Some years ago, I smashed up our family’s shower head because it wasn’t doing what I wanted. Looking back, I probably should have dealt with it better.
Impulses do have their uses- if you need to jump out of oncoming traffic, for example, you want to be fast and decisive. But when it comes to anger and frustration, impulses often convince us to make bad choices… and then have to deal with the stinging regret afterwards. And, in my family’s case, the literal costs too.
The question of how to deal with anger is one I get asked quite often on Autistic Not Weird’s Facebook page (all links open in new windows). That said, as with a number of my articles, this advice isn’t solely intended for those on the autism spectrum. It’s basically for anyone who struggles with anger.
Ten tips for young people on how to deal with anger
Even more than most of my other article, this list comes from the heart. Because when I first wrote this, I didn’t do it for Autistic Not Weird. I wrote it for someone very close to me.
This person has given me permission to expand the letter I wrote into a full article, on the condition that I give no details that could be used to identify them. (If you’re that person and you happen to be reading this, I’ve kept my word. And by the way, I’m deeply, deeply proud of you.)
Since the advice has worked so well for them, I’m keeping all ten points the same and keeping them in the order I originally wrote them. I hope it helps you all too.
Usual disclaimers: I am not suggesting these strategies are the ‘correct’ ones for all people. Nor am I suggesting that these strategies are specific to those on the autism spectrum. As with other articles, pick and choose the bits that apply to you or your loved ones. Different bits of advice may apply to different scenarios. May contain nuts.
Off we go.
1. Take that extra split-second to think
I’ve lost count of how many young people I’ve given this advice to. And if I’d followed it myself a few years ago, maybe my parents wouldn’t have had to pay for a new shower head.
But of course, it’s more than shower heads that get destroyed by people being impulsive. Windows, relationships, lives… they can all be destroyed quite easily by people who don’t take that extra split-second’s thinking time.
A lot can happen in a split second. Several of life’s most important moments are only split-seconds long. And even a split-second is more than enough time to pause, let a conscious thought run through your head, and realise “stuff it, this isn’t worth it.”
The age-old advice that adults give to angry kids is “count to ten”- and it’s good advice for exactly the same reason. The more time you spend thinking about something, the lower the chance of you doing something you’ll regret.
(Just try not to be like a certain child that a teacher friend of mine once knew. After being told “don’t get angry- count to ten before you hit them”, he counted to ten… and then hit them. He always was good at following instructions literally.)
The more split-seconds you give yourself to think, the less you lash out. Trust me on this.
Also- if impulses are something you struggle with, I whole-heartedly recommend chess as a way of learning how to think before you act. I wrote a whole article about it here. (I’ve seen chess change young people’s lives. No exaggeration.)
2. Trust your knowledge of right and wrong
There’s a lovely phrase I like, which gives perfect advice so effortlessly:
“Do what you know to be right.”
Humans- generally speaking- have a strong sense of right and wrong. Even those who do bad things know they are doing bad things.
This advice is most important to me when I’m in two minds about whether to do something. Often I’m at the stage where I’m looking for reasons why it’s “not really that bad”. (Before people do anything harmful, the first thing they usually do is justify it to themselves.) In those situations, it’s pretty clear that I already know which decision is right and which is wrong. That knowledge of good and bad has been built up all my life, and I should trust my own experience.
In my experience, anger is often made worse by feelings of isolation. You feel like you’re the only one affected by the issues you’re facing, and this can make it difficult to associate with other people (or even think about them).
And I get it- when you’re angry, you’re not exactly keen on thinking of things that make you warm and fuzzy inside. But this is exactly why it matters. Remembering the people you love may mean the difference between doing something you regret, or being able to take that extra split-second and change your mind.
And for bonus points- when you’re thinking about the good people in your life, you’re not thinking about the bad people. (And think about it- if someone is horrible to you, they don’t deserve to take up any space in your head!)
