Help – My Child is Angry, what can I do?
I’m recently been working with two eight year-olds who for various reasons have developed an Anger Habit. I call it a habit as it is a pattern of behaviour which has developed over time and is now very difficult to break.
Often, as parents when faced with children who are expressing their feelings through anger, we don’t know how to handle this. If we allow them to continue with getting angry this could over time impact their ability to build good relationships with others and erode their personal confidence so trapping them in a cycle of anger responses. Alternatively if we teach them to hold the anger inside themselves and not express their feelings this could have a negative impact on their physical health.
What we need to do instead is teach children to recognise their feelings of anger and help them to develop strategies for dealing with the circumstances that push their buttons. This is incredibly important for helping them to cope and remain balanced later in life.
When we have a difficult time – perhaps your ice cream fell off its cone, or someone stole your car or scribbled on your artwork or another kind of violation – If we do not express in some verbal way “You have violated my boundary” and crucially deal with the situation in a way that helps us to find some sense of peace, it gets logged as an event classified in the filing cabinet called ANGER.
Later on when another scenario crops up in life which evokes similar emotions, we do not just respond to the situation that is in front of us then and there; we also respond to the very first violation and all subsequent similar ones in between time. It doesn’t take long for the filing cabinet to become very full and we have a full blown ‘Anger Habit’ which is then very difficult to break.
You may have heard of the comedian Jason Mansford. I remember in one sketch he talked about how he was approached as a child, by a bigger boy. The bigger boy told him that he wanted his money and if he didn’t give it to him, he would punch him in the face. So Jason gave him his money and the big boy punched him in the face anyway! So not only did he lose his money, but he also got hit. Which do you think he was more annoyed about?
He was more annoyed that in trying to avoid a violation (by complying) he was still violated!
Without the opportunity to say “That’s not fair”, incidents like this can build and accumulate over time. All of those injustices that we fail to address still have emotional fuel, and that fuel can be used on new events as and when they occur later in life.
We call this a Gestalt of negative emotions. It’s when you don’t just react to the ‘in the moment’ problem; you react based on all of the similar problems from the past that happened back then, in those old moments. This means for everyone else, your anger (for example) can seem totally disproportionate to the set of circumstances that are occurring before you.
It’s really important to know about this as a parent, carer or teacher; because children have a habit of hitting your buttons – buttons you’d perhaps forgotten that even existed.
When you look back and say “Hang on a minute, what’s this really about?” And realise it was because little Johnny scribbled on your painting in black crayon when you were in nursery, you can then learn how to respond differently.
By learning how to manage your anger response and share this with your children, you give yourself the opportunity to not just react more favourably to your present circumstances, but to also move on from the unsaid/unfinished business from the past that has been triggering the anger. It then doesn’t keep cropping up again and again and affect your responses and behaviour in the future. This also means that your children will not observe and learn the ‘anger habit’ from you.
So how do you go about reacting more favourably to circumstances which trigger your anger response and sharing this with your children?
In the work I’ve been doing, I’ve taught the young people to start recognising their feelings and emotions so that they are aware of what is happening when and what triggers the ‘anger response’. We’ve also looked at other responses they have to situations such as laughter, excitement, calmness, happiness and they have created anchors for these which they can start to use instead when they recognise the anger response starting. It takes practice to do this and the aim is that with practice the unconscious mind will start to lay down new patterns of behaviour when the anger buttons are pressed.
Another key thing, is to learn to recognise their own emotions and see the signs of what is happening with other people so that patterns of interactions can be re-framed into something different. For example, if there are certain situations with Mum or Dad that always escalate into lost tempers, tantrums and anger, either from the parent or the child, then it is important to recognise the signs of what is coming and for everyone involved in the situation to have strategies in place to respond differently.
Through practising these things regularly it is possible to replace the ‘anger habit’ with a more effective response. Over time this is healthier for the young person and will allow them to handle difficult situations with confidence rather than an outburst of temper and anger.