI study in Milwaukee, “68% of teachers using the curriculum observed that students decreased in their level of anger and increased in their academic achievement. In addition, 95% of teachers thought their classrooms functioned better because of the forgiveness curriculum. That same percentage said that they actually became better teachers and better people through teaching about forgiveness.”

As a school-based therapist – in any profession – you can ask students exhibiting or habitually struggling with anger or rage, questions to understand “where they are,” such as:

  • Do you like the idea of forgiveness? Why/why not?
  • How would you define forgiveness?
  • Do you want to stay angry? Why/why not?
  • If you let go of the anger, what do you think would happen?

As the IFI notes, “students should not be pressured to forgive, but are drawn to it if they wish to try it.”

  1. Offer a replacement to angry reactions: the “Golden Rule”

The Golden Rule is well-known: do to others as you would have them do to you.  In a parental guide called Helping Your Child Become a Good Citizen, the U.S. Department of Education (@usedgov) cites the Golden Rule– noting it “makes the world a more decent and civilized place.”

Now, in saying “do” something – it also means “do not do” something else!  Anger must be replaced with something positive – and you can help students arrive at a healthy mindset by guiding them to think with empathy, as this article in Yes Magazine (@yesmagazine) online describes with real-life examples for those in school therapy jobs.

Explain first to students what “not doing anger” means:  refusing to dwell on it mentally (despite emotions that rise up temporarily), and refusing to act on it physically or express it rashly.  Then, discuss why that’s important. In doing so, school-based therapists can ask a series of questions to both understand the student, and guide the student towards making better decisions.  Questions might include:

  • Has anyone exploded with anger towards you, or have you ever seen that happen? (note: if so, counseling on a specific issue may be required)
  • How did it make you feel? (help the student name the feeling precisely: for example: powerless, helpless, mad, disgusted, sad, superior, inferior, overwhelmed, confused)
  • Think of someone you care for very much. Would you want that person to feel that way? (note: if the student cannot think of a specific person, encourage use of the imagination)

Knowing that all humans are hard-wired to storytelling, and influenced by stories, according to Harvard Business Review (@HarvardBiz) – consider using an old Native American tale to illustrate the importance of making good response choices:

A Cherokee elder sitting with his grandchildren told them, “In every life there is a terrible fight – a fight between two wolves. One is evil: he is fear, anger, envy, greed, arrogance, self-pity, resentment and deceit. The other is good: joy, serenity, humility, confidence, generosity, truth, gentleness, and compassion.” A child asked: Grandfather, which wolf will win?” The elder looked him in the eye, “The one you feed.”

  1. Promote good behavior by helping students see their goodness

School-based therapists can – and should – convey the truth that bad behavior doesn’t mean the student is bad.  Self-defeating behaviors are called that for a reason:  they defeat.  Failure to mind, or to manage anger may result in shame – with the student holding the belief “I am bad,” potentially leading to bad behavior like anger explosions.

Messages that affirm goodness aren’t readily conveyed in today’s world.  You – whether you’re an ABA therapist, BCBA, social worker, counselor, psychologist, speech-language pathologist (SLP), special education teacher or other clinician – play a unique role in helping students “see” their goodness and that of others.

School-based therapists can affirm the innate goodness and dignity of the students on their caseload every day – even when they act out in anger.  For example, you might say verbally: “you know, you’re a really good kid at heart, why did you act that way?” – then listen to the student.  You might be the only person who ever did.

Have you successfully applied any of these strategies, or have any other long-term strategies for school-based anger management therapy you’d like to share?  Please comment below!

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