The aim of this Post is to share an understanding of what may lie beneath angry behaviour, how Strengths-Focused Coaching can help and how re-building a negative identity can be challenging.
(At times, I will use ‘YP’ for ‘young person/people’.)
It was September: a new term. In a classroom, 16 year-old Tia, had arrived late for her lesson. When questioned about her lateness, she became aggressive. She refused to do as asked, shouting and lashing out at anyone who came near her. Her violent reaction was frightening for all.
The most frightened person was Tia but she couldn’t say: ‘I’m frightened’. She later explained that on trying to find her classroom, she had felt anxious. She had interpreted her teacher’s questions as criticism and then erupted in what presented as an extreme and bewildering over-reaction.
I have previously mentioned my admiration and respect for today’s educators – teachers, teaching assistants, pastoral staff, who patiently and consistently hold the needs of the young person at the centre of their actions. In Tia’s case, when all had calmed down, it was acknowledged that her aggressive behaviour was unacceptable, but that there was a clear support need and thus how could she be helped?
Tia was a victim of child sexual exploitation and there was a strong network of specialist support around her and her mum.
‘Anger Management’ – the SFC Approach
Tia was referred to me for ‘anger management’. As is often the case, beneath the anger exists gossamer threads of low self-esteem, broken identity, negative self belief. Beneath the hard shell lies a being so delicate that could seemingly be dispersed by a breath of wind.
In Strengths-Focused Coaching (SFC), the first stages are about gently discovering the whole person, modifying or rebuilding the identity. Experience has taught me that YP with ‘anger issues’ often just think of themselves along the lines of: ‘I’m angry and bad. That’s me’ (as detailed in Post 6. Identity and Strengths: Recognising and Celebrating) It’s a heavy, tiring load for a YP to carry. The brain is constantly in Fight, Flight or Freeze mode, making learning pretty much impossible. A simple instruction or a cross word from an authority figure can throw a YP’s brain into fear-inducing flashbacks, which erupt as anger, even violence. This ‘eruption’ may momentarily ‘lighten’ their load as they disperse the negative energy: but any relief is brief. The cycle of anger and self-loathing is just that: an exhausting cycle.
Experiencing anger does necessarily denote low self-esteem, trauma or abuse. As part of my role, I deliver ‘Anger Management’ workshops to help young people learn how to control this important emotion.
However, with some young people, there is a need for more than just ‘management’. Whenever I offer the opportunity for an ‘angry’ individual to initially work on their confidence and identity, they usually bite my hand off. (Not literally!)
Some of the YP don’t seem to realise that there are issues beneath the anger – they simply shrug: ‘I’m angry. I don’t know why. I just am.’
When It Feels Hopeless
As ‘supporters’ or key adults, we often absorb the sense of hopelessness that a YP in crisis can carry with them. We think: ‘how on earth can I help this person?’ A young person’s angry behaviour may frighten or offend us or trigger our own anger. The ‘hard’ or ‘this is pointless’ attitude that some YP carry is a difficult one to deal with. But remember, this is just their shell, their defence mechanism.
In my experience, often the message beneath anger is: ‘I’m hurting’, ‘I’m sad’, or ‘I’m scared’, so what they initially need is reassurance.
Tia also carried that air of hopelessness. I sensed that she had given up on herself. I could see it in her eyes. She seemed empty, tired, numb. Initially she regarded me with distrust, almost boredom.
Boundaries and Engagement Tools
So where to start? Firstly, be mindful that, in our role as SFC Coaches, we are not counselors or therapists and we must seek support when we need it and on a regular basis, or if we feel out of our depth. It is important to be clear about our boundaries and expertise, and explain this to our YP. I knew that I was not qualified to counsel Tia about sexual abuse, but I did feel qualified to try to help her to move forward, which is how I explain my role. I was not going to bring up the topic Tia’s abuse unless Tia did. She didn’t.
I suspect that without the engagement tools (as outlined in Post 2 and Post 3) and the use of key SFC skills, I would have ‘lost’ Tia in our first meeting. My role was to be empathic, open, curious but not probing. Despite her initial distrust, Tia started to open up. She completed the initial SFC activities: ‘Self Survey’ and ‘My World’, revealing as much as she wanted to about her friends, family, pets, taste in music and so on. Tia said that she liked the fact that she was ‘doing something’, and she seemed to like the fact that I was interested in her as a person. Through the activities, Tia started to inadvertently reveal some of her strengths, so I suggested we start to log these in some way. It was here that, for Tia, things became difficult.
‘Comfort’ and ‘Discomfort’ Zones
Following trauma, when the wiring of the brain has been negatively set, the unhelpful beliefs and identity tags such as:
can become the ‘comfort zone’. It’s familiar. Anything that contradicts those beliefs is the ‘discomfort zone’. So which would you choose? Seems easy?
Remember the description of being in the hole in post-5? It is an unpleasant place, but then, actually, as you inhabit it for a while, it becomes familiar, ‘safe’. The effort of climbing out of the hole becomes more frightening, painful and tiring than the effort of choosing to remain. So you convince yourself it’s an okay place to be. And if anyone tries to challenge that, you fight it, because, well, you know how to fight – its what you do.
A young man, Paul, with angry behaviour (and familiar bashed knuckles) once said to me:
but who will I be if I’m not angry?
When a young person, whose identity has been severely damaged, is presented with their genuine positive traits or strengths, or receives an innocent bit of praise, it can trigger painful reactions including discomfort, anxiety, disbelief, anger, sadness, shame. Why do you think that might be?
Tia’s World: the Troubles and the Triumphs
To briefly walk in Tia’s world: during the ‘grooming’ process, whereby the perpetrators of her abuse were trying to attract her, Tia was often ‘praised’ and told that she was lovely, clever, pretty. Later on, they were critical, harsh, frightening, unpredictable. What parallels can you draw with some of the flash points in Tia’s behaviour?
So, just when things had seemed to be going well after some productive sessions, Tia suddenly became defensive. She could not accept her positives. Although initially agreeing to the creation of her Strengths Chart, when she looked at it she said,
That’s not me, I don’t recognise her.
We had hit a wall and it hurt.
What would happen next? Read post-8 to find out. But we will depart from Post 7 on the following positive note….
When a young person becomes defensive or seems to suddenly put up barriers, we can feel frustrated, sad, drained, even question our own skills and effectiveness. This is the time to talk to an understanding colleague, Supervisor or Line Manager. Make an appointment to talk it through. Or use this Blog space.
Reflect here on what Tia HAS achieved:
- she is attending college and trying to gain qualifications
- she has accepted support and turned up
- she has let me into her ‘World’ and enjoyed the fact that she was in control
- she has relaxed, smiled and talked about different aspects of herself
- she has shown trust in an adult
By walking in their world, we can also gain some perspective about OUR progress as well as theirs and see the bigger picture.
Next time: Post 8. Identity: Three Little Words the conclusion of Tia’s story.
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