Dealing with Anger
You've got an angry kid on your hands, and you're feeling frustrated and confused. You might be close to anger yourself. At times, you may be afraid of your child's anger. You may even be afraid of your child. Keep in mind that teens can learn everything that an adult can about coping with anger.
Anger is a normal emotion. We all feel it sometimes. Learning to manage it is a normal part of growing up, and you, as a parent, are in the best position to help your son or daughter manage their anger.
Anger as a symptom
Anger can be a wonderful emotion. It lets us know that something is wrong. It helps us know when our buttons are being pushed, our values are not being respected, or our boundaries are being crossed. But unresolved anger can make you physically sick, or show up later as a chronic anger problem. Often, people find a way of not feeling the anger: they may get depressed, or use drugs or alcohol, or take up habits like gambling.
Anger is usually a symptom of other underlying emotions. Before people get angry, they have other feelings that are the actual root of their anger: irritation, frustration, fear, dislike.
For example, suppose your daughter discovers the whole class knows she has a crush on a certain boy - and the information came from her best friend. She feels several emotions. Loss: "Now he'll be too embarrassed to ask me out." Hurt: "I trusted her and she spilled my secret." Powerlessness: "I wish I had never told her, but I can't 'unsay' it now, or erase it from everyone's memory." She becomes angry at her friend, not just because of what the friend did, but also because of the consequences to her.
Your daughter will need to deal with all of these feelings at some time in her life. Anger masks the overwhelming combination of these feelings. If you can help her face them, you can help her understand where anger comes from, and help her deal with other situations that make her angry. You can empower her by helping her understand and control her emotions.
Angry thoughts, feelings, actions
The emotion of anger involves thought, feeling, and action. Change any of these and you can take control of anger. For example, when your child does not come home in time for supper, the way you choose to see his behavior (the thought) will determine how you will feel.
You might think: "That kid doesn't care about the family. He's abused a privilege again." Such thoughts leave you feeling used and not respected. When your son walks in 35 minutes later, the earlier feelings become anger, and you may blow up, shouting things that you don't really mean. The thought drives the feeling, which drives the action.
What if you thought: "This is normal behavior. All kids will push the boundaries when they're having fun and they've got a curfew?" You might feel frustrated, but you would know that teaching kids to respect the rules is a normal chore that every parent must do, not an injustice visited on you by your particular child. When your kid comes home, you will be asking yourself, "What's the best way to get him to do what the family needs him to do?" You will be likely to choose a more rational way of behaving, based on what you know about your child.
In the same way, you can help an angry child to find another way of thinking about a frustrating situation. Changing the angry thought prevents angry feelings and angry behavior. But you can also change the situation by working on the other two aspects of anger.
The starting point in dealing with angry feelings is to name the feeling. You can say to your child, "I can see why you're angry" without judging her. This helps kids to accept where they are, and helps them to learn to recognize and name their feelings.
The goal here is to get at the underlying feelings, but first your child needs to let go of some of the anger. There are many techniques for doing this. These include exercise, massage, hot baths, deep breathing, prayer, meditation, and soothing music.
Teach kids to express their feelings to others in another form: "When you [action] I feel [name emotion]." The daughter in the example on page one could say to her friend: "When you tell my secrets, I feel hurt." With this kind of statement, called an "I" statement, the speaker takes responsibility for her feelings. Point out to your children that no one else can make them angry; no one can make them feel anything. Tell them: "The only person who can change your feelings is you."
Angry actions include angry words (insults, protests), faces (sulking, frowning, glaring) or deeds (punching, slamming doors). All of these actions can hurt others. If kids can learn to pause before they act out anger, they have the chance to examine their angry thoughts and their underlying feelings without the extra stress of dealing with the consequences of their angry actions.
Angry actions are only necessary when our survival is threatened. Sometimes this means psychological survival. If someone keeps hurting your feelings, and you are not able to stop them in any other way, you may have to use angry words. Teach your kids to make sure that they have had time to think about those words, and that they have made a definite decision to use them because nothing else is available.
Tell your kids that the best thing to do when they're angry is to remove themselves from the situation. It is also the best thing to do when someone else is angry. It is difficult to reason with an angry person, and you can't expect yourself or your kids to make good decisions when angry. You cannot teach your child to handle anger better while she or he is angry.
Within the family, you could choose a cool-down signal (like the "T" used to ask for a time-out in basketball and other team sports). This acknowledges that kids are angry, but gives them some responsibility for controlling their anger. You can then give them the time and space to practice a cooling technique, such as deep breathing or counting to 10.
Teach anger management before anger happens
Every time you help kids to understand why they were angry, you're teaching them to handle their feelings better the next time. Understanding begins with acceptance. Kids can accept their anger while they are feeling it. After they cool down, they can understand it. These are steps that you can use to manage anger:
1. Admit to yourself that you are angry.
2. Allow yourself to feel anger, without guilt.
3. Cool the heat.
4. Write out what you're angry about, what some of the feelings are behind the anger, and what you know about yourself from this incident.
5. Make a decision about what you want to do about the situation that made you angry.