Bottom line: if they don’t care about you, their opinions shouldn’t matter. I know they often do matter to us, and it’s tricky to keep someone out of our head when they’re annoying us- but if you can replace them with thoughts of nicer people, that can seriously help.
4. Remember the people who have faith in you
This is kind of an extension of the point above, but keep reading.
Thinking about the people you love may help you feel better. But on top of that, it also gives you a very good reason to not lash out.
I’m not going to lie- if a young person I care about (and there are hundreds of them) punched someone else, I would feel bad. I would feel guilty. I would wonder whether I could have done something to help them, even though it was their decision and they’re responsible for their own actions.
It’s a difficult but important fact to remember- by punching a bad guy, you’re hurting the good guys in your life too. Think about them, and use them as your reason to calm down.
Oh, and a note for adults:
I put my faith in a lot of young people. And almost 100% of the time, the faith is well-placed. Young people (and people in general) are very keen to not let others down if they know that the other person believes in them.
That’s why some of the young helpers in my Boys’ Brigade company are only 13. You’d normally expect them to be older before taking on any responsibility, but never underestimate a 13-year-old who is happy taking on responsibilities for people who believe in them.
(Of course, occasionally a young person does let me down. And it hurts when they do. But the hurt is worth it, in exchange for all the times they become better people because an adult had faith in them.)
5. Read Growing Up Autistic
Yes, at this point in the letter I did recommend this article to the person I was writing to. This person wasn’t actually autistic, but I’d already been told by dozens of people that the advice is good for young people in general.
And like I said, I’m reproducing this list just as it was first written. So this is the link if you haven’t read it yet. Literally hundreds of thousands of people have read it, which I guess counts as good feedback in itself.
6. Find a distraction!
I was very easily distracted while I was growing up. And this was pointed out to me so many times by so many adults that I took it for granted that distractions were a bad thing.
I could go into huge amounts of detail about why this is good for you, but I’d rather you just tried it yourself: when you get angry, think of something you love, and do that instead.
There’s a time and a place for being distracted. But when you find it, use it.
7. Talk to someone you trust
Sometimes talking to someone can solve the whole problem.
Sometimes talking to someone doesn’t quite solve the problem, but still makes you feel a load better.
Both of these reasons are enough to talk to someone when you’re angry. If you need time alone then by all means spend some time alone- and when you’re ready, and if you still have some anger to get out, talk to someone you trust.
While you’re doing so, of course, try not to take your anger out on them. Take it out in front of them, but not on them.
And a note to those who are willing to be the listening post:
The right thing to say to someone depends entirely on who that someone is, and what mood/situation they’re in. So I won’t claim to have a one-size-fits-all answer.
But I will say that if someone feels awful, try not to say “oh, you shouldn’t be feeling awful. You should be feeling better. Feel better now.” It sounds very much like we’re being told our emotions are wrong, which is a bad thing to feel on top of everything else at that moment.
It’s a tricky tightrope- being supportive and positive without ‘correcting’ someone’s feelings. Personally, I usually start off by asking “so what makes you feel that way?” Whatever conversation follows, it’s a sign that you respect the way they’re feeling, and it shows that you’d ready to listen to them as well as talk.
8. Remember what kind of adult you want to be
Looking back, I’m amazed this was the eighth one I thought of when I first wrote this list. It’s arguably the most important one.
Children are often asked what they want to be when they grow up. Teenagers often plan ahead for what life will be like when they reach 18. And although it’s good to have aspirations, this can give rise to a misconception: that once we hit adulthood, we automatically start thinking like adults.
That last sentence is a load of rubbish.
In my experience, 18-year-olds think very much like 17-year-olds, except a little bit older.
17-year-olds think very much like 16-year-olds, except a little bit older.
16-year-olds think very much like 15-year-olds, except a little bit older.
And so on.
The point I’m making is that there’s no magic spell that falls over you on your 18th birthday. The adult you become on your 18th birthday is the result of the choices you make over those eighteen years.
In my experience of watching people grow up, friendly and loving children become friendly and loving adults.
