Feeling angry is part of being human, as is managing the anger that we feel. As parents, we want our children to learn such skills, which they will need in order still to thrive in our world. Yet, teaching our kids about anger brings up strong feelings for many of us because we ourselves are learning to manage our adult anger.
What Is Anger? How Does Being Angry Help?
We experience anger in our minds and bodies. When our brain identifies threats to our well-being, our fight-or-flight response is triggered. Anger is part of that survival response.
When you are angry, your body experiences physical changes such as an increased heartrate, a heightened awareness of your surroundings and a more relaxed perception of risk. In these ways, anger prepares you for the ‘fight’, whether or not there is one on the horizon.
While anger itself is neither good nor bad, what we do as a result of that anger determines whether the result of anger will be positive or negative.
Children are constantly processing the world. They react emotionally to everything that they take in, and some of their responses may involve anger. For most children, this response is instantaneous, and can sometimes be violent, shocking, or inappropriate.
The good news for us parents is that positive responses to anger can be learnt. Hence, we can shape how our kids handle anger. As with most behaviour learnt, it all starts at home.
Manage Your Home Environment
Every home has its own unique atmosphere. Some homes are relaxed and upbeat, while others have a more serious ‘feel’. Children thrive in warm, peaceful, accepting home environments. Here, they grow to be confident individuals with healthy beliefs in themselves. This sets the stage for them to learn self-control and learn to cope with intense, angry emotions.
True, moments of conflict and anger do arise in every family. The way we respond to them is what makes each family, and each individual, different.
The key to managing each situation is in what we say and how we say it in those intense moments. And it all starts with you, the parent. As the parent, you determine your home atmosphere.
Reflect on the last angry confrontation in your family. What was it about? What feelings did it bring up, and what words were exchanged? How was it finally resolved? Would you respond differently the next time?
Looking In The Mirror
Parenting educators, experts, researchers and parents all agree: before you can teach your child about handling anger, think about how you yourself deal with anger.
Are you able to manage your anger with maturity, or do you often rage uncontrollably? You are a tremendously important role-model, even if there are many other influences in your youngster’s life.
The effects of parental anger on a child include:
* damage to his self-esteem and sense of identity
* interference with his ability to form relationships
* formation of harsh perceptions about the world
* development of self-defeating and anti-authority attitudes
Another troublesome issue is the guilt and embarrassment that parents often feel after reacting angrily to their children. You may become angry at your child, have an emotionally exhausting explosion, then feel angry at yourself for getting angry with your child!
We rationalise our anger by thinking that circumstances or our child’s behaviour ‘made us get angry’. But really, as an adult, you would be able to rationalise and realise that your child did not ‘make’ you get mad. What kind of example would this be for your child?
Begin by taking responsibility for managing your own anger:
* If you have unresolved anger from your past, seek counselling.
* Do you lose your temper easily? Learn anger-management skills such as self-talk or timing yourself out.
* Are you fatigued, stressed or burnt out? Extra doses of self-care and me-time may be called for.
Being aware of how you handle anger may help you re-frame your circumstances, gain perspective and react differently.
Your Child’s Anger Triggers
Be aware of the specific circumstances that trigger anger in your child and seek to avoid them. Hunger, thirst, tiredness, food allergies or additives can upset children’s internal rhythms, and trigger mood swings or angry outbursts.
In her book, Kids, Parents & Power Struggles, parenting educator, lecturer and author Mary Kurcinka says that a parent can recognise her child’s escalating emotions and teach the child appropriate ways to respond while the emotion has not yet escalated to full-blown anger and is easier to manage.
Echoing this, educational consultant and award-winning author of 22 parenting and educational books Dr Michele Borba suggests helping your child become aware of his own warning signs when he’s getting angry. He can then calm himself down and regulate his behaviour.
Letting Anger Out Appropriately
In How to Really Love Your Angry Child, authors Dr Ross Campbell and Rob Suggs describe the ways that children express anger. The most negative ways of dealing with anger include passive-aggressive behaviours, verbal abuse, and emotionally destructive behaviours. They suggest guiding kids towards positive anger expression, such as thinking logically and seeking resolution.
You can teach your child calming techniques such as singing, imagining sleeping on a rainbow or blowing away clouds. Some children express their anger through words and communication, sensory activities, play or art.
Experiment with different ideas to find what works for your child. Help your child learn about himself, and his emotions. Threatening, scolding or punishing your child will only escalate your child’s anger.
How Should You Respond When Your Child Has An Angry Outburst?
Your child is ‘losing it’ so you need to stay calm! This may be difficult but you have more maturity and resources than your child to cope with your anger.
• Move to a private place, speaking calmly.
• Listen to your child with empathy. When he is calm, discuss what just happened.
• Ask about his feelings and reasons.
• Name the emotions (was it anger, anxiety, fear even?). As he learns words, he will have new tools he can use to express his anger.
• If your child acted inappropriately, for example by biting, throwing or hitting, restate your rules, and discuss more acceptable alternatives.
• If your child is still very angry, try sensory changes such as a cool drink or a bubble bath. You can discuss his behaviour after he is calm.
Time-out As A Tool?
Many parents turn to time-outs as the first option when dealing with anger or rage. It is easy for a parent to get drawn into the intensity of a child’s anger. Time-outs put distance between an enraged parent and a noisy, angry child.
Some parents however feel that sending an overwhelmed child to time-out is akin to abandoning him to his scary and out-of-control emotions. These parents want to provide a safe emotional space to contain their child’s intense anger until the child develops the maturity to contain it himself.
Which approach you use would depend on yours and your child’s temperaments, your parenting style and whether your child is behaving destructively or aggressively.
Connecting Through Angry Moments
One of the most meaningful times to connect with your young child is in the moments after yours or your child’s angry outburst. If you have been mad at your child or spoken angry words to him, you can demonstrate humility as you apologise for your behaviour. Your child receives a lesson in forgiveness.
If your child has gotten angry, remaining his ally through the storm lets you model compassion and gentleness. You build trust and connection. Eventually, a deeper relationship between parent and child can result from resolved anger.