“Balancing the Pencil on it’s Point”

“Balancing the Pencil on it’s Point” and how we respond to anger.

“His rage was his worriment” Lewis Grassic Gibbon

“Mr. Woodier, I have anger issues. My French teacher shouted at me. I swore at her and walked out.” Mairi seemed visibly shaken. The tone of her voice wasn’t defiant; it sounded more like a plea for help.

The obvious remedy for such an outburst is a dose of anger management, or is it? When a young person’s anger is seen as a threat to others, the context and reasons for that anger can easily be overlooked. Do our cognitive-behavioural strategies even work, or do we risk increasing the experience of victimisation in some children’s lives? Schools may inadvertently pathologise anger instead of seeing how it can be a constructive and healing force.

Mairi (not her real name) was in first year of high school. When I first met her she was only five years old, and she spent most of the school day sitting on her teacher’s lap or under a classroom table. Her behaviour seesawed between angry outbursts and emotional shutdown. When she came to me and told me about her outburst in French, I wondered how I could help her see that the reason for her anger wasn’t coming from some kind of psychological weakness or flaw.

I can probably mark out my career by various failed attempts at addressing anger and aggression.

Twenty years ago, I remember driving a minibus on Interstate 94 north of Chicago. We weren’t even out of the city limits and a fight broke out among the half dozen boys in the back. When in school, they were grouped in a class for what was called back then behaviourally disordered children. In other words, in a neighbourhood and school renowned for crime and gang violence, this merry band had been labelled the most violent and aggressive. We had practiced our anger management skills for weeks, but it was back to the drawing board for me.

Anger management has become part of what Val Gillies calls the new orthodoxy of emotion 1. Uncontrolled emotionality is seen as a threat to learning, and pupils are taught how to abstract feelings in order to better manage them. Schools are expected to teach emotional and social skills. These things may sound admirable, until we look more closely.

Gillies work in three inner city schools in London found that real issues around justice and power relations were obscured. Rather than using expressions of emotion to explore these issues, emotional responses like anger, outrage, or hurt were detached from the circumstances that provoked them. In addition, judgements of right and wrong left little room for teachers to engage with alternative moral frameworks without misinterpreting or pathologising them. Entirely missing was an understanding of the relational dynamics shaping the acting out of emotions. “The challenging behaviour we encountered was more often associated with social connectedness than its absence. Breeched social codes, personal loyalty and misplaced humour tended to drive confrontations” 2: 199.

Back in Chicago, instead of focusing on anger management skills, I gave each boy instruction on a skill they could use on our next adventure. I taught one how to recognise snakes, another how to take photographs, and another how to cook on a camp stove. The time came for our next trip. This time we made it all the way to the Wisconsin River. Before we set out in our canoes, we went climbing on one of the bluffs along the river. As I describe what happened next, remember these were city kids, and they had never been out of their urban environment. Back in their neighbourhood, every day was about survival. Most had older brothers who were gang members. Threat was everywhere, and status and reputation for fighting meant everything.

The first boy, Justin, short but muscular and bristling with bravado, stepped up to the cliff face. Half way up, he froze. Something was wrong. He was freaking out. The others shouted words of encouragement. “You can do it!” Looking back, I now realise that this was probably a turning point. From the moment this boy, the toughest in our group, experienced the encouragement of the others at the moment when he felt weak, the dynamics of our group changed. Instead of their energy going into fighting one another and testing one another’s strength, they began to work together.

I once had a teacher of educational philosophy who would leave the classroom in mid-sentence and re-enter having taken on the persona of a famous philosopher. It was always amusing, but it was also a great way to get us to use our imagination. Let us now imagine that Rousseau was also observing what happened that day on the banks of the Wisconsin River and allow him to enlighten us.

“You have forgotten there are two kinds of love. When you were trying to rationally explain why he should respect others, Justin only saw this as an attempt to control and frustrate him. This only added to the threat he had experienced in his childhood and his craving for dominance and prestige. This is what I refer to as amour propre. It displaced that other kind of passion, amour de soi, the innate concern to preserve one’s own existence and to have a fruitful life. Justin will need amour de soi if he is to have the strength to become a successful agent in his own recovery from the trauma in his childhood.”