The kids and teenagers who learn how to be patient become patient adults. (See the next point.)
The kids and teenagers who are fine with being nasty become adults who are fine with being nasty.
Please don’t spend your teenage years waiting for ‘adulthood’ to do the growing up for you. Build yourself up to be the person you want to be… and on your 18th, you may magically find that you’ve become that person for some reason.
9. Take every opportunity to be patient
I’m reminded of a scene from Evan Almighty- an otherwise dire film with one absolutely beautiful scene. (If you have any particular disdain for Christianity, feel free to skip to the end of the paragraph.) God, played by Morgan Freeman of course, meets Evan’s wife who says she is struggling with being patience with her husband. Morgan Freeman responds with ‘it’s an opportunity’.
The scene is here- skip to 1:00 and play from there.
I spent my life taking advantage of my good sides, rather than being limited by my weaknesses. In fact, I turned the negative stuff completely on its head by writing about it so I could help others.
I’m a former primary school teacher (no easy task), I have two university degrees and I’m halfway through my third.
I’ve been the captain of my Boys’ Brigade company for six years, and have shaped the lives of loads of young people.
Oh yeah, and I run an autism site which has had over 1.6 million page hits (at time of most recent edit, August 2018), and I run a Facebook community with tens of thousands of followers, plenty of whom have sent me emails thanking me for helping them or their children.
Both of those two lists are 100% accurate. [*2018 edit- something has changed. Thanks to Patreon, writing for Autistic Not Weird is now secure self-employment!!]
But this is not about accuracy. Guess which mindset opens the door to the best possible future for me?
When I was going through therapy, one of the first things I learned was that self-perception is everything.
Heck, even during my taekwondo years I was taught the difference between being able to break a block of wood and not breaking it- it was simply a matter of whether or not you wanted to break it. There was a lot of truth in that.
And two final things I can’t believe I forgot:
Yep, I missed these off the letter I wrote. If I write a sequel letter, I’ll use them then.
Humour is the alkaline to the acid of anger. It cancels it out. So watch something funny on TV. Tells jokes with your friends. Look at these pictures.
(Look, bacon flavour toothpaste! See, your problems just left again.)
Humour is amazing. Use it!
Know your triggers and avoid them
Just like the best way of winning an argument is to avoid it in the first place, the best way to deal with anger is to avoid the things that make you angry.
If your big sister comes into the room and you have a history of getting into fights with her, wait until you see the signs that usually lead to aggression, then pick up the iPad and go somewhere else.
If certain discussion topics make you angry, talk about something else.
If you’re cranky in the mornings when you don’t get enough sleep, go to bed a little earlier.
In conclusion, the TL;DR version:
Take an extra split-second to think. Seriously, a split-second can do so much.
You already know right from wrong. Trust your instincts.
Think about the people who love you. They’re the ones that matter.
Remember the ones who have put their faith in you. To quote Batman, “people deserve to have their faith rewarded.”
When you’re angry, think about something you love doing, and focus on that instead.
Talk to someone you trust. There’s a reason you trust them.
Remember what kind of adult you want to be. Because it takes practice.
Take every opportunity to be patient.
Define yourself by your strengths, not your weaknesses.
Oh yeah- and use humour. And avoid your triggers.
(Oh, and to anyone who doesn’t know, TL;DR means “too long; didn’t read” in internet language.)
Oh, and I wrote five more tips too!
Since writing for Autistic Not Weird is now my job, I’ve started writing article extensions as a thank you to people who are kind enough to support me via Patreon. (Patreon, by the way, is a site where writers/artists/musicians can get monthly support directly from their followers in exchange for various rewards.)
Underdogs, a near-future dystopia series where the heroes are teenagers with special needs, is a character-driven war story which pitches twelve people against an army of millions, balancing intense action with a deeply developed neurodiverse cast.
Chris Bonnello is a national and international autism speaker, available to lead talks and training sessions from the perspective of an autistic former teacher. For further information please click here (opens in new window). Autistic Not Weird on Facebook