How do I help students talk about their anger over what the coronavirus has done to their lives?
Whether it’s missing prom, graduation, or just hanging out with friends, there’s a lot for kids to be angry about right now.
What is anger? Why do we experience it? And what can we do to manage it?
Anger is what psychologists call a “universal emotion” because its cardinal features are common across all human cultures.
As psychologist Paul Ekman puts it, the primary message of anger is: “Get out of my way!”
When I feel anger—that red-hot, jaw-clenching emotion I’m particularly bad at managing—it is because I believe my rights have been violated. There is typically a sense of frustration: I was on a beeline toward a goal and now I’m being blocked. And also unfairness: Someone or something is to blame for my frustration, and what’s more, they’re wrong.
Like all emotions, anger serves a purpose. It can motivate us to stand up for ourselves—and others—against bullies and despots. But anger can also get out of hand. When I lose my temper with my husband or kids, for example, I end up saying things that are hurtful. And in the current pandemic, the ultimate enemy is a virus that, while blameworthy, isn’t going to change course simply because we yell, scream, and stomp our feet.
If you sense that your students are feeling anger, listen empathically. You, too, are surely angry about some aspect of the current situation, and it may help them to know that anger is a normal human response to what’s going on right now.
Next, help your students manage their anger. One technique is to write about what’s going on using third-person pronouns. For instance, you might give students an assignment writing about the things that are making them most angry right now from the perspective of a narrator telling a story of the Pandemic of 2020. Research by psychologist Ethan Kross suggests that this shift in perspective diminishes anger by encouraging thoughtful reflection as opposed to rumination.
This is not the last time in their lives that your students will experience anger. The fact that they are experiencing anger at the same time and about the same things presents a golden opportunity to help them learn to understand and manage their emotions—now and long after the current crisis has passed.
Angela Duckworth, the founder and CEO of the education nonprofit Character Lab, is a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. You can follow Character Lab on Twitter @TheCharacterLab.
The opinions expressed in Ask a Psychologist: Helping Students Thrive Now are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.