Amy H. Morton, LMFT
Children of all ages, and even some adults, express anger in confusing ways. Like Matthew, children often act out their feelings rather than talking about them. Because of this ‘code language’, dealing with children’s anger can be an exhausting process for adults. One of the things that makes dealing with children’s anger more difficult is that when we are confronted with our children’s anger, often we become angry, too. So, instead of simply dealing rationally and dispassionately with our child, we are tempted to respond in anger.
This often kicks off a negative, non-productive series of events that includes a lot of screaming and yelling and very little problem solving or acknowledgment of feelings—two essential ingredients of an effective coping strategy.
Helping our children cope effectively with anger requires three (not so easy) steps. We must understand and accept what causes people to get angry. We must examine our own ways of dealing with anger and figure out whether we are setting a good example for our children. We must be prepared to offer the child alternatives to help him cope more effectively with his anger.
It’s Okay to be Angry
In our culture, folks treat anger like the outcast emotion. This happens in part because as children, many of us were taught that it was downright wrong—even sinful—to be angry. For some people, anger is such a taboo emotion that they can hardly admit to being angry. They will describe themselves as frustrated, disappointed, agitated, or any number of more acceptable euphemisms to avoid admitting to being angry.
Like other emotions, anger can cause problems when it is unchecked, unacknowledged or inappropriately expressed. When it comes to helping children cope with anger, an important first step for many adults is to affirm that it is not anger that is the problem, but what we do with our anger.
Why Do We Get Angry?
Anger is nature’s way of preparing us to deal with a threat (real or perceived). When a person gets angry, his body goes through both physical and emotional changes. While these changes differ some from person to person, one thing remains constant: the body begins to prepare to fight. The adrenaline starts flowing and the heart rate increases, as does respiration.
Children, like adults, can feel threatened on many levels. For example, a child who is angry about being picked on by a bully at school may feel that his physical wellbeing is threatened, and the bully’s taunts may also be threatening the child’s fragile self-esteem. Anger is a common response to situations that seem to be beyond our control.
Children, and adults, also get angry when basic self-image is threatened. This can include threats to those we love or are personally invested in. The degree to which we are invested in another person or idea (like political or religious ideas), is directly proportional to how angry we get when that person or idea is attacked.
It is important to emphasize that the anger response can occur when there is no actual threat, but only a perceived threat. For example, one child overheard only part of a conversation between his parents and thought that the family was moving out of state. In reality, it was the father’s brother who was moving, but the child was angry and sulked for days until he figured out the truth. One important way that parents can help children is to help them tell the difference in which threats are real and which are perceived.
What Do We Do With These Angry Feelings?
First and foremost, the goal is not to get rid of angry feelings, but to help children acknowledge and appropriately channel these feelings. We want to avoid, at all cost, giving children the message that it is not okay for them to be angry. Doing this teaches children to bottle up feelings, and this can lead to greater problems down the line. What we do want to teach children is to express their feelings without infringing on the rights of others. Teaching our children to put a cork in angry feelings may lead to depression later on. Parents, teachers and other adults must help children direct their feelings toward productive outcomes rather than simply shutting off the expression of feelings to preserve peace and quiet.
What Not To Teach Your Child
We simply pretend not to be angry. Sometimes we convince everyone, including ourselves that we are really not angry at all. This strategy seldom works because simply denying that feelings exist does not erase them, but simply causes the feelings to go “underground.”
2. Storehouse Anger:
A close cousin to denial, storehouse anger is the result of packing angry feelings back until a person simply can take no more and “explodes.” Instead of dealing with problems as they occur, a person who practices this method tends to keep score and remain silent until one day there is no more room to store the feelings.
This is the famous “kick the dog” syndrome. When mom or dad has a tough meeting with the boss, and instead of dealing with the anger at work, dumps the feelings on the family. Children and spouses are often the unwelcoming recipients of projected anger.
