The emotion that seems to cause the most concern with parents/carers that I talk to is their child's anger. This is fair enough because in the main, we associate the emotion of anger with the actions of aggression. These actions can be very destructive and hurtful. However, while everyone feels anger, not all of us show aggression because while we cannot always help which emotion is overcoming us, we can always choose how we response to that emotion. (See previous posts.)
Because anger tends to whip up strong responses in others, it is an emotion that can often be received by others in unhealthy ways. Rather than validate and accept their child is angry, parents might tell them off, tell them they should not be angry or try to distract them. These reactions do not help your child manage anger. It is better to acknowledge fully that your child is angry, explore why they feel angry and help them make choices about what to do about the situation. You can also offer comfort in the form of a hug or gentle words as the discomfort of anger can cause a child distress. This is far more likely to help your child process and ultimately soothe their anger and helps them create a healthier relationship with anger in the long run.
The first step to getting better at managing anger, therefore is to understand and normalise it. What you can discuss with your child about anger can include:
(This list becomes more sophisticated as it goes on.)
- Everyone feels it. It is a normal part of being human.
- There are lots of different words for anger because we can feel different 'levels' of anger. You can consider these words with your child and attempt to put them in order of 'anger strength'.
- We feel angry and show aggression sometimes when we feel people are not taking notice and it is a quick way to get ourselves and our needs noticed but it's not usually the best way as it can have a negative impact on others.
- We can become angry for a variety of reasons. These reasons will be different for different people. (e.g. because we are irritated, because we think someone else has done something wrong - and that depends on the values unique to us - or because something has 'cost' us something e.g. literally broken something of ours or cost us social standing). You could explore anger triggers with your child by playing 'which would make us more angry...?'
- Anger can make our bodies release adrenaline. Adrenaline increases our heart and breathing rate and makes our bodies ready for 'action'. This is why often anger makes us want to react physically and with energy. (Most people assume this energy has to be used up for the anger to disappear - but it will subside after a while naturally although it can help children to punch a pillow or run on the spot.) When we are experiencing this adrenaline, we are not usually in a place to make good or helpful decisions.
- Sometimes we express anger to cover up other feelings (like feeling humiliated, shame or guilt) as anger makes us feel in control rather than out of control and vulnerable like some of the feelings it covers up!
- Anger as aggression can be a forceful way of getting something done and this can be appropriate in life and death situations. However, aggression is not usually the best way to sort the majority of situations out.
- Anger has been the seed for much positive social change (e.g. abolition of slavery).
- People are usually accepting of anger that seems in proportion to what caused it.
- When you are angry - particularly if you are being aggressive - you will often cause a strong response in those around you. This is rarely helpful and can make situations escalate and communication become less effective.
Discussing anger with your child goes a long way to helping them understand that you accept anger as part of the human condition.