By NADIA PERSUN, PHD
Anger occurs when a person of any age is feeling overwhelmed and overpowered. It is our way to say “No, stop it! I don’t like it. It is unfair. I can’t handle it,” and so on. Since children have many rules to learn and follow daily, they are likely to feel challenged and frustrated often. Therefore, parents need not be surprised that children question and challenge boundaries.
Anger is a Natural Emotion
Anger is about our sense of feeling wronged and an attempt at boundary setting. It does not have to be toxic and abusive, but it might lead to behaviour that is. That happens when people don’t know how to express and handle their angry emotion appropriately. It is important to allow children to express their anger (with words and not violent actions) and teach them how to go about it.
Research identifies that there are six basic emotions that all humans experience, regardless of age and culture. These are:
Some people are not comfortable admitting that they get angry and don’t know how to express their frustration appropriately. Often we have collapsed anger with violence or aggression, or people being hurt and think these are one in the same as “anger”.
They may say that they “never get angry.” This is simply not true, as anger is a basic universal emotion. Not allowing children to express anger is unhealthy. Allowing children to escalate in anger and see adults chiming in is another unhealthy extreme that promotes a familial pattern of rage (or violent outbursts) and no resolutions.
When children are allowed to express anger safely and know how to handle it, they bring this healthy attitude into adulthood. They become “assertive,” capable of communicating their frustrated feelings clearly and appropriately, preferring to seek solutions and capable of compromise. As adults, they can move through their anger quickly and can resolve conflicts.
Children who are made to feel that anger is not okay — that it is wrong to express it, and maybe they should’t even feel it — have a difficult time dealing with anger as adults. They are likely to resort to extremes of either withholding anger, shutting their emotions down (even the one’s they want to access), zoning out, acting passive or passive-aggressive, or they become easily angered, rage prone adults.
The Anatomy of Anger
Anger has three components: physical, cognitive, and behavioural:
- Physical reactions start with a rush of adrenaline and responses such as an increased heart rate, blood pressure, and tightening muscles. This is often known as the “fight or flight” response.
- The cognitive experience of anger is about how we perceive and think about whatever the anger is in response to. For example, we might think that what has happened to us is wrong, unfair and undeserved. It generates emotions that intensify anger such as feeling overwhelmed or unsafe and leads to judgements like having been betrayed, or mistreated by others.
- A behavioral response is how we express our anger. We may look and sound angry, turn red, raise our voice, clam up, slam doors, storm away, or otherwise signal to others that we are angry. We may say that we are angry and explain why, ask for a time-out, request an apology or for something to change.
When parents learn about calming a child’s anger, they need to be ready to help their children with all three of these areas: calming down and relaxing, identifying and expressing feelings, and teaching to generate helpful and safe behavioral responses and solutions.
Anger Calming Strategies
Here are some strategies for parents to teach children to express and handle angry feelings:
- Label feelings and behaviors. It is the first step in teaching children how to express distress without acting inappropriately. Make statements that help children rephrase, express, explain their feelings that drive their frustration. “You don’t like it when I correct you. I can see that you are getting really mad at me. This is why you are shouting and stomping your feet.”
- Ask your child for “feelings statements.” Ask them to complete these statements: “I wan’t…”; “I feel …”; “I am acting this way because …” Listen to their answers.
- Do the same for your child: explain your stance in a similar way. Then ask your child: “How can we resolve it so that we are both happy about it?” Teach your child the word “compromise” early on.
Repeat your decisions and requests like a broken record. When talking about feelings does not end the argument, keep it simple and consistent: “Regardless, we have …” and then walk away.
Postpone discussing the issues and seeking solutions until feeling calmer. You may say: “I am too upset for talking right now. We are going to talk more about it when we are both feeling calm. Lets talk in one hour.”
Curb temper tantrums and explosions. When anger escalates, discussions are not productive. Ignore the tantrum as though it is not happening and try not to say anything. Place your child in another room or leave the room yourself. Withhold privileges until the issue is resolved. Call the authorities or solicit help of a neighbor if older children get violent, hit, or destroy property. Explain that by escalating to this extreme, they are asking for outside intervention.
It is difficult to lay a path to safe and helpful boundaries. You are likely to encounter some resistance and will have to expend energy being consistent and staying on course.
Some parents don’t set boundaries with their children precisely for this reason: it requires lots of effort to discipline properly and teach them your behaviour expectations and boundaries. However, you will find out that if you stay on course, eventually your children will develop more respect for your boundaries at home and more understanding of how to follow the steps of expressing, negotiating and resolving their frustrations.