Bullying Featured — 06 December 2011
Using the Anger Triangle & the “I-Message” in Bully Prevention

Anger is a complex emotion and one common to us all. However, few of us, especially children and teens, truly understand the underlying roots of our anger and what our expressions of anger really mean. In bully prevention, managing anger plays a key role in addressing the problem at its source: the bully.

The Anger Triangle

Below is an image of what experts call the Anger Triangle. This simple image is one that can easily be displayed on a chalk board or white board and is a valuable tool for starting the conversation among students and teachers about bully prevention through anger management and support:

The point here is that anger is only the visible expression of a much more complex system. When we are angry, we show that emotion in order to hide other emotions, such as fear or inadequacy, and our decision to do this is rooted in our value system and beliefs. That’s why students who experience abuse at home are far more likely to repeat that pattern in school and become bullies.

Often, bullies come from a place where abuse is the norm or consequences for one’s actions are not followed through. Their bullying behavior pattern is, therefore, part of their value system, and asking them to merely focus on anger managementglosses over the root of the problem. Their anger at another person (the victim) is only the visible expression of a much deeper issue that needs to be addressed.

The “I-Message”

Another key strategy in anger management education is helping students to rephrase their anger with an “I-Message” instead of using a “You-Message” directed at the source of their anger. When working on bully prevention strategies, the “I-Message” can be utilized by both bullies trying to take control of their actions and victims trying to confront a bully who may not realize the impact of his/her actions.

The pattern of the “I-Message” is as follows:

I feel ______________ when you __________ because ______________

The key to using this phrase properly is in the details. Many people have criticized the “I-Message” as a means of blaming the other person in different language. Basically, the theory is that the “I-Message” in the wrong hands is really just a polite “You-Message” used to control the other person. Especially in intimate relationships prone to relational aggression the phrasing of this message can have the alternate effect if improperly executed. Therefore, as educators, we need to more clearly define each element of this message for our students.

  1. I feel…This first statement identifies the emotion. Clearly, the easiest answer is “I feel angry,” but does that really get at the root of one’s emotion? As the Anger Triangle suggests, anger is often a mask worn over more complex emotions. Encourage students to try and define their anger in more complex terms (i.e. don’t say “angry,” “mad,” or “upset”).
  2. When you…Here is the stickiest section of the “I-Message.” Since the speaker is now addressing the other person, it is tempting to place blame here:

    I feel like I am invisible when you act like a diva …
    The tone of this phrase is negative, blaming the other party for her actions which may not be intentional Also, by using a somewhat derogatory phrase to name the action, this puts the other person immediately on the defensive. It would be more productive to phrase this element as follows:I feel like I am invisible when you focus your energy onto others at times when we are hanging out.A successful “I-Message” is rooted in its tone as well as its structure. Make sure students are aware of the powerful connotations of each word they use.
  3. Because…The final line of the “I-Message” seeks to give even more detail about the root cause of one’s feelings. Now that we have descriptively named the emotion and identified the offending action in neutral language, explain why B causes A.I feel like I am invisible when you focus your energy onto others at times when we are hanging out because I do not feel valued as your friend.

    The “because” phrase should similarly return to the speaker and his/her particular emotions, not be an attempt to cast blame onto the other person. Again, the point of the “I-Message” is getting students to own their anger, not blame it on another person.

Anger Management & Bully Prevention

Helping students to understand and control anger at its source is one of the first lines of defense in bully prevention. As teachers, we also need to model this behavior and make conscious efforts to phrase our own frustrations in non-blaming “I-Messages.”

Bully prevention starts with anticipating the problems that children and young adults encounter as they learn about emotions and the proper responses to them.Anger management is only one element of that overall plan, but it may make a big difference.

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About Author

Andrea

Andrea is a college writing teacher whose work experience includes everything from coordinating YMCA after-school programs for at-risk youth to tutoring developmental writing students to general classroom instruction. In addition to writing professionally for essay writing service Essay Tigers, Andrea currently teaches a range of adult community college students in both online and physical classroom settings. At home, she keeps in shape by running after her two young daughters.

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