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Anger Management Live with @Project Proactive

Shlomo Radcliffe joined @Project Proactive ( for a interview on anger management on July 15, 2019. Read on for a summary of key points discussed and watch the full interview below!

Anger Management: A Primer to Issues and Solutions

Who experiences anger?

Everyone! Anger results when expectations are not met. Expectations are often not met in this world... While there are differences in the way people may express anger, with some exhibiting a more physical or verbal form of anger (i.e. an aggressive or 'hot' style) and others a silent on the outside but stormy on the inside style (i.e. cold or passive-aggressive anger), anger is a regular part of the human experience for all. 

Children in particular experience difficulties with anger. One reason for this is that anger is highly connected to language development. Anger is an emotional way of saying, "My needs are not being met." Adults, can (hopefully!) express this in words, yet children often lack the language proficiency needed to express an idea like this. Instead, they may yell, hit, pout, and otherwise lose it when something goes wrong!

Fortunately, as children's language improves, aggression, tantrums, and meltdowns do decrease as well, to some extent. So verbal language matters in anger management. However, emotional language difficulties can be an even bigger problem. Verbal language helps us express our emotions, but what if we don't know what our emotions are? Some children (and many adults as well) experience difficulty in recognizing what their emotional experience is at any given moment.

Consider what we might want our child to say instead of yelling and tantruming. Perhaps, something like, "Mom, I am feeling very upset right now." That's emotional language. Children can feel anger, frustration, rage, upset, hurt, and any other related feelings yet without having words for these feelings, they may be unable to express them in a helpful way (and the same goes for adults!). There's a lot of research showing that when people's emotional vocabulary improves, their ability to manage their emotions improves as well. Parents can help children build their emotional vocabulary by naming their child's emotional experience, offering them the feeling words they aren't using. "Oh, I can see you're really frustrated by this!" or "That's terrible, you must be furious!" would be some examples of this process.

Strategies like these build emotional intelligence and also simultaneously tame some of the fire - as our children feel understood and that their emotional experience is validated, they begin to become able to release those emotions. Adults can use the same process: learning more feeling words, identifying their own feelings, and acknowledging that those feelings are there to also build their own emotional intelligence and ability to self-regulate and self-soothe. 

Anger as a surface emotion - what do you really need?

Ultimately, anger is rarely experienced in isolation. Anger can be thought of as a surface emotion. Consider anger as the tip of the iceberg with many other related emotions going on beneath the surface, including anxiety, depression, sadness, fear.  This is why working on understanding on what you really need is so vital a step in anger management. 

Anger is the emotion that comes out but it doesn't necessarily help us get what we need

Often, we use anger to help us get what we think we want. However, problematic anger expression more often makes it more challenging for us to get our needs met. Anger often leads to "You" statements - you should have done this etc... which just results in people putting their walls up and getting defensive. Expressing other emotions such as hurt, or sadness, often comes in the form of "I" statements. "I'm sad that we didn't get to do this." which is more likely to lead to an empathic and helpful response from another person. 

Increase awareness of what's going on - I'm angry and, I am feeling angry

So how can we people increase awareness of other emotions? Use internal language, "I am feeling angry and" - use construct "I am feeling angry instead of I am angry". When we think "I am angry", anger is experienced as all-consuming and as defining us, expressing it as something we are feeling helps us notice that it is just one part of our current experience (there is an I who is experiencing anger in this passing moment in time...)

Increase awareness of what's going on for kids - label it

Adults can do that themselves. Adults can also label kids experiences "Oh you must be getting hungry/tired" - accuracy is important, we can't just label kids anger as something else but if we reasonably suspect that something else is going on that is strongly contributing to anger experience, labeling that is important. 

Sometimes, we can't help but be angry!

It is however also true that adults and kids can just plain be upset! Again, when expectations aren't met, anger can often result. 

Validate that anger is your experience - "calm down" doesn't work...

Regardless of whether you are helping yourself or your child, it's important to validate that anger is a normal reaction to unmet expectations. We can't really control whether we feel angry about something in the moment! This is one reason why a classic anger management intervention that of telling someone to "Calm down!" doesn't work so well...

Change what you do, not what you feel!

For this reason, anger management strategies usually emphasize changing what you are doing when anger shows up instead of not getting angry in the first place. 

Is anger bad? Differentiate between the acceptability of anger as an emotion and anger-related behaviour. 