Rousseau continues, “When Justin froze on the cliff, he experienced, in a helpful way, the real limits of his powers and abilities. At that moment when he was vulnerable, he was freely given encouragement and recognition from his peers without having to dispossess others.”

It is not only kids growing up in inner city neighbourhoods that experience imminent, ongoing malice and threat. My meetings with Mairi continued. I learned that despite her cheeky smile and Glaswegian swagger, she was easily shamed. I knew some of the details about her early childhood. Over the next few weeks, I was to learn more.

Most of our conversations would begin by Mairi telling me about phone calls from her dad who was in prison. Something was weighing on her mind. I could imagine an unsuspecting teacher publicly reprimanding her and then being shocked and outraged when Mairi’s anger erupted. I gave her time; I held back from giving advice or censoring her for her outbursts. The more I listened by expressing my curiosity and empathy, the more she shared and the more I understood her sense of shame and vulnerability.

“When I was little, my mum would lock me in a room when she was taking drugs. My mum and dad would fight. Sometimes one of my mum’s friends would try to help me but she was a junkie as well.”

I asked, “Have you ever felt like what happened to you was your own fault?”

I was taken back by the force of her answer.

“I always thought it was my fault.”

Mairi told me she was worried about her dad coming out of prison. Her dad had been incarcerated because of what he had done to Mairi. Mairi told me she wanted to say to her dad that he would have to do better. I said, “I can’t tell you exactly what to say, but you show a lot of courage to be honest about these things.”

Next week Mairi continued, “I told him on the phone that this is his last chance to be a parent to me. If he gets it wrong this time, I am going to cut him off. I don’t think he took me seriously; I asked my gran to tell him.”

I commented: “It must have been really hard for you when you were little and your mum locked you in a room and your dad didn’t help you.” I wanted Mairi to experience my empathy at the time when she had felt most helpless and vulnerable. “Have you ever wondered if the anger you feel has something to do with what happened to you when you were little?”

“Most of it.” Again, I was surprised by the force of her answer.

“Perhaps being angry was the only way you could protect yourself. Maybe you needed to feel stronger when other people were not protecting you?”

Mairi replied, “One boy was picking on me saying things. When he found out how angry I get, he stopped picking on me.”

“So getting angry still helps you?”

“It helps me get out my stress. I cry when I am angry.”

Finally, I ventured some advice, “Rather than say you have anger issues, wouldn’t it be better to say you have issues with what happened to you when you were little?”

It would be naive to think Mairi will never be angry again, especially when she is publicly shamed or made to feel weak. The issues around her anger are not fully resolved, but fixing her anger was never my intention. If I had tried to anger manage her, Mairi would have believed her anger was her problem and she needed to fix it. I gave her time so that together we could explore her feelings and thoughts about what happened, and I commended her whenever she expressed courage. I prompted her to think about context, but I tried not impose my preconceived ideas. Where she was most vulnerable, I expressed empathy. I rarely had to prompt Mairi, she told me when she wanted to talk and when she had enough. Mairi’s question: “Can we do something happier now?” was my cue to take out the UNO cards.

Mairi has a much better chance of realising that she doesn’t need her anger anymore to protect herself. However, I think it is important to acknowledge that sometimes the anger young people struggle with can end in tragedy.

A couple of years ago, BBC news flashed up on my TV screen the name and photo of a young man instantly recognisable to me. He was one of the boys who canoed with me down the Wisconsin river. In fact, Juan was the one in the group that I thought had the best chance of recovering from the trauma of growing up in the inner city of Chicago. Although he had a problem with fighting other boys, I never felt threatened. Rather, he had made some good choices; he had sought out relationships with adults who could offer him support and love.

I listened to the details of another mass shooting. Juan had shot a doctor, a pharmacist, a police officer, and then himself. There were triggering circumstances, broken relationships, and perhaps a tendency to be impulsive. But it was still hard to understand why. Here was a young man who had given up on life, and that was profoundly sad and shocking.

