What to Do When Kids Turn Their Anger on Parents
A 4-step way to help young people calm down and process emotions effectively.
Posted May 24, 2019
Since 1991, Life Space Crisis Intervention (LSCI) has been offered as a professional training program for educators, counselors, psychologists, social workers, youth workers, and other professionals working with challenging children and adolescents. In recent years, the LSCI Institute has worked to translate its trauma-informed, brain-based, relationship-building concepts to the need of parents and caregivers. In an excerpt from the LSCI Institute's new book, Parenting the Challenging Child: The 4-Step Way to Turn Problem Situations Into Learning Opportunities, readers “listen in on” a conversation between a father and son in which the parent uses LSCI’s consistent, step-by-step verbal framework to help his son begin to understand and alter a self-defeating behavior.
Excerpt from Chapter 5: THE SOS INTERVENTION: Identifying the Real Source of the Stress
Ray is a 9-year old boy who is small for his age and intimidated by older, bigger kids. On the school bus, a 5th grader named Nate repeatedly threatens Ray and humiliates him in front of the other kids. One afternoon, Nate took the math homework that Ray had just completed, tore it into shreds, then threw it out of the bus window. Ray felt helpless. He didn’t know how he could keep his property safe around Nate. On top of that, he was furious that none of his friends stepped in to help. Ray arrived home feeling defeated, embarrassed, and angry. When his father asked him to get started on his homework, Ray refused to open his backpack, swore at his dad, kicked the kitchen table, and yelled, “Why won’t you just leave me alone already?”
To Ray’s father, his son’s response seemed to come completely out of the blue. “All I did,” the father insisted to his wife later that evening, “was ask Ray to start his homework—same as I do every other day when he gets home. You would have thought I asked him to scrub the floors with a toothbrush with that reaction!”
Indeed, it happens more often than any parent would like that a seemingly minor or routine request is met with a major emotional response or meltdown. While brain-science explains that it is natural for adults who are on the receiving end of a child’s rage to react with anger of their own, it is just as certain that “catching” the young person’s anger, as if it were a contagious disease, only worsens the situation and damages the parent-child relationship.
Instead of mirroring your child’s anger and escalating the problem, bear in mind that nothing comes from nothing. This four-word mantra, followed by its three-word counterpart, look beyond behavior, is a powerful and effective reminder to parents and caregivers everywhere that a child’s surface behavior (e.g. swearing, kicking, yelling) is not always directly related to an immediate stress (e.g. a request to start homework) but rather may be due to other experiences and unresolved feelings (e.g. Ray’s mistreatment at the hands of Nate.)
Whenever a young person’s reaction seems out of proportion to the situation at hand, LSCI guides parents and caregivers to recognize the very real possibility that there’s more to the situation than meets the eye. To avoid responding in a way that will make the situation worse instead of better, adults should:
- First and foremost, remain calm. This sounds easy enough but in practice, it can be challenging for even the most easy-going of adults to keep their cool when they are on the receiving end of a young person’s anger. Nevertheless, angry and aggressive responses from adults only escalate the child’s amygdala-based response and intensify the problem situation. Effective parents and caregivers know that their calm, soothing presence is the best way to help their child regain their composure and begin to deal with the problem in a logical, constructive way.
- Seek to identify the real source of stress. Displacement is the term used in LSCI training to describe situations in which a person takes his or her anger out on someone or something other than the actual target of their anger. The displacement of intense, uncomfortable emotions is a common self-defeating behavior among children and adults alike. There are many reasons why people displace anger, including:
- They fear retaliation by the actual target
- They don’t have the opportunity to express their feelings to the actual target
- They feel safer taking their anger out on someone else
Yet, displaced anger can damage the very relationships kids need the most.
Ironically, it is because of the love and comfort that parents and caregivers provide that their kids may choose them as the persons on whom to displace the anger they feel toward others. Do parents deserve to have their child’s bad moods taken out on them? No, not at all. Are parents in an excellent position to help their kids learn better ways to deal with anger through the way in which they choose to respond to their child’s displacement? Yes, without a doubt! The power of the Source of Stress (SOS) intervention comes in helping kids talk about their feelings rather than acting them out onto undeserving caregivers.
