I’ve had a few queries about managing children’s anger this week, and more specifically how they express it and how we can teach them to manage it. There are certainly some useful techniques we can pass on to them, but understanding anger ourselves may make life easier. Anger is a secondary emotion – in fact I’m not sure it’s an emotion at all; we feel something and then express it as anger. In the case of angry children, the primary feeling is often frustration. All children experience lots of frustrations every day so that’s not unusual – we only get worried about them if they get very angry about it, and especially if they express that anger through lashing out and hurting others. They’re no different from any other child feeling frustrated except that they feel it and express it more intensely.
If a child expresses frustration in quieter ways when we don’t give them what they want, we find it relatively easy to hold our ground and keep saying no, even if it gets wearing. Enough repetitions of this scenario and a child learns to manage frustration as the feeling fades to disappointment and then acceptance, which is all good because it means happiness no longer depends on getting every wish fulfilled.
The same principle applies if our children express frustration in extreme ways, like tantrums and aggression. When they are so overwhelmed with feelings it’s even more important that we remain firm, but so much more challenging. Feelings are contagious, they pass quickly from one person to another, which is why we can feel instantly overwhelmed ourselves. Making a conscious decision to leave the feeling with our child where it belongs takes a bit of practice. We can use the fact that feelings are so easily transferable though – if we remain level, clear, equable, firm and fairly matter-of-fact, we pass all that back to our child. When angry children are in the grip of strong negative feelings they don’t need us in there too, they want us to be stronger than that, they need an external model that they can internalise and learn to use for themselves.
I think of it as being an oak tree in a storm. Having a strong oak tree to shelter under feels a lot safer for a child than being with a sapling that gets blown all over the place.