Strategies for Bridling Anger and Curbing Contention

As much as we like horses, few of us would be willing to ride a wild one without a bridle. Around the world there are literally hundreds of different kinds of bridles depending on what we want to do with the animal. But the major purpose is the same: To get the horse to do what we want it to do.

Using a bridle doesn’t deny that the horse exists, nor does it mean that the horse is a bad animal. Quite the contrary. Bridles allow us to manage and guide the horse to accomplish our purposes, such as riding deep into a mountain wilderness.

Anger is like an unbridled horse. Unless we govern it, we are at its mercy.

Here are several strategies for bridling anger and curbing contention at home

Realize that anger is a personal choice. Since anger can be controlled, it must follow that anger is a choice. It’s not something forced upon us, not even when contention is introduced by other members of the family, or even if anger is directed towards us. While we all have some feelings we did not choose, anger is largely a learned response to a trigger in our environment. While we may have a tendency to become angry, it’s not wise or correct to give in and simply say “That’s just the way I am, and there’s nothing I can do about it.” Ultimately we are in charge of which behaviors we choose in response to the emotions we feel.

We often hear people say things like, “She/He made me angry.” That statement is inaccurate. No one is ever made to be angry. No one is forced against their will to lose their temper. Remember: Anger is a choice; a learned response to a provoking situation. If you doubt this, consider the response you would have to the event of having grape juice poured on your brand new carpet, either by your 5-year old or by a dear friend visiting from out of state!

Between every provoking situation and response lies the freedom to select our actions. Habit may make our responses seem almost involuntary, but they aren’t. While certain provoking situations may creep up on us so that we respond with a knee-jerk reaction, once the connection between the provoking situation and our response is in our consciousness, we can begin to take more control over our actions

A first step to overcoming feelings of anger in the home is acknowledging that we have the power, through our moral agency, to respond to family challenges either with love and understanding or with anger and frustration. We must fix in our minds and hearts that anger is a learned strategy for dealing with provoking situations and that we can choose to react differently to them. Thus, we can change the tone in the home. Parents can provide leadership and socially coach children through sibling difficulties. Family members can council together and work cooperatively to reduce contentious interactions in the home.

Calm yourself first. Before the issue that provoked the feeling of anger can be resolved, you must reduce the intensity of the angry feeling by calming yourself. Discover what helps you calm down in anger situations and take action. Some things that may bring calm to you include prayer, meditation, vigorous exercise, or getting out in nature. To help prevent you from acting impulsively, you might go to another room or leave the house until you have calmed down.

See another viewpoint. Striving to understand the other person’s point of view is an especially effective strategy. There are many reasons why someone may do something that triggers our anger. Putting ourselves in another’s shoes can help us respond in rational, constructive ways. A spouse may be tired or overly stressed, or a teen may not have meant a seemingly critical remark to come out as it did. Anger is often based on such misunderstandings and misinterpretations. Maintaining respect and concern for one another during communication of intense emotions is vital.

Similarly, parents should learn about children’s behavior at different stages of their development and recognize that certain undesired behaviors may be normal for a child at a given age and maturity level. Such knowledge can help a parent respond lovingly when a child pushes an anger trigger.

For example, Tommy, a three-year-old, was angry because his father wouldn’t let him play with the CD player. He yelled “I hate you!” at his father. His dad remembered that children at this age may resent the fact that others have so much power over them and may become angry when they don’t have the freedom to do as they please. Armed with this knowledge, he responded in an age-appropriate manner to his son, saying “Well, I love you. You’re just angry because you can’t play with the CD. Is there another toy we can play with together?”

Establish ground rules for the expression of anger. Setting ground rules for the expression of anger in the home will help you manage it. For example, a family might agree in advance to call a time-out when anger and conflict are escalating over an issue and to hold off discussing the issue until everyone is calm and can listen to one another better. Or a family might specify a certain amount of waiting time–10 minutes or even 24 hours–before they talk about a stressful issue. Using ground rules can help you deal with difficulties that trigger anger with less bickering and strife.

Families can also deal with issues preventively before they become contentious. Holding a regular family council that allows, among other things, a reasonable time for discussion of family concerns and problem solving, can be very effective.

Build positive connections away from issues. A key for the management of anger and contention at home is the quality of connections among family members. These ties can be fostered through family activities, dates for parents and one-on-one time with each child, that issues can be discussed from the foundation of happy times.

Express concerns constructively. Practice expressing concerns calmly and with an attitude of respect, without attacking or blaming the other person. Explain why you feel angry. Use statements that follow an “I-feeling-when-because” format, such as “I feel frustrated when you come home after curfew because that is against our agreement.” Follow this up with the change you believe to be necessary to solve the problem. For example, “I want you to follow through on what we agreed.”

Even when expressing anger, we can communicate love and respect. With a gentle touch on a child’s shoulder and a calm voice, you can communicate that you still care about the child and value the relationship. By expressing your feelings calmly, you are more likely to be able to explore with the other person the sources of the conflict and how such a situation may be prevented in the future. When anger is recognized and approached calmly, respectfully, and with the intention of strengthening the relationship and not hurting it, it can actually encourage growth and intimacy.

Make a plan for bridling anger and contention. Pick one of your anger triggers and come up with a plan for dealing with it. Identify what triggers your anger, how you tend to react physically, mentally, behaviorally, and steps you can follow to calm yourself and respond in a loving, appropriate way. Don’t try to deal with all your triggers at once. Just start with one. Families can use this same strategy to identify a situation that triggers anger between members of the family, the common responses to the situation, and one or two alternative strategies.

My Anger Bridling Plan (Example)

My anger triggers Physical reactions and thoughts My typical actions What I will do instead
1. Jason refuses to do his chores 1. My face gets flushed and my heart starts pounding. I think, “What do I have to do to get you to move!” 1. Yelling, ordering, threatening. 1. Go to my room, do deep breathing, repeat the word “relax” in my mind until I feel calm.2. Go back to Jason and restate his job, and then say: When you refuse to do your job, I feel angry because we depend on everyone to carry their weight in the family. I expect you to complete your job before you go to your friend’s house

For Further Reading:

Anger Kills: 17 Strategies for Controlling the Hostility that Can Harm Your Health
By Redford and Virginia Williams.

Additional Websites

APA On-line