Caring for young people who suffer so deeply and sometimes cause great suffering in the lives of others raises deep and disturbing questions. How do these tragedies and the suffering of others affect us, and how can we continue to offer hopeful and sensitive care? I once asked a scientist working on a nuclear fusion project a question: “I bet it is hard to explain to someone like me what exactly you do?”

He replied enthusiastically, “No, it’s easy. My work is like ‘balancing a pencil on it’s point.’”

Seriously, how do we keep a balance between wanting to give up because our work seems futile and seeking to control every bad thing that can happen to a young person? How do we not become indifferent to suffering on the one hand and also avoid becoming unrealistic in our sense of responsibility for the lives of others? Unresolved or unbalanced, we either give up, or we make people our projects. We end up struggling with anxiety and feeling frustrated by our lack of control.

I wonder if you have ever been in a situation like this? You have had an outstanding experience with a young person, and as they go home at the end of the day all you can think about is the chaos that the young person is going home to. Perhaps you have opened your home to a child and given them all the love you can give, but you know they are going back to a family where nothing much has changed. You agonise over your inability to really change things and end up asking “What’s the point?” We need to recover the possibility of ‘acting well,’ of doing the best we can in a given situation, whatever may become of it.3 Ultimately our motivation to keep on acting well in the face of suffering and chaos will probably depend on our personal values and deeply held beliefs.

To those who prescribe simplistic solutions such as anger management, I recognise that there is a genuine desire to help. Having a solution helps us feel we know how to do our job, but there may be potentially harmful reasons for why we seek simple solutions to complex problems. Experiencing another person’s anger and aggression can alter the way we think. When relating to young people who have suffered maltreatment and interpersonal trauma, our thinking can become focused solely on outcomes.4 We find ourselves acting rather than thinking, making rigid assumptions about a young person rather than recognising the nuances of their behaviour and the uncertainty of our own thinking.

In addition, the very things that I want to change in you, if I am honest, I can probably recognise in my own life. For example, can we really say that road rage is different to another kind of aggression? Are we not all tempted to elevate our desire for recognition and respect to the point of aggressively putting others down? Based on his experiences of being imprisoned in the Soviet Gulag, Solzhenitsyn observed:

“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” 5

If I am honest about my own tendencies, should I not approach a young person in a more gentle and non-judgemental way? Doing so, I probably have the best chance of being able to challenge how they see the world, especially when their view of the world has been distorted by suffering caused by others.

Keeping it real

  • Learn to be in the moment with young people when they are angry. Hold back from giving rational explanations and trying to fix their problems.
  • When trying to understand the significance of their anger, listen for the clues. Pay attention to the context.
  • Take time to explore the issues without judging the right and wrong of a situation or action.
  • Don’t be dismissive of the threat the young person is experiencing, real or perceived.
  • Don’t deal just with the consequences of anger. Remember anger has all kinds of causes.
  • Don’t underestimate the value of experiences where young people learn the limit of their power and ability to be in control, but make sure they are also able to learn what it is like to be supported and cared for when they feel vulnerable.
  • Empathy is a powerful tool to help children re-imagine the possibilities in their lives.


1. Dent N. A Rousseau Dictionary. Oxford, UK: Blackwell; 1992.
2. Gilles V. Social and emotional pedagogies: critiquing the new orthodoxy of emotion in classroom behaviour management, British Journal of Sociology of Education. 2011; 32(2): 185-202.
3. O’Donovan O. Begotten or Made? Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press; 1984.
4. Bevington D, Fuggle P, Fonagy P, Target M, Asen E. Innovations in practice: Adolescent Mentalization-Based Integrative Therapy (AMBIT) – a new integrated approach to working with the most hard to reach adolescents with severe complex mental health needs. Child and Adolescent Mental Health. 2013; 18(1): 46 – 51. Available from: http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/1385449/2/Fonagy_AMBIT_for_CAMH_finalSubmission.pdf [Accessed September, 2019].
5. Solzhenitsyn A. The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation [e-book]. Harvill Press: London; 2003 [cited 22/10/2019].

Copyright 2019, David Woodier. Permission granted to reproduce for personal and educational use only. Copyright notice must remain intact.

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