Young men can learn to curb their anger and aggressive behaviour: new study finds
Young men often regard their anger and aggression as something beyond their control yet those participating in an anger management program are able to gain the necessary skills to walk away from confrontational situations, according to a Southern Cross University study.
Dr Paul Edwards explored male adolescent experiences and expressions of anger for the qualitative study, ‘An Action Research Project Examining Anger and Aggression in Rural Adolescent Males Participating in the Rock and Water Program’, which he completed for his PhD research within the School of Health and Human Sciences.
“Participants talked about anger in metaphorical terms like ‘going psycho’ or ‘spaking out’, which highlighted a cultural belief in this cohort that any aggressive or destructive behaviour resulting from anger was beyond their control as they couldn’t think straight, their actions being considered involuntary,” said Dr Edwards.
“This may explain the vicious cycle that many of the young men in this cohort described where anger and aggression continues as significant problems in their lives.”
Dr Edwards said within this context he believes Australia’s current spate of single-punch assaults and waves of alcohol and drug-fuelled aren’t surprising.
“These are big issues but these problems cycle within our culture. In fact, it’s been happening since the 1800s in Australia. A lot of it has to do with how our young men express their anger and aggression within our culture and how that behaviour is reinforced. Adolescence is a period in their lives where they feel threatened easily, their self-concept is vulnerable, yet they’ve learned the only way to protect themselves is through physical aggression.
“When you challenge those behaviours and start working with these young guys, I found they can learn the skills needed to deal differently with conflict situations. They don’t want to be violent or aggressive but for a lot of them they don’t know any different.”
Dr Edwards’ research was the first rigorous qualitative study to hear from a cohort of rural Australian adolescent males regarding their experiences of anger and aggression. The study builds upon a large quantity of anecdotal evidence that supports the Rock and Water Program as an effective way to engage adolescents about this topic of managing anger.
The Rock and Water Program, developed in the Netherlands, involves learning by doing and was originally designed for boys (and now includes girls). It incorporates physical activities, competitions and self-defence exercises that teach a range of social skills to deal with conflict situations and bullying.
“The action-orientated and learning-by-doing nature of the program surprised and engaged the boys, despite their initial negative reaction to participating in an anger management program,” said Dr Edwards, who delivered Rock and Water to male students between 12 and 17 years of age in four schools in the Coffs Harbour area over a 12-month period.
Dr Edwards also conducted focus groups with 187 of the participants to hear, in their own words, about their experiences of anger and aggression.
“The boys were adamant that so much of the violence in their lives is related to alcohol, whether it’s their own use or use by friends and family. Interestingly, when people are under the influence of alcohol they talk in exactly the same terms as they do for anger: it’s beyond their control.”
As Dr Edwards explored the history of larrikinism within Australian culture, he discovered that aggression went hand in hand with being a larrikin.
“Aggression has been an endorsed expression of anger within Australian culture for young men,” he said.
“The purpose of anger management programs is to help young men see that they are responsible for their actions. A lot of these young guys don’t have the skills to deal with strong emotion when their anger cuts in. Boys can learn self-control and self-reflective skills that stop impulsivity. But when anger is reinforced culturally and by the metaphors used to talk about anger, these young guys have got no reason to think this will ever change.”
Dr Edwards said he had seen changes in his study’s participants.
“Explaining that they do not have to fight just because a bully comes up and pushes them around is groundbreaking for some. You’ve just got no idea how many young men came to me in the weeks and months following the program to say, ‘Mr Edwards, so and so did this to me, and I just looked at him strongly and walked away’. That’s the sort of stuff that makes it worthwhile.”
Dr Edwards is a former clinical nurse specialist in child and adolescent mental health who also worked for the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Statewide Network (CAMHSNET). He now works at the Coffs Harbour Christian Community School as a ministry and counselling coordinator.
Photo: Dr Paul Edwards conducting the Rock and Water program.