LSCI’s 4-Step Verbal Intervention Process
Parents and caregivers play a vital role in helping their kids express anger and other intense emotions in positive, relationship-building ways. Read on to learn how LSCI’s 4-step process helps manage Ray’s displacement-fueled problem situation.
Step 1: Drain Off/De-escalate a child’s intense emotions
In order de-escalate a child’s intense emotions, it is essential that adults maintain their own calm and composure. Recognize that nothing comes from nothing; whenever a child’s anger seems out of proportion to the event or appears to come “out of the blue,” the parent’s ultimate task is to help the young person identify the real source of his stress.
Ray: (Yelling, pacing around the room, head down) Why won’t you just leave me alone already?
Dad: (In a calm, lowered voice) I can see that you are really worked up and upset right now.
Ray: (Silent, looks at father)
Dad: Let’s just sit here together for a few minutes and see if we can work this out. Would you like some cold water to drink?
Ray: (Shakes his head "no" to the water, but sits down at the kitchen table.)
Dad: (Sits at the table with Ray.) Thanks for sitting with me. I know it’s hard to come home from a long day at school and then have parents start talking about homework right away. I apologize if I made you feel pressured.
Ray: I don’t feel pressured! I’m mad! I hate math! I hate the bus! I hate everyone!
Dad: The fact that you were willing to sit here with me, even when you are feeling so mad and so much hate, shows me that despite it all, you are trying to get back in control and willing to work things out. I’m really impressed. It’s not easy to sit and talk when your whole body is filled with anger.
Ray: I’ve never even done anything to Nate, but he keeps picking on me every single day. And no one does anything about it. The bus driver doesn’t care and the other kids just watch him do whatever he wants to me. I’m going to get in so much trouble tomorrow in Math! (Begins to cry)
Dad: (Puts his hand gently on his son’s shoulder and makes eye contact) That’s a lot to handle. I’m starting to understand why you are so upset. I’d like to know more details so that we can try to work things out. Can you start from the beginning and tell me how this started?
Ray: (Shrugs his shoulders. Looks defeated, yet grateful for his father’s quiet reassurance)
Step 2: Use “Timeline Skills” to help Ray put language to his emotions
LSCI “Timeline skills” help young people put language to their emotions and begin to engage the problem-solving part of their brain. Building a Timeline with a child is a thoughtful, interactive process of questioning and listening to a child as they share their perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors related to a problem situation. In an SOS situation, encourage the young person to think about who he is really mad at versus who received his anger.
Dad: What happened in Math today that made you think you’re going to be in trouble?
Ray: Nothing happened in Math. Math was fine. But it’s going to be terrible tomorrow. I’m going to get n a ton of trouble and it’s all Nate’s fault but no one will believe me.
Dad: It’s a terrible feeling to think that you won’t be believed. I want to hear the truth about what happened. To start with, who is Nate?
Ray: He’s a 10th grader and he’s such a jerk! He picks on me for no reason and he always gets away with it. I hate him.
Dad: It sounds like this problem isn’t about Math as much as it is about Nate. What happened with Nate today?
Ray: It’s not just today. It’s every single day with that kid!
Dad: Having to deal with a difficult kid every single day can be so hard.
Ray: It is! It’s so hard!
Dad: What has been going on with him?
Ray: He makes fun of me every day on the bus. He pushes me out of my seat. He takes my stuff. He calls me names. Yesterday, he stole my headphones and wouldn’t give them back the whole ride. Today, he grabbed my math homework, ripped it up, then threw it out the window. It took me the whole ride to get the homework done and now it’s completely gone. I’m going to get in so much trouble tomorrow.
Dad: Wow—that’s a lot! Let me just make sure I have all of this straight. So, this 10th grader named Nate has been picking on you for a while now. He’s been calling you names, pushing you and taking your stuff. Today, he took your math homework and ripped it up. Then, he threw it out the window. You’re worried that you’re going to get in trouble tomorrow in Math for not having your homework. I can definitely understand why you were feeling so upset when you got home!
