Angry kids chill with The Bubblegum Guy

Controlling our feelings isn't easy. It's something we have to learn.

Steven Russell

Controlling our feelings isn't easy. It's something we have to learn. For those finding it tough, a story featuring a cartoony lad might well help with their anger management. Steven Russell met his creator

INSPIRATION invariably comes when you least expect it and from the unlikeliest of sources. Dr Joost Drost, for instance, has a little tyke to thank for highlighting a powerful method of connecting with people. Today, he's a consultant clinical psychologist in Colchester; back in the 1970s, Dr Drost (it's Dutch) was often minding other people's children. “When I was about 14, in '70/'71, I was babysitting a lot and one of the very difficult rascals” - he was about seven - “taught me about storytelling,” he explains. “He had two sisters, and whenever I had the three of them together he was mayhem! I was forever chasing him as the 14-year-old babysitter. Then the sisters went away for a night and I had to look after him. I said 'I've got all the time in the world to put you to bed; shall I tell you a story?' He said 'Can I tell you a story?' And that's where it began. We just started making up stories about anything.”

Fast-forward a goodly number of years and the psychologist was running a lot of anger management groups for children, working with colleague Sydney Bayley. Dr Drost wrote “the Bubblegum story” for these youngsters in about 1996.

Storytelling with - not to - youngsters is a great thing, he says. “Children try out their ideas and thoughts; try to deal with feelings in the imaginary world. It is their own little laboratory to try out life; to practise till they get it right and can try it out in real life.”

The Bubblegum Guy deals with self-esteem and self-control in a metaphorical way. It's about Guy - a boy born with an immoveable piece of bubblegum in his mouth. When he doesn't get what he wants, he gets angry and a bubble grows. When it explodes, people around him are covered in sticky goo and get annoyed with the consequences of Guy losing his temper. It doesn't help that his classmates delight in winding him up so he blows his top. “The story worked very well. The kids loved it.”

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Dr Drost added chapters over time, “and then Sydney said 'You almost have a complete book there!'”

Bloomsbury published it in booklet form, which meant schools could use the technique. Feedback from teachers was positive.

Years ago, anger management concerns could account for 50-60% of a psychologist's caseload. There was always more demand for help than could be met by available resources, so he decided to add activities - turning it into a self-help workbook so young people could steer themselves through the process. It would be even better if parents could do it with their children.

Then came the chance to do a “top-up doctorate”, with one day a week away from his normal job in order to write the self-help version and conduct academic research to check if the method worked!

The Bubblegum Guy, published by Lucky Duck in 2004, is “one of the first evidence-based self-help books in the world”. Each chapter includes a number of activities. Chapter One's tasks, for instance, encourage children to think about who they are, to build up positive feelings about themselves, and see their anger problems as something that can be worked on. Chapter Four encourages children to look beyond themselves, and introduces problem-solving skills.

The book is designed to be used by parents or carers with their youngsters, by older children who want to work through it on their own, by teachers with their class, and by other people working with small groups or individuals.

Overall, it aims to help children learn to manage their emotions: to feel better about themselves, to feel in control of their lives, to set about achieving their goals in an acceptable way, and to lead happier lives.

The Bubblegum Guy also comes with a CD-Rom containing illustrations and worksheets, so they can be printed out and used by groups.

Before the book came out, the story and activities were used by an educational psychologist helping “about the toughest year 6 in Colchester and they wanted to make a difference before sending them off to secondary school”. Dr Drost was asked if he had anything that might help. “The teacher was very enthusiastic and was amazed that it worked with those kids.”

Dr Drost's own research involved 40 children with serious behavioural problems, “knowing I was going for the extreme end - because, once they have been referred to us, a lot has been tried. So they're not easy kids, but I thought if it works on them it will work on the others as well”.

The results were better than he anticipated. Children using the book were functioning better than at least 69% of the youngsters not using it. He wrote in the book's preface: “It is encouraging to be able to show that children can benefit from self-help workbooks as much as from clinic-based therapeutic interventions. It is evident we need more self-help.”

He has his fingers crossed that within a year or two the finance will be there to produce a computer version, which might appeal to children who find traditional books a struggle.

At the heart of the issue is the belief that if you're in control of life, you become more positive. If you're not in control of life, you become frustrated and your mental health is liable to suffer.

Can we say how many children have the kind of anger management issues that might benefit from The Bubblegum Guy?

“It's a very rough guess . . . I think about 40% - not having anger problems but being able to enjoy and learn from the book. I think lots of people struggle with anger, and even well-behaved kids might quite like learning about anger management; and the too-well-behaved kids might need lessons in letting their anger out, in that sense.”

So, how much of a problem is anger management in childhood and why is it happening?

