For many people who find themselves facing domestic violence charges, the problem doesn’t usually begin with the act of violence itself. For most, that catalyst is anger. The violence occurs as an end result of the person’s inability to control the angry emotions welling up inside.
If you’re convicted of a domestic violence charge in California, and sentenced to probation instead of jail, chances are you’ll also be required to attend a “batterer’s class” or some sort of anger management counseling as part of your sentence. But are anger management programs truly effective, and can they help reduce the chances of a repeat offense?
As with most issues, the answer to this question isn’t a clear “yes, it works” or “no, it doesn’t.” The effectiveness of any anger management course depends as much on the cooperation of the participant as it does the nature of the course itself. Modern psychology has recommended a variety of approaches to anger management; some have proven more fruitful than others, and experts now feel some traditional approaches have actually backfired.
A Bit of Background
Anger itself, while considered a “negative emotion,” isn’t necessarily bad. In fact, it’s a normal human response, and when controlled and channeled correctly, it can work to create change for the better. However, when anger cannot be controlled, or when it is pent-up and explodes, this is when it can become a problem. Psychology Today suggests that we all deal with anger in one of three possible ways:
• Stuffing it—We essentially repress our anger and do not allow it to manifest.
• Expressing it—We “let it out,” similarly to how a steam engine releases pressure by letting off steam.
• Getting rid of it—We find a constructive way to reduce or negate the anger.
Of these options, getting rid of the anger seems to be a more effective and constructive approach than the other two, largely because stuffing and expressing do nothing to mitigate the anger itself—they’re just (hopefully) ways to try and keep from turning the anger into violent behavior.
Furthermore, history says these tactics don’t always work.
Understanding these realities, we can now measure why certain anger management programs are more effective than others. Those programs that focus on repression or expression have a much lower success rate than those that actually help people lower their anger levels.
Having laid this groundwork, let’s look at a couple of anger management approaches that haven’t worked well, then explore a few more promising current techniques.
Some anger management courses take the approach of desensitization to anger. As Steven Stosny, Ph.D. explains, this approach involves identifying things that “push your buttons” (for example, things your spouse or significant other might say that provoke you), then trying to reframe those triggers as something less provocative (for example, humorous or insignificant). The strategy is not so much to deal with the anger itself as it is to weaken triggers that might cause a person to erupt violently.
Problem with this approach: Ultimately, desensitization translates to a form of “stuffing it.” It doesn’t address the real causes for anger, and it does nothing to reduce any gradual resentment that might build as a result of ongoing provocations. It may work in the short term, but for many people, unfortunately, it’s only a matter of time before this method becomes ineffective and a repeat incident of violence occurs.
“Getting It Out”
Some anger management courses lean on the expression approach, theorizing that if you find ways to vent your anger (like a steam engine) in seemingly harmless directions, you’re less likely to channel that anger into violence against another person. Common techniques for this method include the use of punching bags, foam bats and other items that enable people to express their rage without hurting someone.
Problem with this approach: While the rationale may make sense on the surface, Dr. Stosny describes it as “the worst kind of anger management class” because it effectively makes people more aggressive, not less so.
“Studies have shown that this approach actually makes people angrier and more hostile, not to mention more entitled to act out their anger,” he says. Participants are training their brains to associate controlled aggression rather than compassion and reconciliation with anger.” (One tell-tale sign of the flaw in this approach is how frequently participants envision their significant other when hitting the punching bag or using the foam bat!)
TECHNIQUES THAT SHOW PROMISE
In an article posted by the American Psychological Association, Colorado State University psychologist Jerry Deffenbacher, Ph.D. identifies three current approaches to anger management that seem to be producing better results: skill development, relaxation and cognitive therapy. All three seem to help because they aim to reduce the level of anger, rather than simply stifling or re-channeling it.
Many times, anger can be traced to feelings of intimidation or lack of control. In some instances, developing a new skill set can help. For example, a mother who has learned parenting skills is more likely to know how to control a child having a temper tantrum, and therefore less likely to strike the child. Likewise, people more skilled in defensive driving techniques may be less likely to exhibit road rage. The increased sense of control reduces the impulse toward anger.
This anger management approach teaches people to implement learned relaxation techniques at the first signs of anger—the premise being that it is impossible to be relaxed and infuriated at the same time. By developing these techniques gradually, a person can effectively learn to “head anger off at the pass,” mitigating the emotion before it veers out of control.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Perhaps one of the most popular and most effective anger management techniques, cognitive therapy helps a person identify and address the root causes of anger—in other words, what makes that person angry in the first place. (Almost always, it isn’t the mean thing our spouse said that made us mad—the anger began somewhere else, perhaps as a secondary emotion to something else.) At times, the participant may address the following:
• Identifying the root causes of anger
• Becoming self-aware of anger triggers
• Retraining new responses to those triggers
• Learning to respond in a more constructive way
• Seeing a new perspective behind the other person’s actions
If you are mandated by a judge to take an anger management course—or if you decide to seek help on your own—you’ll likely find greater success by taking a course that utilizes an approach that helps you actually lower your anger levels—for example, relaxation, cognitive therapy or a combination of the two. In the short-term, if you are facing domestic violence charges and need legal help, contact our office. One of our team members will be happy to assist.