Sunday, March 13, 2011

What Do You Do When Your Teen Won't Stop Using Anger and Violence in a Reasonable Amount of Time?

A parent has written to ask, "What else is there to be done if a person doesn't want to stop being violent?" This can best be illustrated with another story.

A few years ago, a young lady (I'll call her Ruby), had a drug issue and one day she came to school under the influence of some drug or other that she had taken the night before. She normally had a good relationship with me. She was in her 1st Period English class and I called her to the Choices room because she had blown up in an aggressive way the day before and had been referred for a mediation with a teaching assistant.

When she came into the choices room, I said, "Welcome, Ruby! How are you today?" She answered calmly, rationally, in a friendly way, until I said, "You've been invited to a mediation with Ms. ___ . Are you ready for that today?" At that point, she began to resist, vociferously! "I will NOT EVER mediate with her!!! She deserved the anger I threw at her!!!! She had an attitude toward me and I'm never ever going to apologize or straighten it out. I'm going to talk to her as mean as I want every time I see her from now on. I HATE her! I HATE her!" It was like she had turned on a stream of anger and hate and she had jumped right into the middle of it. She was suddenly unwilling to listen to me at all. She would not calm herself down.

After a few minutes of watching her revving herself up and piling fuel on her anger fire, I told her that if she couldn't calm herself down in a few minutes, I was going to need to have her go home and return tomorrow with a parent so we could make a plan together. At this, Ruby decided to interpret me as attacking her, no matter how calm I was. She stood up and said, "I'm going back to my English class now!" I said, "I'm sorry, Ruby, but you're too upset to go to your English class. I'm going to need you to stay up here until you're able to talk calmly to me."

In her more rational moments, she would definitely have listened to me and begun to calm down. But my best guess is that under the influence of the drug, she was finding it challenging to tone down the emotion. She raced out of the office and down the hallway and we had to have teachers lock their rooms as she ranted and raved. I ended up calling the police to remove her for disorderly conduct, but she left on her own accord before they could arrive.

Two days later, she returned to school and did a remarkable mediation with me, taking full ownership of her behavior and planning with me various ways to help herself learn to calm down. She told me, "I have been wrecking my entire life with this level of anger and you are the calmest person I know. Even you had to resort to calling the police to deal with me. I REALLY don't want the police in my life. I'm afraid of myself sometimes. I'm afraid my own mother and siblings are going to throw me out if I put out this much anger. It scares them, too. My boyfriend has threatened to leave me if I show this kind of anger around him again."

So, after we had mended the relationship and after she had reassured me she was ready to return to classes, we planned out some things she could do if she felt extraordinary anger again (such as say, "Please don't talk to me right now. I need to go calm myself down somewhere alone and dark." or "I would like to have the HeartMath machine to practice calming myself down. I'll come back to talk to you when I've gotten the lights to go all green."). I agreed to remind her of those options and to get out of her way to allow her to put them into practice. She agreed not to take the anger out into the school, so that I would feel inclined to call the police.

We never had a single other problem over the next 8 months before her graduation. I believe that she did frighten herself at how far she was willing to encourage her anger, even given someone urging her to calm down, someone she trusted. And once she was able to make a plan, she realized that the anger wasn't "having her," but that she was choosing it and that she didn't really WANT to choose it at school again, so she didn't. Once or twice, she asked to use the HeartMath machine, but other than that, she remained more or less a model student through graduation, even including a very stressful last week of school in which she was racing to complete several challenging projects to at least a B level, in time to walk across the stage. She ended up working late into the night just before graduation, and stayed calm throughout (and very proud of her efforts, too).

I believe that our relationship was maintained because I remained calm in the face of her hurricane. She was able to best her own furious anger because she wanted to rise to the challenge my calmness placed before her. She wanted to be proud of herself and I think she wanted me to be proud of her efforts, too. If I had given in to my own inclinations of yelling back when attacked, I believe that it would have seriously damaged our relationship. I would have shown myself to be untrustworthy in an important way, someone she couldn't show this anger to safely. Still, that didn't mean that she wanted to continue to show the anger. It seems that once was enough for her to learn that it was really not a monster inside of her that she couldn't control. She wasn't a victim of the anger, but was choosing it herself and could choose not to indulge in it, as well, which felt much better. This is a life lesson and I felt honored to be there to watch it taking place.

Charlotte Wellen