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Boys-Anger and C.A.P. Approach

Attitude

© Joshua Koepp

The sixth-grade boy standing 7 feet away from me had just blown through the cafeteria like a tornado. Now he was leaning against the wall with his eyes on the floor looking tougher than Clint Eastwood. I was used to seeing a hard shell on this guy, but today was different. Today he was very angry.

I get asked about angry boys quite a bit. When I present workshops people say things like: “He gets angry so easily.” “He’s seems like he’s ALWAYS angry.” “I don’t know how to help him when he’s angry.” “He was always such a nice kid, and now he’s angry at me and his little brother ALL the time.”

In this post, I’m going to share some of the things that are most useful for me to remember about my own anger, my sons’ anger and when I am with angry children and youth.

He has lived here, in St. Paul, Minnesota, since he was 8-years-old. Before that, he survived fear, abuse and danger that most of us can’t imagine. His family is from Karen, a small state in Burma, near Thailand where civilian villages have been massacred and burned and many people driven out. They escaped and lived in the forest in Thailand. In order to have access to minimal education he was sent to live in a refugee camp.

Anger is not a solo act. Boys and men have deep, complex emotional worlds, whether we know it or not. Sadness, fear, compassion, pain, we’ve got it all. However, many boys get the message early on that expressing emotion is a good way to get teased, bullied, and shamed…sometimes even by their parents. One emotion, however, is exempt from this treatment: Anger. Anger becomes the acceptable emotion to show, but there’s always others hiding behind it. Many others.

Once he told me about the time when he had to run through the jungle with his dad and hide under branches so Burmese soldiers wouldn’t find them. Another time in the camp he went down to the river and a guard caught him and made him stand still while his shins and calves were struck repeatedly with a bamboo cane. At the refugee camp school, for punishment, he had to hold a stick in his teeth with a weight on the end. When the ache in his jaw allowed the stick to droop, the cane left welts on his body. He was between six and seven years old.

Anger saves face. Boys learn to be stoic. Sometimes that’s necessary for survival and self-protection. We teach it to little boys: “Stop with the tears.” “Take it like a man.” Here’s the problem: Unprocessed emotional energy builds-up over time. When it starts to leak out, acting angry is a great way to mask the anxiety and fear it causes. Anger can look cool and feel powerful, which is the opposite of the way we actually feel when emotions leak out unbidden.

He was standing sideways to me, leaning on the wall. I moved a little closer to him, but not too close. I wanted him to know I was there, but also that I would respect his space. After a minute or two, he changed his posture to angle slightly toward me. I had a connection. I said, “It seems like you’re really angry. Are you mad about something?” He grunted back. It was the “affirmative” grunt.

Anger is language. Most boys and men have not practiced their emotional vocabulary. It is difficult for us to talk about feelings. Showing them comes easier. Especially for the little guys, acting out physically can be the only way they know to tell you that they are in distress. In addition, when we’re under emotional stress, our amygdala hijacks our limbic system and cuts off access to the “thinking” brain. We’re left with our “fight or flight” brain. The language of anger is sometimes all boys have available, especially if they’re still learning English.

Why are you angry?” I asked. He mumbled something I couldn’t quite understand through his heavy accent, but I thought I heard him say something about an iPod. “I’m sorry, I couldn’t understand everything you said. Did you say iPod?”

He mumbled in a voice that seemed exceptionally deep for his size, “Teacher. Take. iPod.” It all suddenly made sense to me.

He doesn’t have much and came from a place where he had even less. His parents figured out a way for him to have an iPod, the quintessential symbol of membership in modern youth culture. Now his most prized possession had been taken by a guard again. How could this not trigger all the fear, helplessness, and panic that he felt in the camps, jungles and other mini-hells he had been through.

Anger is natural. It’s a normal reaction to injustice, having our sense of power threatened, being made to feel small. For many boys, especially teenage boys, have larger amygdala, higher testosterone and lower serotonin. That makes anger hotter, faster and more immediate. That doesn’t mean we have no choice. It does means that it’s a more difficult choice, one we need to practice.

“Wow. I get it,” I said. “If someone took my iPod, I’d be very angry too. If you want, I can help you find out what your teacher’s plan is.” Almost as soon as the words were out of my mouth, he seemed to relax. A few seconds later, he shuffled slowly to the table and sat down.

Anger is sometimes the easiest way to ask for help. Instead of treating his angry outburst as a behavior problem that needed to be controlled or punished, I tried to find out what was behind it. Doing this reduces the need to act out. I like to call it C.A.P.: Connect. Acknowledge. Protect.

