Address Teenage Anger
Students need societal skills
By John A. DeMember, Correspondent
Albert Mercado, a Clinton High School
guidance counselor, has seen a lot of angry teens over
Recalling one 16-year-old who arrived
at Clinton High from Florida a few years ago, he said,
“When he got angry, he got angry, and he didn’t
know how to control it.”
Soon after arrival, the student had
an altercation in the community. He resisted arrest
and faced a charge of assault and battery on a police
officer. But after completing a mandated 10-step anger
management program, he was successful at Clinton High
School and is now in college.
“He learned how to calm down and relax,”
Mr. Mercado said. “He recognized his triggers.”
He also learned how to talk to people effectively and
appropriately, and how to be a leader.
Anger management has become a major
concern in Massachusetts school systems, according to
state and local officials. More than 10,000 students
participated in anger management support groups in Massachusetts
public schools in the 2003-2004 school year, according
to the state Department of Public Health’s Essential
School Health Program Data Report for that year. The
groups provided anger, conflict and violence management
support for youths.
“These groups were only available
in 32 percent of districts,” the report notes,
but there were more students participating in the anger
management groups than in any other type of support
group, including emotional/psychosocial support groups,
which were available in 50.5 percent of school districts.
Districts that do not provide anger
management support groups, including Worcester, often
use other types of programs to help angry youths and
Worcester, for example, provides after-school
anger management and conflict resolution classes in
its secondary schools as an alternative to suspension
for less serious aggressive acts and as a requirement
for re-entry to school after a suspension for violent
behavior, said Judith Thompson, coordinator of counseling
psychology and community outreach at Burncoat High School.
Alison B. Ludden, a professor of adolescent
development at the College of the Holy Cross, said there
are a number of possible causes for teen anger. She
noted that stressful life events that are beyond the
teen’s control, such as divorce, moving or other
major transitions may lead to teen anger issues. Other
factors include lack of support, difficulty in school
or conflict with loved ones.
“Anger management self-help groups
may be the key to helping adolescents effectively cope
with their problems and emerging anger,” she said.
“I don’t think these are
easy times to grow up in,” Ms. Thompson said.
“They have a need to get these skills to cope
with their negative emotions in a positive way.”
Noting that “anger management
is the latest label for social skills training,”
Ms. Thompson said many youths may not have matured enough
to face increasingly complex life obstacles. “All
we see in schools are a reflection of society,”
she said. “Schools are a microcosm. They are public
schools, so they reflect the public.”
Clinton High School Principal James
S. Hastings said the problem is widespread.
“This is something that crosses
all ethnic and economic classes,” he said, adding
that the first defense against anger problems is the
“At Clinton, we have proactive
teachers who have been able to intervene. The teachers
see things and pick up on things,” he said. “When
you know the students and they are having problems,
you know how to defuse them.”
While only a court can order a student
to attend anger management sessions, Mr. Hastings said
school administrators can suggest it to parents, who
then need to follow through to ensure a child’s
“We have kids in our school that
haven’t done enough to go to court,” he
noted. “In the cases I have had, the parents have
been on the same page.”
Often that is because the parents have
seen the same behaviors at home, Mr. Hastings said.
Gardner High School Principal Michael R. Baldassarre
said teaching students how to control anger is an important
aspect of education.
“It is more important to teach
the students how to get along with one another than
to teach them how to read and write,” he said.
Indeed, a key determinant to a student’s
success in life is his or her ability to deal with other
people, Mr. Baldassarre said. Those who cannot control
their emotions tend to have trouble holding jobs and
There is a great deal of focus on both
accountability and standardized testing in schools,
Mr. Baldassarre explained. As a result of the faculty’s
intense concentration on curriculum, schools can only
react to students’ anger, rather than being proactive.
But in recent years there has been a drastic increase
in what faculty and administrators take seriously, he
noted. Violent drawings, threats and rumors that would
have previously been overlooked are now investigated.
“The public knowledge (about)
Columbine reinforces my increased efforts toward safety,”
Mr. Baldassarre said. In 1999, two students killed 12
schoolmates and a teacher at Columbine High School in
Colorado. The gunmen, Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold,
17, then apparently killed themselves.
The real danger from anger problems
among youth, as Columbine slayings showed, is that “anger
can be much more instantly destructive with guns,”
noted Francis “Tuck” Amory, a Worcester
State College urban studies professor.
Mr. Baldassarre pointed out that students
themselves are the first line of defense against potentially
violent situations, but a code of silence among high
school students can make learning about such potential
problems difficult. “Relationships are everything”
among teens, he said. It is the principal’s job
to break the code of silence when it needs to be broken,
in the interest of safety.
Evan P. Graber, director of outpatient
services at YOU Inc., a social service agency based
in Worcester, said there are many angry kids, but he
sees a different reason for their anger.
“There is a crisis in masculinity
in our society,” he said. “We have ratcheted
up the way men and boys need to prove their masculinity.”
He added, “We need to look at
who is doing the school shootings, battering, road rage
and murder suicides — men and boys.”
Unrealistic depictions of how a man
is supposed to act leads to the ridiculing of school
boys who do not live up to that image, Mr. Graber said.
“A lot of these school shootings
were done by kids that felt that they were picked on
and were exacting revenge,” he said. “There
is an assumption that there is only one way to be a
man. God forbid if a boy is into poetry or theater.”
Slang phrases with implicit messages
such as “Tough it out,” or “Suck it
up,” create an emotional disconnect within males,
he said. “There are multiple ways to being a man,”
he said, and young people need to know that.
“Until it becomes important to
men, collectively, we have a real problem in society,”
Mr. Graber concluded.
Mr. Amory, who has been a licensed social
worker for more than 30 years in addition to teaching
at Worcester State, acknowledged that there are many
angry high school students, but suggested that anger
management programs may be just the latest trend for
dealing with behavior problems.
“Anger management might be the
new fad, like Hula-Hoops, or it could really help,”
He noted that there is a financial incentive
for schools to buy into the anger management trend.
“Essentially, the school gets
paid a certain amount for every kid they have —
and for every special ed kid, they receive considerably
more,” he explained. “It was the same thing
with attention deficit disorder. They were throwing
Ritalin at everyone, even ones who clearly didn’t
benefit from it.”
And there is yet another potential negative
aspect to the anger management trend, according to Mr.
Amory. When not managed appropriately, anger management
classes can create a stigma for a student that is counterproductive.
“It can ultimately result in the
labeling of kids as bad and deviant, and the teachers
may avoid the student due to this label,” be said.
Claire T. Russell, director of children’s
outpatient services at Community Healthlink of Worcester,
said she believes that some young people who seem angry
are not angry at all.
“When kids are overstressed, their
behavior may be seen as anger,” she said. “Assessment
is so critical.”
Mr. Graber, of YOU Inc., agreed that
stress can lead to bad behavior.
“The pressures of school achievement,
sports and over-scheduling put a lot of stress on kids,
and one way the stress comes out is frustration and
anger,” he said.