“What I want to start out by saying is, managing your anger is a skill that you learn. It's not a disease. At what age are people most aggressive?” I'd guess 18 months onwards. “Yeah. Two-, three-year-olds have the most aggressive acts - when they don't have the 'tools'. They push and shove. They have enough autonomy to move about; they don't have the skills to express their anger in any other way or to express their wishes. From then on it's a lifelong process to learn to manage your anger.”

The reason why some children are not learning it seems to be down to role models: too many poor ones and not enough good ones.

“Nowadays, society is so complex; a child gets bombarded by role models. In the old days it was the priest, the head teacher, the father of the family etc, and that was it. Nowadays it's pop stars, it's (the) computer, it's things on television.

“As children have more role models to choose from, they come up with more bizarre examples. If we don't know how to deal with a situation, we wrack our brains for an example. That happens in a split second: 20 examples go through your mind, and you pick probably the most 'impressive' one - and you use it. So if a child wants to show how angry it is, he uses the most expressive example.

“Nowadays, unfortunately, you get lots of eight-, nine-year-olds that shout to their mums 'I'm going to kill myself.' It's just about making a very impressive statement. The mums are very alarmed, but it's not about the child wanting to kill itself; it's the example that came to him.

“We still do it as adults, but we can take a number of steps back. We know that example is one step too far and it won't get us what we want. The child can't do that. So at one end we see more extreme behaviour because there are more extreme examples around.”

Meanwhile, research in America and Canada highlights the importance of a lack of positive role models. “It's not so much time spent in front of a computer or a television (by a child), it's about whether as a parent you're around and whether you are the right role model. And if you have a problem with anger yourself, you need to work on it,” says Dr Drost.

There can be other shining examples in a child's life, of course: one or two gifted teachers whom they want to emulate. The good news is, it seems one positive role model has the capacity to trump a larger number of paler imitations.

Dr Drost feels modern children aren't more angry than their counterparts from years gone by, but behaviour today is more shocking because youngsters have that wide-ranging stock of poor examples from which to draw their response.

In many cases, it's important to also help adults involved with a child. Faced with an angry and aggressive person, our instinctive reaction is to meet fire with fire - which invariably succeeds only in inflaming the situation, either in the home or classroom.

“Most people learn by experience and find a way out of it. You don't need a psychologist; you don't need a therapist, quite often. But sometimes, certainly in the situations where it gets very 'stuck' and everybody is pointing the finger of blame at you - which is very much the story of The Bubblegum Guy - it will be a very difficult situation to get out of.”

Unchecked, the risk is troubled relationships at home and work. “And, also, not being a good role model yourself.” It can lead to damaged self-esteem and a chip on the shoulder. “What you do is slowly develop a view that the world is against you, and if people look in your direction, even, you feel attacked. You become hyper-alert.”

Dr Drost has three children of his own, aged between about 15 and 20. Has he always found it easy to put his psychological knowledge into practice on the home front?

“I think you learn a lot from your child, but you see yourself making as many mistakes,” he smiles. “I'm no way a kind of a perfect parent. I know a lot about anger . . . do I manage it very well? Not always!”

Dr Drost appears at The Ford County (cricket) Ground in Chelmsford on March 5 as part of the Essex Book Festival. His talk will give parents guidance about helping children better manage their emotions, and thus feel better about themselves. Box office: 01206 573948. Web link:

WE can't be happy all the time and we can't make ourselves feel better with material rewards. That's something we all need to realise. Dr Joost Drost reckons a significant number of parents believe they have to resolve every issue for their offspring and try to make life perfect. It can't be done . . .

If a child falls over and hurts his knee, you tell him it will sting for a while but won't last forever. That way, he learns to deal with pain and setbacks and has the confidence to realise things will eventually turn out all right. “But if a child is unhappy and we give it sweets, and we give it the next computer game, they don't learn to deal with unhappiness. If a child is bored and we resolve those problems, they don't learn to deal with boredom.”

Similarly, if a parent steps in to soothe a two-year-old's tantrum, the adult effectively takes responsibility for the outburst and the child can pull back and never take ownership of its feelings and the consequences. “But if you kind of say 'Well, you just have your tantrum while I have a cup of tea, and when you've calmed down we can talk about it,' the two-year-old learns to deal with his temper and learns to take responsibility himself.”

Dr Drost was talking recently to a boy who spent much of his time on his computer, rather than going to school. It was said the computer fulfilled a need the classroom couldn't meet.

The lad was also partial to doughnuts. The consultant clinical psychologist explained he could feed him bananas which, while nice, wouldn't fill the boy's doughnut-shaped hole. Playing on the computer was like those bananas - pleasant enough, but not meeting the underlying need.

“If we try to keep kids happy, we keep filling the hole, but not with the right doughnut. The right doughnut might be spending time with mum and dad, doing something. It doesn't need to be a perfect mum and dad; it needs to be that contact, that closeness, that warmth and understanding.”