Connect: Non-verbally join with him using a non-threatening and respectful presence and body language. If you use words, keep them very limited and kind. If you connect with him, he doesn’t need his anger to get your attention anymore.

Acknowledge: Let him know that you see his emotional expression and know that it means something. “You seem upset. Are you angry about something?” If you acknowledge the message he’s sending with his anger, he will feel “heard.”

Protect: Validate his right to have feelings. Give him a safe place to feel. “I can see why that would make you feel angry.” If you protect his dignity, he will be more able to take off the mask of anger.

Here are a few other tips that help me:

  • Help him learn accurate words and language to describe what he’s feeling. DON’T try to do this in the middle of an angry moment. Rather wait until things have settled down. Model it for him by naming your feelings as you go through your day. Even older boys and teens will need practice at this, since experiences get more complex as they get older.
  • Help him practice basic coping tools like taking a deep breath, taking a break from stressful situations and getting help from someone he trusts. Again, this is most effectively practiced when he’s not upset and easiest to understand if he sees you doing it.
  • Allow for some kind of movement (even if it’s just squeezing something or playing with Legos), outside time, and/or food to help process emotion. Anger happens in the body, not just the mind. Many boys process physically and can talk more easily when engaged with some kind of task.

By no means does what I’ve written here cover all the complex issues that can cause anger for men and boys, nor does it offer solutions for everything. I’m always happy to listen to your story and help out in any way I can.

 

 
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Posted by on December 12, 2015 in Present Moment Parenting

 

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Online Boys Course Starts Next Week April 7

Wave Riders: Nurturing Boys Emotional Health offered online April 7-May 1. There are still a few spots left. For parents, childcare providers, teachers, or anyone who cares about children and youth. Accredited for 16 workshop hours if you need them. Call me for details or visit the Eager to Learn Webpage and tell them I’m OK with a late registration.

 Angry Boy embarrassed confused Happy Sad

 
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Posted by on April 1, 2015 in Present Moment Parenting

 

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Be a Better Mirror

Red Head Sad squareRed Head Happy Background 2 squareWhat’s the difference between these two boys? Yes, this is a shameless trick question. On the surface, they have a different mouth and background. One looks happy, the other a little sad. The REAL reason I asked this question is because there’s another less obvious but more significant difference: Me.

I made these drawings when my wife was recently out of town for a week…in Hawaii. The boys and I were not in Hawaii. We were at home…in Minnesota. In January. Minnesota and Hawaii have the ability to create different moods in people, especially in January. Add in a very busy week full of long hours, solo parenting, and science fairs my stress level went up a few points.

By the end of the week, I realized that the look on my boy’s faces had changed too. Sure, they missed their mom, but I knew that wasn’t the most significant factor. I had let my stress, low energy and winter blues get the best of me. My boys were mirroring the expression they were seeing from me. No only that, they were taking on my mood as well.

When children and youth see a steady stream of adult expressions that are moody, depressed, frustrated, stressed and in general less than happy, it sends a non-verbal message. Non-verbal messages are powerful for boys, especially when they come from men. They can easily internalize the belief that it’s “manly” to be frustrated, over-concerned, controlled by circumstances and in general less than happy.

The good news is that we don’t need to leave it that way. We can be a better mirror. We can model self-awareness. We can choose our response to our circumstances. We can show with our actions that, even though life isn’t always easy, our mood is our choice. We can make a joke. Crack a smile (if it feels unnatural, you need to practice it more). Be playful. If you’ve forgotten how, just lay down on the floor in the middle of the living room. If you’ve got little boys around they’ll remind you.

 
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Posted by on February 8, 2015 in Present Moment Parenting

 

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When words get in the way

Words get in the way1

© Joshua Koepp

It has happened to all of us. Words have left our mouths that we regret. Or maybe we have done something that affected others in a way we did not intend. There are reasons why boys can be especially prone to this. If we understand why, we can give them tools to avoid and handle mistakes.

I remember once in my early teens when I was at a formal gathering. It was an anniversary celebration for our church. I felt pretty special to be included with all the adults walking around dressed in their fancy clothes.

There was a guy present who had been our music director but had moved a year or two previous. I was excited to see him since I looked up to him and he seemed to like me, which is important for 14-year-olds. I gradually got closer to where he was standing and he greeted me warmly, “Hi Joshua. Wow! You sure have grown.”

“Hi,” I said back, and not wanting to seem like a stupid kid I tried to think of something else to say. I decided to return the compliment. I blurted out, “So have you!”

