I’m often asked how to deal with anger and it’s a very interesting issue not only for children but us as well. You’re probably not going to like me telling you this, but children learn how to manage their state from us. They learn how to start being angry and how to stop being angry from us and those around us. They also learn what works and what doesn’t through observation. Children mimic us, they are natural mimics so when we want to change their behaviour we need to show them the behaviour ourselves. So we are making our own unconscious behaviour conscious so they can unconsciously mimic it.
So let’s start by thinking about our own anger, what makes you angry? Here are some of the things that make me angry but you write your own list.
· Being misunderstood, your motives, actions, what you said?
· Someone appearing to take advantage of you?
· Doing more than your fair share of the chores at home or work?
· Feeling overwhelmed?
· Not knowing what to do?
· Being tired?
· Being shouted at?
· Feeling stupid or feeling a failure?
· Etc etc
So anger can have many causes, can’t it? Some actually seem very similar to sadness and indeed there’s a strong element of sadness in our anger. It’s the same for children. You may find that what they need is a tight hug. Even when their little arms are flailing about and they’re shouting and stamping, a very tight hug stopping them from moving will often result in them just going limp with relief that you are there and that they can stop. Your body absorbs all that negative energy. Even babies when they’re crying can be soothed by cocooning. I sometimes work with parents who are struggling to stay together for the kids and it’s not unusual for the mum to say to dad, “I don’t need you to do any more, I just need a hug.”
Think about what you need when you’re angry and you’ll have the answer to your child’s anger. Maybe they want to be heard, listened to, however crazy their feelings sound to them, they want to know you care and that you believe in them. They don’t usually need you to fix their problems or their feelings but they need to know that it’s OK to sometimes feel angry and sad. It’s particularly important not to intervene between siblings unless someone is likely to be seriously hurt because their relationship is actually likely to be stronger and more intense than yours is with either child. When you intervene you set up what we call a Drama Triangle where you are the rescuer (woodcutter) and one of them is the Victim (red riding hood) and the other the Persecutor (the wolf) . What typically happens is that you will end up feeling like the victim!
So next time your child is angry,
· Ask yourself, what’s going on here?
o It might help to ask yourself, if I were saying this sort of thing, what might I be feeling and what would I want the other person to do or say etc.
o Your child’s map of the world is smaller and more intense, a small change in their world can seem enormous – just having a supply teacher or their best friend being off school can make a difference
o There’s nearly always a positive benefit they get from being angry, they really aren’t doing it for their pleasure or to wind you up. What positive benefit could there be? If it’s about attention seeking, find a moment when they’re calm and give them the attention then and try to just be still and quiet when they’re angry. Try to just stand away from it and recognise that not everything is about you! This is their stuff and you’re there for them but it isn’t your job to make everything better. Being a fixer just undermines their own ability to find a solution themselves.
· Find out what’s happened
o Just ask the question without making any assumptions
o Who did what to whom?
o Don’t ask ‘why’ because they probably have no idea
o It’s not for you to judge, just get the facts
o Children often get blamed for things they didn’t do, they get just as outraged about this as you or I would be
· Listen to their story – eye contact, full attention, no words, just listen
· Listen to how they feel
o Children find it very hard to express feelings so ask
§ That angry/sad feeling is like what?
§ Does it have a colour?
§ Can you draw it?
§ Where is it in your body?
§ Can you give it a stroke and tell it that it’s OK to be angry sometimes?
· Ask them what they want from you
o Be prepared for the answer to be ‘nothing’. It may be enough just to listen.
· Ask them how they think the situation could be resolved
· Don’t assume you know the answer
Children don’t have ‘anger issues’ any more than we do. They are angry and upset, misunderstood, frustrated and feel no-one is listening to them. Putting a child in their room or on the ‘naughty step’ may calm them down temporarily but it won’t teach them how to express their pent up feelings.
What your child says is based on a thought or feeling in their head. A good way to clear the thoughts in their head is to change state physically which then has a knock-on effect of clearing the mind. Here are some great ways to do this
· Run around the garden, up and down stairs, or skip – anything that changes your breathing (or theirs of course)
· Do a mindfulness meditation (Headspace app)
· Do a 3 minute breathing space
o Breathe deeply and be aware of how you feel
o Check in with your whole body, which bits feel tense, any areas of heat or cold, any tingling, any pressure anywhere
o Be aware of the thoughts as if they were clouds passing by and just let them pass
o Notice the blue sky, the sounds around you, the air,
o Notice your breathing , counting in 1-2-3 and out 1-2-3
o Now gently return to the present and get on with whatever you have to do
Judy Bartkowiak is a Child and Teen Therapist based in Maidenhead, Berkshire 07917 451245
Learn more about how to help your child with different issues in my book 'Empower your Kids!'