This article is a response to Anger Management, published on May 22, 2005
Anger management is quickly becoming all the rage in America, serving as the generic remedy for anyone that gets a little hot under the collar once in awhile. In truth, anger is one of the emotions that we all have to deal with in our lives. We could probably all use some anger management tips at times. How we respond to our anger is the dividing line between the everyday angry person and the person who tries to use their anger as a weapon. The problem with the acceptance of the cure-all anger management solution, however, is that it can be dangerously misleading to those who are living with someone who has much more than just an “anger problem.”
More than Just an Anger Problem
Hearing the term anger management still makes me wince a little. In the five years that I spent working with women and children who were abused, I cannot even count the number of times when victims of violence were misled into believing that their abuser had an “anger management” problem. The abuse of the term anger management spreads far and wide.
It starts in the home, with the anger myth, passed down generation to generation, accounting for the hostile and controlling husbands and fathers who punish with enthusiasm, because they have an “anger problem.” It may not be in vogue to challenge the myth, but the proper terms for such behaviors are, domestic violence and child abuse, respectively. If children have to tiptoe around the house when the “angry” parent is home in fear of sparking that person’s temper, anger management will not help. Families that live with the threat of somebody’s unpredictable wrath are in a dangerous situation.
Children often learn about emotional regulation from their parents. Just as healthy ways to deal with anger are often modeled by the parents of emotionally healthy kids, the legacy of using anger as an excuse for violence and controlling behavior is also frequently passed down to children from abusive homes. Children from these homes are at significant risk of becoming future victims or abusers. Many adult victims and perpetrators of abuse report a history of childhood witnessing of family violence. Intergenerational violence is not about anger or the need for anger management.
Normal teenagers often deal with anger on a daily basis. This period of growth between childhood and adulthood can be awkward, stressful, and challenging, as teens attempt to balance their growing independence with the restrictions of being a teen. Many teens, however, begin to exhibit disturbing signs of abusive behaviors for the first time when they begin to date. Unhealthy relationship patterns learned at home are modeled in their dating relationships. Teens who believe that their dating partner has a simple “anger problem” when their partner blows up and punches a wall because he/she is “angry” about something, are at risk of witnessing repeat performances. The most common tactic of teen abusers is to use their alleged anger to control, manipulate, and possibly harm their partner. Pretty soon, the behavior becomes accepted in the relationship and abuse becomes the hidden cost of dating someone with an “anger management” problem.
Teen dating violence is the biggest predictor of future marital violence. Victims of teen dating violence often begin to use their own anger management tactics to prevent their partner from getting upset over something. This may signal the beginning of a controlling relationship, but those involved with an abusive partner soon learn that the patterns of violence (disguised as anger) are unpredictable and impossible to change.
Many abused women often describe the abuse as a result of their partner’s anger problem. This faulty notion couldn’t be further from the truth. Yet, everywhere they turn well-meaning friends and family members are there to instill the hope that if their partner gets some help by attending anger management classes, the problem will be resolved. Men who have been abusive should never set foot in an anger management class. Their problem has never been about their anger and most men who commit domestic violence are equipped with enough self-control to be considered well-behaved and liked at work, among friends, and in the communities where they live.
The problem with the misuse of the term anger management is that it perpetuates the myth that people who act out against others have no control over their anger. The most masterful “angry people” have learned to use this euphemistic definition to continue their behaviors. Aside from the thousands of people who live with family violence everyday, there are also those who are victims of random violence by those who have earned a reputation for having an anger problem. Anger management classes will not help the person who has learned how to use anger as an excuse for their behaviors.
Disputing the Anger Myth
Anger management should be a course that is provided in every elementary school classroom. We all need to learn how to deal with our anger in healthy and appropriate ways before our behaviors can be excused as a result of a bad temper or anger problem.
There are people with genuine anger management problems who would truly benefit from enrolling in an anger management course. The problem, however, is that the majority of people who are court-ordered to anger management programs, are often there because of a pattern of domestic abuse or crimes against others. Breaking the pattern is often difficult because of the positive benefits that a person can gain from learning to use anger as an excuse for abuse and manipulation.
To understand the dividing line between controlled violence and anger management problems, I would recommend further reading about domestic violence and batterer programs, which are not the same as anger management programs. Anger management is a term that has been misused far too often to excuse violent or abusive behaviors. Until the last judge stops ordering abusive men to anger management programs, and well-meaning friends stop telling the victims that a few classes will change their partner, the term anger management will continue to be abused.