The Mask of Anger
– Jim Butcher, White Night
Yesterday, the teachers at E’s school decided to have a brief recess on the small slice of driveway in front of school in order to get out some of the cabin fever energy rampant among us all but particularly strong in kids. I was serving as lunch-recess parent volunteer. At a roaring pitch and in the faces of other children, I heard “I don’t wah, wah, wah, wah, wah, wah.” I saw a tall, red-faced child stomp away from the group of boys he had just assaulted. And a small sobbing boy I’ve never met leaned back against me for comfort and protection as I leaned in to figure out what was going on. “Why is he crying?” said one boy incredulous and embarrassed that an associate of his might cry. “It’s okay,” said a kind friend. “He didn’t mean you.” said yet another. I pointed out what good friends he had to check in on him and provide words of comfort. Then the bell rang and we were back inside.
Angry outbursts are common on the playground and in our home lives. They happen. And anger historically has been an essential reason for our survival as human beings. It is a necessary emotion in that it serves to protect us when we are threatened. But often anger expressed as aggression or suppression (pushing it back inside to boil) can be destructive to ourselves and our relationships. And typically anger is a mask that serves to cover up a myriad of other emotions residing just under the surface. Darin Dougherty, a psychiatrist and researcher claims that depression and fear often go hand in hand with angry outbursts.[i] And in addition, anger can build because of feelings of hurt, helplessness, anxiety, humiliation, shame, guilt, embarrassment or rejection. In parent-child relationships, anger can take the form of a power struggle when both lock horns on a particular issue, often small in the scheme of life but important, nonetheless. If the power struggle escalates and a child feels hurt, helpless and misunderstood, the child’s behavior can turn toward revenge.
When a revenge behavior occurs, a parent’s emotional temperature begins to boil. The child’s intention is to push your buttons. And our own children are exceedingly talented at knowing which buttons to push to gain the biggest emotional response from us. Children choose to do something in opposition to a value they know we hold dear – cleanliness, politeness, punctuality. Children can also use withdrawal and refusal to participate as a form of revenge. And sometimes, they exhibit revenge behaviors with a parent to get out frustrations that they have accrued from interactions with someone else. But because they do not feel safe with that other person, they choose someone safer – you!
Expressing your angry feelings in an assertive—not aggressive—manner is the healthiest way to express anger. To do this, you have to learn how to make clear what your needs are, and how to get them met, without hurting others. Being assertive doesn’t mean being pushy or demanding; it means being respectful of yourself and others. (AAP)[ii]
Children are learning about their emotions and how to identify them and control them. They can use our guidance and support in teaching them ways to deal with anger that are constructive and not destructive. Whether it’s an anger management course for adults or lessons in school for children, the principles of teaching people how to recognize and manage their anger are fairly consistent. Anger is a challenging emotion for any of us to deal with constructively. These set of suggestions are intended to support you as you attempt to proactively teach your children ways to deal with anger.
1. Raise awareness of signs of building anger.
Introduce the topic of anger on an ordinary day when emotions are not particularly high. Ask, “How does your body feel when you get angry?” or “How do you know when you are really mad?” Another great way to introduce the subject is by reading When Sophie Gets Angry – Really, Really Angry by Molly Bang. Stop the book when Sophie is getting angry, notice what is happening to her physically and ask your child what happens to him.
2. Teach ways to express those strong emotions.
Practice expressing emotions physically or vocally in ways that are acceptable in your house. Maybe the garage is a good place for a child to go to let out a scream (as long as they don’t scare the neighbors!). Hitting a pillow or stomping, jumping up and down or running in circles around the yard could all be potential acceptable ways to get out that angry energy. Sometimes we skip to guiding our child to a quiet, gentle calm down process but often, children need to physically get the emotion out first. This can serve them well later in life as they deal with negative stress and get it out by running around the block, for example, as opposed to internalizing it which can create illness. Agree on what the physical expression will be. “Roar like a lion?” They’ll need to be comfortable with it and ideally, contribute to generating ideas on what they can do. Practice together. Stomp together on a number of occasions when you are both not highly emotional. That practice will help your children when their mind cannot focus because it has been taken over by their emotions. A quick reminder from you to stomp will help them recall your practice and get out their anger in a constructive manner.