Ray: I hate him so much. He never leaves me alone.
Dad: Dealing with an older kid who is pushing you around and messing with your things would be hard for anyone to handle. I’m really sorry that this has been happening to you for so long I’m also really glad that you are telling me about it, because now that I know, I can help you figure out what to do about it. Is there anything else I need to know about your day or what’s been going on with Nate?
Ray: That’s pretty much it. Happens every day.
Step 3: Understand the Problem—Recognize the dynamics of displacement
Once the true source(s) of anger has been identified using the Timeline step, it is time to shift your focus from information gathering to helping the child understand the problem in a new way.
Dad: Okay. So, let’s think about what happened today. You’re dealing with a really mean kid on the bus ride home every day. Today was an especially bad day because he destroyed the math homework that you worked hard on and you won’t have anything to turn in tomorrow in class. You are worried that you are going to get in trouble.
Dad: So really, there are a few problems happening all at once. There’s dealing with Nate and there’s dealing with your math teacher tomorrow.
Ray: Right—and it’s not even my fault!
Dad: Things are feeling out of your control between this bigger kid that takes your stuff and your Math teacher who might be angry that you don’t have your homework.
Ray: Exactly! What am I supposed to do?
Dad: That’s a good question. And I can help you figure out a good answer for what to do about Nate and how to talk to your math teacher about what’s happened to your homework.
Ray: Thank you. Maybe you could talk to my bus driver and email my teacher?
Dad: I can definitely help you with both of those situations. But before we get to those things, there’s one more problem from today that I think is important for us to work out. Do you know what it is?
Ray: (Looks confused)
Dad: We need to talk about what happened between you and me—and the kitchen table. (Dad smiles)
Ray: I was just so mad!
Dad: You swore at me and kicked the table.
Ray: I know. I’m sorry about that.
Dad: Thank you for apologizing. That shows a lot of maturity on your part. Now that you’ve told me about your day, I understand that you weren’t really angry at me. Your anger has to do with someone else.
Dad: Right. You were angry with Nate, and that is completely understandable. You felt like you couldn’t do anything about your anger when you were on the bus, so instead, who got your anger?
Ray: You did. The kitchen table did.
Dad: That’s right. Can you think of any other times when this kind of thing has happened? When you’ve been angry at one person and taken it out on someone else?
Ray: It happened two days ago after I got mad at Nate for making fun of me on the bus in the morning. When I got to school, I called my friend the same names that Nate called me. He got so mad that he told the teacher and I lost recess.
Dad: Ray, listen closely. I understand why you have been feeling angry lately. What Nate has been doing to you is wrong and you have every right to be upset about it. I will help you figure out what to do about Nate. But even before we do that, we need to do something about the fact that when you take your anger out on friends at school or family at home, you create a whole new set of problems.
Ray: I never thought about it like that.
Dad: And the worst part about it is that the people you are taking your anger out on are exactly the people you need to have on your side when you are dealing with people like Nate. Does that make sense?
Ray: Yeah. After I teased my friend in school, he hasn’t talked to me since.
Dad: That’s the problem with taking anger out on people who don’t deserve it. We create new problems in addition to our old ones and push away the people who could help us.
Ray: (Nods in understanding, then says defensively) I hate Nate.
Step 4: Teach your child new skills for expressing anger constructively
Step 4 is a skill-building stage. Here, rather than focusing on the angry, aggressive behaviors you don’t like, you have the opportunity to teach him the skills he needs to behave better in the future. In an SOS situation, teaching kids skills to express anger in constructive ways is essential. [SW2]
Dad: So, what can you do to turn around this problem of taking your anger out on the wrong people?
Ray: Well, I could take it out on the right person instead! I could punch Nate next time he messes with me. Or steal his homework. Or take his whole backpack and throw it out the bus window.