This also connects to the question - is anger bad? Not inherently, it depends what you do after you feel anger. Anger can motivate people to change situations that need to be changed and take healthy growth-oriented actions. People doing this are not the ones anger management is designed for... in anger management we are targeting problem anger, which is defined by behaviour problems. 

Problem anger - two forms of aggressive-expressive 

Problem anger can come out in the form of aggressive behaviour. These are your classic anger signs, instantly recognizable - yelling, arguing, damaging things, hitting, etc... but other forms of anger expression too, including passive-aggressive behaviour. Keeping distance, silent treatment, glaring, cold behaviour. Both are problem anger. 

What about not expressing anger?

Okay, expression can be bad. So what about not expressing? Bottling up, keeping anger inside. Great, great, great. Except, maybe not. Keeping things inside can take a toll on our mental and physical health and ruminating is not fun! As well, even if we try to keep anger inside it can still comes out in subtle ways, i.e. being more distant, irritable. Keeping things inside may also simply eventually lead to a larger blow-up moment. 

So, what is effective anger management? 

Okay, so what then? What behavioural outcomes reflect effective anger management? Being able to express your needs, assertively not aggressively. Taking care of yourself, when your needs are not being met. Picking your battles and letting go. Taking care of your real needs (i.e. not kicking the dog..). 

Assertive vs. aggressive - what's the difference?

Assertive vs. aggressive, big part of anger management work. Recognizing that getting needs are important, but also recognizing how you express those needs matters. Aggressive - standing up for your needs while not respecting others needs, assertive - standing up for your needs while respecting others. Assertive gets us what we want more than anger does. Assertive does not mean simply speaking in a louder, stronger voice!

When things go wrong, use self-care not anger. 

Our needs are not always met and disagreements take time to resolve. So what then? Learning how to take care of ourselves when things go wrong is essential.

Take stock of how effective anger has been for you, figure out what you want to be happening...

Is anger behaviour getting you the results you want? Need to consider, what do I really want? Has what I've been doing getting me closer? If not, what would help? 

Top 3 anger management strategies for adults:

  1. Ask yourself the Big Question - What do I need do right now to be happy and healthy in the long-term?

  2. Relaxation training - Anger has a significant physiological component- we may know what we are doing is problematic, but we are simultaneously being pumped full of chemicals that engage the fight-or-flight system and the threat centers of our brain. Knowing how to tone this down is important. Things like deep breathing, mindfulness practices, and progressive muscle relaxation can be super helpful.But... relaxation techniques work best when practiced on a regular basis, when not angry - it helps to build the skill of physically relaxing so you can pull it out later when needed. As well,relaxation techniques works best at 1-6 level of anger, once anger goes past a 6, these techniques become much more challenging to use (past this point, mindfulness and other distress tolerance techniques can be quite helpful).

  3. Learn your triggers - and prepare for it while you are calm. Mindfulness helps people recognize internal triggers. To figure out external triggers, make a list of anger-provoking situations for you. Take a look at it and see if you can recognize any patterns. Whatever your triggers, plan alternative behaviours and strategies you can use when you are starting to get triggered or anticipate entering into a triggering situation.

What about kids?

Kids ability to self-regulate is significantly worse than adults (surprise!). The younger the child is, the more the parent acts as the regulation system for the child. To a certain extent, kids can learn skills to help them manage anger and express themselves more effectively. They younger the child is, the more parents/teachers need to guide and prompt this behaviour. 

Top 3 anger management strategies for children:

  1. Teach children skills to use to calm themselves when upset with breathing (cookie breathing, other creative interventions), tension reduction strategies (i.e. do something physical like jumping jacks).

  2. Help children release anger feelings through validation and emotion coaching (show understanding, label emotions) - think of this as parent-delivered mindfulness. remember, nothing wrong with feeling angry!

  3. Help children learn appropriate alternative behaviour to use when angry and reinforce this (see for example Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice and the book Better Behaviour Now! by Sarah Chana Radcliffe )

Anger Management or Anger Relief?

Ultimately - the concept of anger management isn't that attractive! We don't want to always be managing anger, instead we are working for true relief from anger issues. Use the information in this primer to begin taking steps towards anger relief for you and yours. Take the next step towards real anger relief by clicking below to book a session with one of our therapists. We offer in-person sessions in Toronto and remote sessions for anyone in Ontario.


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