Every so often a theme forms among the parents who are seeking advice regarding a challenge they are facing. I am currently experiencing one of those waves and the only way I can describe is as an epidemic of anger in our kids. I’m not kidding! It seems like every week I am talking with a different parent about their child having tantrums or some inexplicable furious outrage. What’s nice about having multiple meetings on the same topic is that gradually you begin to develop a bit of a standard answer. So, with apologies to those who were my first meetings, I’d like to address anger in our kids. I can’t say that these suggestions will work across the board but they do come from some of the best parenting books I have been reading lately so I hope you can find some strategies and hope in them!
The most important thing about anger is to acknowledge that there is always a reason why your child is acting out!
The most important thing about anger is to acknowledge that there is always a reason why your child is acting out. Always. The anger could be from emotional stress, (“I’m so nervous about the piano recital”), relational stress (“A kid keeps bullying me at school” or “Mom and dad keep fighting at home”), environmental issues (“I just can’t stand the noise/lights/smells at Church”), medical conditions (depression or anxiety), manipulation (tantrums to get their way), irrational fear (“I can’t be alone in my bedroom”) or it could be a normal stage of development. Regardless of the mode of anger your kids are experiencing, I can assure you, there is always a reason!
Second, I’m willing to bet that your child doesn’t know why they are angry. Although little kids can sometimes articulate, “I’m mad that I can’t have a cookie,” there are many times when they are simply angry and won’t know why. This is true right up to adolescence, if not adulthood; many people simply do not know the reason they are experiencing anger. The issues may be complex and may even require the help of a professional, but the reality is, as a parent, it is your responsibility to help your child sort out what is going on. There won’t be any possible way to offer comprehensive ways to deal with your child’s anger in a single blog, but let me outline some thoughts that have been developing lately as I meet with parents.
Let’s deal with little kiddoes first. It is common for toddlers to throw tantrums. We don’t like it, we find it embarrassing and feel judged when it happens in public and we are exasperated when we have to deal with it at home, but the reality is that this is normal behaviour. The key to remember is that “normal” doesn’t mean “acceptable.” Far from it! Our kids need to learn what is and isn’t appropriate behaviour. Also, while the tantrums are pretty common among toddlers, we should always consider if there are any contributing variables. Are they hungry? (I’m cranky when I’m hungry.) Keep some snacks in your bag or vehicle. Are they thirsty? Buy a bottle of water – or juice if they need some energy. Are they tired? If you are shopping and missing their regular nap time you are simply flirting with disaster, its time to leave the mall and go for a drive. Keep in mind that transitions are very difficult for children so giving the 10 and 5 minute warnings before leaving the playground is really important. In short, with little tykes, keep your calm and address their need whenever possible.
When kids get older, the issues may become more complex. There are fears that need to be addressed, and taken seriously, I might add! I was a kid who was terrified of the dark because it made me feel claustrophobic. That wasn’t a rational issue I could just shut down. I had other fears too, for example leeches. I remember getting furious with my dad (and vice versa) because I refused to help clean up the bulrushes in the pond for fear of getting a leech. I also remember refusing to get out of the motor home in the South Dakota Badlands because I was terrified of tarantulas (incidentally, I’m pretty sure there aren’t any in the Badlands.) With fear, reasoning won’t work, but neither will discipline, you are going to have to employ a nurturing solution. This is hard when the whole family is ready to go out on a hike, but the reality is that fear is real and often makes for angry kids.
Kids are also increasingly affected by peer relationships as they mature. By grade 3 or 4 the girls don’t want to play with the boys anymore and that, in particular, was a big deal to me. I had quite a few friends who were girls when I was in elementary school because they were my neighbors (in a rural area so there weren’t tons of kids close by.) I distinctly remember when they started deserting me at recess in grade 5. Sweet Mrs. Cyr sat me down and gently explained that often girls in grade 5 want to be with other girls and not guys. Ouch.
Children reason in two ways, abstractly and concretely. An example of concrete reasoning with friendship is “My friend likes me because we both enjoy playing soccer.” Simple, straightforward. But from age 11 to 16 abstract reasoning develops. Abstract reasoning says, “My friend doesn’t like me because I think she thinks I’m stupid.” Now I am seeing myself as I think other people see me. Abstract reasoning is very good, but it can also be pretty unnerving for kids, so we need to help them understand why friends actually like them while other kids avoid them. We need to listen as they sort through this confusing territory of peer relationships.
Confusion, I believe, is another major source of anger. If a child is confused about their place in the family and feels they don’t fit in with their siblings, they may grow angry. If a child is confused about what is happening to their bodies during puberty, it can create anger. If you think about it, what is anger in the first place? It is an attempt to gain control. It is an invalid way to gain control in most cases, but that is what it is. If I am confused and use anger to manipulate my situation then I have learned a powerful coping strategy. (This is one reason why parents cannot combat anger with anger, it only reinforces that anger is a legitimate way to maintain control.)
If a child feels out of control of what is going on in their own body then it might very well surface as anger. I remember being called fat a lot in elementary school and junior high. Bullying is the ultimate removal of control and as a result I hated my body. I remember trying to starve myself (more like a bad diet), fortunately I had zero will power to keep that up, but I did write some pretty angry letters to myself during that time; its weird how we deal with our pain. These were ways to try to get control back from the mean kids in my life. Anger is about trying to regain control.
As kids hit puberty and new pressures press in on every side, I think that hidden sin become another source of anger. When we live in a way that is contrary to what we know is right, it can add a lot of guilt to our lives. This why parents need to talk about strategies to help their kids avoid some of the common dangers of the internet, sexual sin, drugs, and the like. Dads need to talk to their boys about pornography and masturbating and moms need to talk to their daughters! During puberty every emotion is magnified. That is great when you are full of joy and laughing or (within reason) competing in a sport, but shame and guilt are also felt more acutely by young teens and that can be very damaging.
In this case, I believe that knowledge is power. We need to help our children understand that as they grow up they are going to feel old feelings in new and more energized ways. I often use the example of love. A boy in grade 1 loves every girl in his grade, he might even love his teacher! But is that the same kind of love that a 13-year-old boy and girl feel when they are all charged up on hormones? Nope, love has changed. And if, in that rare moment of clarity, you ask your teenager to think about the kind of love they will feel when they are married, they will likely recognize that love will change again one day. Well, puberty is a necessary step on the way to “marriage love.” In fact, it’s a great step that should be celebrated, while acknowledging that they are feeling something at a magnified level. It is like God is giving them the start of grown-up feelings, He is training them to handle them well and appropriately. Talking like this actually gives them control back and can help them navigate these uncertain waters.
You can see how there could be all sorts of issues underlying the anger that our kids feel – and we haven’t even touched on spiritual issues such as “How do I know God is real?” (Can you imagine a more terrifying feeling for a young pre-teen? Of course you can, you’ve been there!) And maybe that is an important “take-home,” I think that we need to grow in empathy and compassion for our kids, even when they are angry (perhaps most when they are angry!) We go to a place of discipline way too easily sometimes, when what our kids really need is a place to expel pent-up energy and the reason parents take the brunt of it is because we are safe. So regardless of the age of your child, learn to be their safe place, where they can do nothing to change the love you have for them. Talk to them. Help them understand their own hearts. Give them real strategies for dealing with their fear, friendships, temptation and confusion! That is what parenting is all about!
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