4. Explosive Anger:
People who have frequent episodes of explosive anger can have their families always walking on eggshells. Tiptoeing around a family member who cannot control his or her rage is extremely dangerous, both emotionally and potentially, physically. Think of this as the porcupine syndrome. People who indulge in explosive anger keep everyone at a safe emotional distance because those they love and live with are afraid to confront them or to get too close. Explosive anger is a serious problem. It is dangerous, a barrier to intimacy, and often is indicative of more serious emotional problems.
5. Anger Turned Inward:
Just as destructive as explosive anger, some people never really deal with the people in their lives with whom they are angry. Instead, they turn their angry feelings inward, inappropriately blaming themselves for what may not be their fault. Internalizing anger is often a precursor to depression.
If you see any of the above patterns at work in yourself or your family, one of the most important steps you can take for your children is to address the situation immediately and constructively. Sometimes individual or family therapy is a good beginning.
What Can I Do to Help My Angry Child?
Now that you know what not to teach your children, let’s focus on what positive steps parents can take. When dealing with children who are angry, there are three important steps parents can take.
1. Acknowledge that the child is angry. For example, if a child wants to go to a friend’s house, and the parents say no, the child may get angry. The parent can say, “I know you must be angry about not getting to go to your friend’s house.” This is an important step because acknowledgment of the anger affirms the child without necessarily agreeing with him.
2. Label the feeling. Giving the child a label for the feeling also helps the child to accept his feelings and can help restore a sense of self-control. Children do not know how to talk about feelings, so they act them out. Whether the acting out is a kiss for a parent they love or a tantrum when they are angry, children present parents with a constant game of charades when it comes to feelings. So, giving the child something to call the feeling is a step away from acting out and a step toward talking about the feeling.
3. Help the child “own” the feeling. We can only be expected to control what we feel is ours. Accepting ownership of feelings moves the child toward the third important step of learning to cope with and manage his anger.
Diffusing Constant Anger or Volatile Situations
Sometimes, parents are confronted with a child who is not just occasionally angry, but rather seems to be angry and aggressive most of the time. While this can be a signal of more serious problems, there are some basic interventions parents and teachers can try that will often help diffuse volatile situations whether they are frequent or occasional.
Teach By Example
One of the most effective ways for adults to intervene with children is to model adaptive behaviors for the children. For example, when you are angry, allow your child to see you appropriately acknowledge feelings without hurting those around you. Talking out loud about how you are processing the angry feelings can help your children get a handle on the thought processes that go along with good anger management. Remember, we are not born knowing how to deal with anger: we must learn.
Use Humor Liberally to Diffuse Tension
Humor is a great tool to use to diffuse otherwise tense situations. Being careful not to make fun of another person or to discount their feelings, humor, often directed at oneself, can be a good tool to use when there is too much tension to allow for problem solving.
Encourage Physical Outlets for Anger
There really is something to the therapy tool of allowing someone to beat the stuffing out of a pillow as a way of dealing with anger. When a child is angry, directing him toward physical activities that require expenditure of the adrenaline reserve that naturally builds up when we are angry is a good coping strategy. If a child is often angry, encouraging him to regularly engage in activities like riding a bike or using a punching bag is a good idea.
Don’t Be Stingy With Affection
Sometimes, simply moving physically closer to a child will help anger to subside. This technique is especially helpful with young children. Unless a child has more serious emotional problems, a show of affection, like a hug, can often be an effective intervention.
Change the Scenery
Sometimes simply moving the conversation to a different room or location, especially one that is less confining, can help diffuse anger and move the conversation toward problem solving.
Ignore the Negative and Praise the Positive
When we want to help children learn new behavior, there is great merit in ignoring the negative when at all possible and praising the positive changes we see in the child. For example, leaving the room when a young child is throwing a tantrum can be an effective tool. Take away the audience, and often the behavior stops. But remember, it is not enough to simply say to the child “don’t act like that.” We must provide the child with creative alternatives to destructive behavior.
Amy Morton, LMFT, has a private practice in Macon.