When I first led an anger management group at the jail, most of the curricula I could find seemed pretty terrible: preachy and unrealistic. After leading the group several times now, this is what I’ve come up with. A few things are gleaned from the internet but much of it is my own. Feel free to use an alter any of the material that don’t have an author listed.
It’s an eight-week group meeting for one hour each week. Some of the classes don’t really last an hour, but people are fine with getting out early.
Session one: Intro
Group policies (attendance. responsibilities of facilitator and group members)
Discuss quote: “Usually when people are sad, they don’t do anything. They just cry over their condition. But when they get angry, they bring about a change.” – Malcolm X
(Because he was a leader of the Black Muslims, you might not want to quote Malcolm X if there’s heavy race-based conflict in your facility. As a white person, I chose to quote a black leader who was a former convict because I think it indicated that my allegiance wasn’t just to my own group of white prison staff, and I want to shake up expectations around the class.)
How can anger be used productively? List positive and negative applications of anger.
Discuss different ways of expressing anger (assertive, aggressive, passive aggressive, bottling up).
Homework: anger inventory
Session two: Neuroscience of anger
Explain that by looking at people’s brains with scans, scientists can tell that different parts of the brain are more active when people experience different emotions. Some of the more basic parts of our brain are good at protecting us, but don’t always know best. Anger can hijack the more advanced parts of our brain in charge of planning and reasoning.
“Flight or flight” handout – discuss positive and negative applications of this reaction (e.g. rescuing someone in danger or escaping danger vs. fighting someone over a minor problem)
“How anger works in the brain” handout
Discuss other factors that affect how the brain works (sleep deprivation, hunger/low blood sugar, caffeine, alcohol, drugs) and how they affect anger
Discuss how general stress level predisposes you to overreact
Homework: anger incident
Session three: Anger scale
Introduction to anger scale. Draw scale 0-10 on a poster. If someone is at 0 anger, how do they feel? At 3? At 5? At 7? At 10? What might they do at these different levels? Discuss difference between the anger you feel and the actions you take: someone at 8 might feel like throwing punches but doesn’t necessarily do so.
Checkin: what was the highest you got on the anger scale this week? How did you handle it?
Activity: pass out slips of paper, each with a scenario that might make you angry. Each person reads theirs (allow people to pass or hand these off to a neighbor in case they’re uncomfortable reading). Discuss each scenario: How mad would this make you? What’s your interpretation of the situation? What would you do?
Homework: anger incident with anger scale
Session four: Hidden and open emotions
Check-in with anger scale: Each person (including facilitator) says the highest number they reached on the anger scale during the past week. They can tell about the situation if they want.
Group activity: each group has a poster with a scale of “least OK to show in jail” to “most OK to show in jail.” They have post-it notes with emotions (happiness, sadness, hate, love, homesickness, fear, humor/fun, anger.) As a group they position the notes along the scale. Whole class discusses why they placed the notes where they did.
Discuss how everyone experiences the above emotions in jail, but some are more acceptable than others. Fear or sadness may get expressed as anger because that doesn’t make you as vulnerable to being taken advantage of.
Homework and List of emotions
Session five: Resentment and forgiveness
Check-in with anger scale
Difference between in-the-moment anger and ongoing resentment/grudges
Reading aloud: Nelson Mandela on forgiveness. I start by summarizing the background of South African apartheid (total inequality of the majority, more severe and long-lasting than American segregation, Mandela imprisoned for planning to overthrow the government.) This reading is unfailingly popular because the group members are impressed with the horrific details of Mandela’s 27-year imprisonment and the fact that he then went on to be the leader of a nation.
Discussion of what it takes to move on emotionally from the experience of being imprisoned.
Discussion of how to handle long-lasting anger (e.g. against family members who neglected or abused you in childhood – many inmates have had this experience). When do you find you’re able to move on and still interact with the person? When do you decide it doesn’t work to have this person in your life?
Session six: Apologies
Check-in with anger scale
Dicussion: how can you tell when someone’s apology is fake? What makes you feel an apology is sincere? Can give examples of politicians’ or other famous people’s “non-apology apologies”, ones that lay the blame on other people for being upset rather than taking responsibility for their own actions.