Dad: I understand that that might feel good in the moment. But the problem is that getting revenge also causes new problems. If you punch Nate or throw his backpack out the window, you sink to his level and risk getting yourself in a lot of trouble. I promise that we’re going to talk about Nate and about your math homework, but first, let’s settle the issue of taking out your anger on the people who are actually on your side. What do you think you can do about this?
Ray: I have no idea.
Dad: Well, let me tell you what works for me. When I get really mad at someone, it helps me to get a cold drink of water to cool down my insides. Then, I usually need to just walk away from the situation for at least 10 minutes. I like to be by myself to just calm my brain—maybe listen to music or take a walk if it’s nice outside. When I feel completely calm, it helps to try to talk to someone about the problem.
Ray: I do like to listen to music. And drawing really helps me calm down.
Dad: Those are both great ideas.
Ray: But I’m never going to be able to talk to Nate about how I feel. He’ll just make fun of me more.
Dad: You’re probably right. Telling Nate how you feel probably won’t do a whole lot of good because he doesn’t sound like a trustworthy person who would be willing to listen to you. Can you think of any people who are trustworthy who would listen and try to help you out?
Dad: Absolutely. I’ll listen to you and try to help you any day. Is there anyone at school you can talk to if Nate bothers you in the morning?
Ray: Mrs. McIntyre is pretty nice. She usually has time to talk.
Dad: That sounds like a good option. Would it be helpful if I called Mrs. McIntyre and told her a bit about what’s been going on with Nate? Maybe together we can make a plan for how to deal with him.
Ray: You can call her but I don’t want Nate to know that I said anything. He’ll call me a tattletale and things will get even worse.
Dad: How about if you, me and Mrs. McIntyre all sit down together to talk about what’s been happening and come up with a plan to deal with Nate that doesn’t end up making things worse for you?
Ray: That would be great! (Pauses) What about my math homework?
Dad: What do you think we should do?
Ray: Maybe I can try to talk to my teacher before class and explain what happened. If he can give me another handout with the problems, I can get the assignment done.
Dad: I think that sounds like a solid plan. How are you feeling now?
Ray: Better. A little nervous about Nate still, but I feel better having a plan and having you on my side to help.
Ray’s dad systematically guided his son through this SOS conversation and turned a problem situation into a skill-building opportunity. Notice that the father and son carried on a two-way dialogue all the way through the process; at no time did Ray’s father lecture, threaten or dominate the conversation. The 4-step LSCI process works precisely because it is a back-and-forth process that allows a young person to feel heard, understood, and valued. What’s more, because the young person is involved in understanding his problem and suggesting solutions, he gains invaluable problem-solving experience.
After using Drain Off skills to reduce the intensity of Ray’s anger, the father used Timeline skills to help his son tell his story and begin to make sense of the problem. Because of his careful building of a Timeline, Ray’s father was able to realize that his son’s anger at Nate had been displaced onto him. With this new knowledge, the father could then help his son understand what went wrong and how to more effectively manage anger in future situations so that potential helpers are not pushed away.
Will Using the 4-Step Process Prevent All Future SOS Situations?
Realistically, one SOS intervention is not going to radically change a child’s life or ensure that a young person never overreacts to a routine request again. Managing anger is a challenge to people of most ages and learning how to do so consistently is a process for all of us. The 4-step process described above is an important step in the process of helping kids gain control over their emotions because it offers them three key benefits:
- The experience of putting their feelings into words and feeling heard, understood, and valued
- Understanding of the relationship-damaging dynamic of displacement
- New skills to better manage anger in future situations
Parents and caregivers who use the 4-step process with kids in an SOS situation should not expect to never have to remind kids how to express anger effectively; both in school and in life, young people learn through repetition and practice. Thus, with consistency and opportunities to test out their new skills, young people benefit each time the SOS approach is used. Over time, using the SOS intervention reduces the need to re-use the SOS intervention in the future. You’ll know that consistency has paid off when your child begins to initiate positive anger management skills during stressful situations and reduces instances of displacement.
Whitson, S. (2019). Parenting the Challenging Child: The 4-Step Way to Turn Problem Situations Into Learning Opportunities. Hagerstown, Md: The LSCI Institute.