He paused and forced a laugh with a look on his face that seemed to say, “You little ____.” I guess he wasn’t happy about the extra 50 pounds he had put on.

While that situation was harmless, many boys get far more sever consequences when they say stupid things, especially if they do or say something that can be understood as threatening violence or sexually suggestive. Zero tolerance policies at many schools are often ruthlessly enforced and very destructive for boys.

Here are a few of the reasons boys sometimes say stupid things:

1)     Language and emotional processing happen in different parts of the brain and those parts aren’t as efficiently linked as in girls. This makes for slower processing and more difficulty getting the words out right.

2)     Stressful situations derail the connection between the emotional processing part of the brain (limbic system) and the critical thinking part of the brain (frontal cortex). That means in a situation where stress and threat are present (social situations, conflict, being called a name), they’re not thinking as much as they are reacting from their gut or practiced responses.

3)     Testosterone encourages impulsive reactions and linear thinking. Testosterone’s effects are complex, but it does make a difference and boys do have more of it. Impulsive means blurting and having NO filter (even if they know better than to insult food at a guest’s house). Linear thinking means they may only be able to think of one thing to say instead of all the various responses available.

4)     When teenage hormones are involved, studies show that boys frequently mis-read emotional cues and respond very differently than they would have otherwise. They often feel very ashamed and regret what they have said and done. Of course, this is magnified when parents and the opposite sex are involved.

Here are a few things we can do to help:

1)     Allow for “do-overs.” When something comes off wrong or a conversations spirals out of control in the wrong direction, it’s okay to press the rewind button. I often say to my son, “Let’s stop here. I’ll give you some time. You decide if you want to revise anything you just said.”

2)      Practice different responses. In any given situation, there are many different things we can say or NOT say. It can be very helpful for boys if we help them think through what might have gone differently if something else had been said. It can also help them hone their personal style to think about what different responses look like to others.

3)     Role play situations and scenarios. While it may sound corny, boys learn through doing, and there’s a much better chance they will succeed in real life if they have a chance to run through a situation within the safety of the family.

When we’re young, the feeling of embarrassment is magnified and frightening. It can make you want to run and hide. It sometimes causes tears, which is incredibly embarrassing for boys. Remember to provide a safe shelter and support for them when they have those “I can’t believe I said that” moments.

 
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Posted by on December 31, 2014 in Contemplative Parenting

 

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Three best things

3 best things

 
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Posted by on December 20, 2014 in Contemplative Parenting

 

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Another boy living from the heart

Devonte Hart’s story shows how boys have tremendous emotional capacity even when they have come through sever trauma, neglect and abuse. However, Johnny Nguyen’s photos (below) of what he did at a Ferguson rally may say it best. Don’t miss the chance to read this great story.

Devonte Hart

 
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Posted by on December 3, 2014 in Present Moment Parenting

 

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Feedback on Wave Riders: Nurturing Boys for Emotional Health

Joshua KoeppThe 5 week online offering of Wave Riders: Nurturing Boys for Emotional Health just concluded and I thought I’d share one of the final reflections I received.  If you’re interested, the course will be offered again in November. Here’s the Eager to Learn Link.

Reflecting on this course it is wonderful the amount of information that was covered in such a sort time period. I feel I have gained a greater understanding of what makes boys, boys. I am more comfortable talking to boys about their emotions and helping them process their emotions. Lastly I have a more concrete understanding of emotion intelligence.

During this course I learned about the difference in brain development between girls and boys. This has been very useful and was very meaningful to me. Having the knowledge that boys brains develop differently helps to have an understanding on why they behave the way they do sometimes.

The verbiage I learned from this class has been very beneficial to the boys and has helped give them the words to describe their emotions. The boys in my care seem to understand their own emotions more and are improving on being able to label their emotions. I also feel more comfortable with my overall knowledge on emotional intelligence, what tools to use in supporting boys’ emotional health and regulating emotions. I can see that my comfort with discussing emotions is passing on to the boys in my care. They are becoming more comfortable with handling their own discussions.

Reflecting on the class and the learner goals I set for myself, I believe we covered all of them with this class! I can now identify how boys are “programmed” and what causes them to behave the way they do. I learned tools/tips to use when managing boys and their behavior. I know how to support boys to process their emotions and to support them with their emotional health.

I really enjoyed this class. It was helpful to have a variety of people in class to network with. Hearing other providers and teachers experiences is nice to know I’m not alone. I felt the structure of the class was smooth and the content/material was very useful. I am thankful I participated in this class.

 
 

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