3. Calm down.
You’ve begun the calm down process already by practicing a physical expression of a child’s emotions. Now help them find ways to further settle themselves. Recently a teacher told me she uses “hot chocolate breathing.” I love this idea for teaching deep breathing. Take a deep breath in to smell the rich aroma and blow on the hot chocolate to cool it. You might draw a picture of a cup of hot chocolate and post it near the play table as a reminder (or use my illustration). In addition, creating a sacred calm down space is helpful. Do not use this space as a “Go to your room!” command. But instead have your child participate in creating a comforting space (pillows, stuffed friend, books, crayons, paper) to choose on their own to go to when they need it. You can always remind them of it. But it is not a place of punishment. It is “base” as they say in the game of tag. A place on their own that they can feel safe and calm down. For more on this topic, check out my previous blog article entitled, “Cooling the Fire.”
4. Identify feelings.
In preschool, children are just beginning to associate simple words – happy, sad and mad – with their feelings and resulting behaviors. In kindergarten through school age, they begin to expand their emotional vocabulary to articulate a complex of emotions if they have support through coaching and modeling from their parents and teachers. Sad just doesn’t adequately describe the feeling when a beloved pet dies. You can support your child’s expanded emotional vocabulary by regularly providing language asking if the words adequately help you understand what they are going through. “I’m guessing you feel disappointed, embarrassed and frustrated with the poor grade that you hid in the bottom of your backpack. Is that right?” Providing regular practice in identifying feelings helps advance a child’s self-awareness and lifts up the mask of anger to help reveal to herself and to you the true causes and resulting complex of emotions to help both of you deal better with any problem at hand.
5. Get needs met.
Practice in asserting needs will help a child academically and socially. Even a child who tends toward introversion and shyness in the classroom can learn to assert his needs with support. Use everyday moments to offer practice. “It looks like you are frustrated because you are struggling with that project. Can you tell me what is happening? What could you use to help you?” Also talk through school scenarios to provide language and practice for that setting. “I have heard you mention that a bigger girl has taken your ball from you on the playground and not returned it. What could you say to her to stop her?” Give your child simple, brief language and practice it. “What about saying – ‘Stop that.’ Or ‘You know what you are doing is wrong.’” That practice with simple language can provide strength and courage in a trying situation.
And what about in that tense moment when your child has erupted or a revenge behavior has rendered you momentarily speechless and seething? How can your respond in a way that stops the behavior but also teaches constructive skills? You can model first. Take a moment for yourself to calm down. All you need say is “Mommy needs a minute.” and the fact that you are leaving the room to calm down will be clear. While calming down, think about what might be a logical consequence for her actions. They may occur naturally and all you need to do is point them out. “Because you used your sister’s toy without her permission, you’ll need to stick with your toys for awhile until she is ready to trust you’ll be respectful with her toys.” And offer ways for the child to repair any harm done. An apology could be just what is needed. However sometimes children can and do need to do more to repair the emotional damage such as helping another clean up a mess, writing an apology letter or paying more attention to the other’s needs.
Though it can get our blood boiling again, allow for a child to “save face.” Sometimes children will need to feel like they can retain some power despite the fact that they know the adult has the power in the situation. Often children will mutter under their breath in disgust or use another quick nonverbal (a “dirty” look) as the adult is talking to them, giving a logical consequence and moving on. Allow this. If you call it out, it will escalate into a greater issue. Be aware that this is just the child’s recognition that the adult is in control of the situation and they aren’t happy about it.
Simply realizing that your child’s anger is likely a mask for other emotions can allow you to have greater empathy and patience when she is pressing your buttons or unleashing rage. Help her handle the emotion first by allowing for its constructive expression, calming down and then, exploring what is really going on. What is at the heart of the issue? When you do that, you can be better equipped and more informed next time to make sure that your child’s emotional needs are met and maybe the rumble won’t need to turn into a roar.
[i] Dougherty, E. When emotional brakes fail; Depression and anger often go hand in hand. Retrieved from http://hms.harvard.edu/news/harvard-medicine/anger-management on 2/3/14.