Read aloud/summarize: The fake apology
What makes an apology go well or badly in your experience? How do you make amends when you have hurt someone? How do you reconcile when both people have wronged each other?
Homework: read Anatomy of an apology
Session seven: Anger in relationships
Check-in with anger scale
Reading aloud: Fighting fair: Rules for couples
Discussing this reading easily takes most of the hour. Try to focus the discussion not just on what participants’ partners have done wrong (this is where the conversation naturally goes) but toward how to handle unfair actions a partner has taken, how to handle your own impulses toward unfair behavior. What constitutes abuse? When is it time to break up? To me this is the saddest session because it becomes clear how few of them have been in a reasonably healthy relationship or even see that as a possibility.
Homework: What advice would you give to a young person on how to handle disputes with their partner?
Session eight: Anger and children
Check-in with anger scale
Discussion: For those who are parents, how do you handle anger towards your children? Amazingly to me, someone often says that children are too young to know better and he couldn’t get mad at his child. (I suspect many of my group members who are fathers have not spent much time, if any, with their children due to incarceration and separation from the children’s mothers.) I give the example of a toddler sticking their finger in your eye. Even if they’re too young to know that it hurts you, it still hurts and you’re probably surprised and angry for a minute, and it might take some effort to respond appropriately to the child. I also ask if anyone present believes their parents never got angry at them. If all of our parents got angry at us when we were kids, we will probably get angry with our kids too.
How do they feel about physical punishment? What’s the difference between spanking and beating? (Expect this to bring up strong feelings for some people, as it would be very unlikely to have a group of prisoners in which no one was physically abused as a child.) If you choose to spank your child, how do you keep from going overboard? To me, the upshot is that the parent has to be in control of their own behavior. Don’t spank your child if you’re too angry—whatever discipline you give must be for the child’s well-being, not for venting your own frustration. Time-out is not just for children; you may need some time to cool down before you’re able to respond appropriately to whatever your child did.
Presentation of certificates
Discussion: suggestions for improvements to the class.
Thank class for participating actively in discussions.
Some other bits that get tossed in as appropriate:
A brief moment of CBT: It’s not just the situation itself that makes you mad, but your interpretation of it. If someone bumps into you and you think it was on purpose, you’re madder than if you think it was a mistake. At times we assume the worst and get angrier than is called for. How can we check our perceptions?
A frequent topic during check-ins is: why are some correctional officers such assholes? A good time to introduce the concept: “Hurt people hurt people.” (People who are hurt, hurt other people.) If someone comes in to their job and acts rude and difficult, it’s probably not because all is going well in their life. We can’t know what’s going on, but we can guess they’re not feeling good inside. It doesn’t excuse their behavior, but it may help us understand better.
Self-disclosure on the part of the facilitator is really tricky. In the weekly check-ins, I don’t want to be the only one who doesn’t share. But I also can’t talk about a lot of possible causes of anger—disagreement with coworkers or my husband are off the table, for example, because they’ll start picking apart the mental health team or my marriage and none of that ultimately helps them trust that I am a person competent to help them. Also, a lot of the causes of frustration in my life are ones they would love to have. I’m grumpy because the baby was teething all night? They haven’t seen their children in weeks, months, or years. Traffic was bad? They dream about being free to drive again. Etc. I’ve found the safest strategy is to just give a number and be vague about the actual cause (which they are free to do also) or to have a gripe about my in-laws. Everyone is pretty much on the same page there.
Expect that some topics will bring up strong emotions. Anything about children is emotional for parents separated from their children. Topics about relationships are difficult for people who are worried about their partners leaving them while they’re locked up. In the exercise with slips of paper with anger-provoking scenarios, I recently had someone react very strongly to the slip he drew, which I thought of as something pretty minor. It turned out to have been a situation that kicked off a melee in which he was stabbed.
Address other topics as needed. The week that two buildings of people were crammed into one building while renovations were done, their anger about that was our main topic. The week of the Baltimore riots, we talked about how a situation that suddenly erupts may be a product of a long-simmering anger, and what makes a public expression of anger productive or unproductive.