Image © Disney
“Anyone can be angry – that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not easy.” – Aristotle
I’ve had a lot of young people come to see me as a Counsellor whose parents are really worried about their anger issues. But when I ask the young person what is going on in life for them and if there’s anything they’d like to change they say they’re fine. They aren’t ready to do the work and to engage in counselling. Until it is their agenda then they often don’t see their anger as being a problem. It is only a problem for them because Mum or Dad keep telling them it is.
So the idea of this blog is that it is a starting point for those Mums and Dads, but hopefully it will be helpful to others too. In case this doesn’t come across in a blog in the way it would face-to-face, I want to start by saying that I’m saying these things without blame or judgement. It is not your fault that you have a child who has angry outbursts. And I invite you to read this with no guilt, self-blame or judgement. Try to read it with an open mind and take from it what you want to and leave the rest.
What is anger?
Anger is an emotion. An angry outburst is a behaviour. We might want to change the way that we respond when we’re angry, or the way that our child does, but we’re not setting out to get rid of anger because that’s impossible. Anger alerts us to something. When we get angry we have a good reason to be angry. It tells us when we have been hurt or when something isn’t fair. Never being angry would just be weird. So we’re not trying to eradicate it but to express it better.
Anger can be denied and suppressed, openly shown to the person who has affected us, turned on ourselves, turned on someone else or we can deal with the causes.
Firstly, try to see the child behind the behaviour. What is the behaviour trying to communicate? What are they trying to say? What are they experiencing? What’s underneath the anger they’re showing? Anger is sometimes about anger, but often is about something else. Why are they whinging? Why are they smashing things around? What’s going on for them? Underneath it all they might be feeling rejected, scared or feeling vulnerable. They might be hurting. They might want attention. They might feel powerless or may not know how to communicate. Anger is what shows on the outside. But often what we are feeling on the inside is hurt, fear, shame, guilt, sadness, frustration, annoyance, jealousy, loneliness, disappointment.
So often we parent from a place of trying to control our child’s behaviour. An example is something that happened with my youngest son this morning. He woke me up really early this morning with a dinosaur construction kit and an instruction booklet in his hand. Last night he had asked to construct a new dinosaur and I had told him he could when he woke up in the morning. My (still a bit sleepy) response to him was “go back to bed or I won’t make a dinosaur with you.” I was trying to control his behaviour by bargaining with something I knew he wanted. But I could have said “I love how excited you are about building a dinosaur but it isn’t time yet and your body needs more sleep.” Instead of recognising his excitement I wanted him to do what I wanted first. And so often we parent from this place of “if you…. then you can have or do….” or “If you don’t… then I’ll….” Or is it just me?
We all need to feel loved, accepted and connected. It’s not about how well you’re loving them. I expect you’re doing that well. It might involve driving them all over the place and spending lots of time feeding them and planning your life around them. It’s not about how hard you’re trying or how much of your life you dedicate to them. It’s about how loved and connected they feel. This is likely to change over time. You could spend hours a week standing at the skate park watching them go down ramps, but it’s actually that 5 minutes you spent reading a book with them or talking to them about something important to them that made them feel more connected.
If they don’t feel connected to you then you won’t have that much influence on them. Do they feel safe and loved? It’s not about what you do for them or whether you are giving them what they want. It is about whether you are connecting with who they are. How do they feel with us? You can spend all day every day with someone but not feel connected. Feeling connected can just take 10 minutes of being present and trying to understand what is going on in their world. I’ve heard it said that if you don’t listen to what is important to them when they are little (which often seems trivial) then they won’t share with you what is important to them when they are older.
One of the quickest ways to connect with someone is to repeat back to them what they are saying. It shows that you are listening and that you understand. We all want to feel understood. What you can do is to accept your child and empathise with what is going on for them. It can be really helpful for them to hear things like “it’s OK to feel angry”, “it’s so understandable you feel like that” or “I would feel angry if I experienced that.” If you dismiss them then they may turn to someone else.
Has the anger come in response to a life event like changing school, a divorce, a death or bullying? Did something happen that they haven’t found a way to express or adjust to?
It can be so easy to want to rescue them from painful things but they need to live through pain to adjust and to grow. It might be hard hearing them say that they’ve found it hard moving house or that you separated with your partner, but hearing their pain helps them express it so they can move through it and grow. When feelings aren’t expressed they build up. And can stay inside until they sufficiently build up to burst out. Or to come out sideways.
Expression, Mountains and Molehills
We all have emotions that we are able to express more readily and ones that we struggle more with. Unless we grew up in a highly emotionally intelligent home then we probably have learnt rules about what it is OK to feel, and what it isn’t OK to feel. In some families anger is the preferred emotion to express and everyone shows their anger freely. Maybe at the expense of crying or showing hurt or vulnerability or insecurity. In other households anger is deemed scary and out of control and it is safer to express the underlying hurt or fears. In these households it feels more acceptable to be sad or anxious than to be angry.
Some people will hold everything in and be on their best behaviour, say, at school, but they are like a coke bottle being shaken up with everything they experience. Then they come home and feel safe and the lid comes off and all the emotion they’ve been feeling fizzes out. It feels out of proportion to what has happened, because it is. It is emotion relating to things before what has just happened in the moment. Or for others something triggers a thought process in us and taps in to anger we’re already feeling about something else and we react. Again this anger seems out of proportion to what is going on in the moment. For others it is like the inside of a volcano where you can’t see what is going on inside as it is building up until it is too late and the magma is pouring out.
When anger feels disproportionate to the situation and the reaction feels too strong, it is usually because it is. It has usually tapped in to anger or hurt about something else. Often we’re taking our anger out on the wrong people. We haven’t expressed it in the moment we felt it to the person or situation we felt angry with and it’s stayed with us to come out sideways at someone else in an unrelated situation. If your child is angry often with you, it could be anger directed at you, or it could be that you are a safe person so they trust you enough to direct their anger towards you. They know you’ll still love them and that your relationship with them can handle it.
You might not be able to persuade your child to get counselling or to get the help you feel they need. But what you can do is to try to connect with them, try to understand what they are experiencing and what life is like for them. Accept their feelings even if they are expressing things you find hard to sit with and not be able to fix. Being able to express how they feel will help them to express things in the moment and to limit things building up.
Doing it today
So how can you spend 10 minutes connecting with your child today? Or yourself today? Think: no phones or other distractions. How can you be fully present and trying to connect heart to heart? Use your intuition. You know your child better than any professional or anyone else. This isn’t about a prescriptive set of things to do. All children are different. We’re all human and doing the best we can with everything else we’ve got going on.
It might be helpful to check in with yourself – how do I express my own anger? Does my child being angry trigger my own anger? Do I prioritise being right and holding the line even if it causes an argument with my child? What are acceptable emotions to express in the household in which I live? Or in the household you grew up in? We all have our own ways of expressing our anger. For some people it is passive like always being late, forgetting things, always joking, being cynical or sarcastic, scapegoating others. Some people express their anger very outwardly. Have a think about how you do anger. What are you showing your child about anger?
If you feel like you need to work on how you express your own anger, then you might want to check out mindfulness as a way of learning to be present with yourself and with others, and as a way of learning to recognise how you are feeling in the moment and being able to turn towards it. Recognising what is going on for you in the moment can help you recognise more quickly how you are reacting and why and can give you a choice about how to react rather than immediately being reactive and feeling like your reaction is out of your control and is happening automatically.