- Children need help learning how to talk about their anger.
- When children are unable to talk about their anger, they feel disconnected and misunderstood.
- Feelings of disconnection and misunderstanding can lead to violent behaviors.
- Helping parents learn how to connect with their children's angry feelings improves children's behaviors.
Young children are showing increasing signs of stress and upset, and there are valid reasons for this. The amount of physical, financial, material, emotional, spiritual, and cultural stress parents are feeling, compounded by the continued school and work closures as children and staff continue to fall ill exacerbates the stress and rage we are seeing in younger and younger children.
Despite advertising that my practice is full, parents continue to reach out for help with their child who is showing new signs of violence towards others or even themself. Limited resources and access to weapons make this situation untenable on a large scale, and until we can implement changes in policy, the most helpful thing I can do is to help parents, caregivers, and educators learn how to talk to angry and upset children so that they can feel emotionally connected and understood. This is because when children feel emotionally connected and understood, they are able to use their aggression constructively and productively and are less likely to commit acts of senseless violence.
When parents come to me seeking advice on how to help their angry or violent child, they are usually in their own state of distress. The first priority is to help the parents feel supported so that they can take on the very difficult task of helping their struggling child. Oftentimes I request to work primarily with the parents, which can bring out the parents’ own feelings of shame and inadequacy, alongside angry accusations directed at me: “You must think I’m a terrible mother” or “Therapists always blame the parents.” The former reaction is a clue that there exists a potential depressive struggle in the parent, and the latter reveals an emotional current of anger and blame. All of this must be explored and discussed in order to help the situation.
When I explain to parents that shame and feelings of inadequacy can leave us feeling angry and disconnected and that discussing the parents’ feelings can help the parents learn how to talk to their children about them, I usually get a positive response. I let them know that anger can be either connecting or disconnecting, and when a parent doesn’t want their child to be angry, the child’s anger can disconnect them from their parent. The more disconnected a child feels, the more destructive their anger may become. The more willing parents are to listen to their children talk about their angry feelings, the more connected the child will feel to their parents and the less likely they are to communicate anger through violent behaviors.
Some parents are able to tell me what kind of precipitant will cause their child overwhelming upset and already know exactly what is going to cause the outburst. Some parents find their children more unpredictable or secretive, not wanting to talk about their feelings and demanding privacy. What is usually left out is the parent’s reaction to the incident. When I ask parents how they respond to their child in these moments, they tend to describe their own anger and fear in reaction to the behavior, which ends either in tears or more anger, and sometimes punishment.
Why shouldn’t parents be angry and punish their children for violent incidents? It seems a reasonable response to unreasonable and dangerous behavior! Because it forecloses an opportunity for the parent to help their child feel connected and understood, and as long as their child is unable to feel connected and understood, the child will continue to behave destructively. Many parents know this deep down—despite feeling momentary hopelessness that turns punitive—and can reach out to a therapist for help, knowing that therapeutic work does not involve punishment.
Earlier this year, a newly divorced couple reached out to me looking for help with their eleven-year-old son, who was showing increasingly concerning behaviors at home and at school. There was an incident of bringing a knife to school, though it wasn’t clear where the knife came from. At home, the child was spending more and more time alone in his room, demanding privacy.
The parents were well-versed in the “child development and psychology literature” and were trying to be supportive of their son, who they presumed was having difficulty adapting to being uprooted by his parents' recent divorce amidst the already tumultuous Covid-related stresses of the last few years.
His parents were trying to be supportive of their son’s struggles and would yell at him, “It’s okay! it’s okay!” when he would turn to quick, violent rage, sometimes throwing heavy objects and just missing his parents’ faces by a few inches. They were scared for their child—and themselves—but wanted him to know that he was allowed to have his feelings. They didn’t want to punish him and make him feel worse, but they knew what they were doing wasn’t working.
I suggested to the parents that their son was, in fact, not okay—and neither were they. Telling their son that things were okay was not true, was not resonating with him, and was therefore making him feel more disconnected from them. This was only going to make him more angry.
I asked them if they would feel comfortable the next time a violent outburst began, to use their genuine feelings in the moment, maybe even raise their voices and say, “This sucks! It’s so hard!” One of the parents couldn’t even begin to imagine doing it, but the other one was on board.
The first time the participating parent tried it out, the child was stunned: He called his parent crazy and walked to his room quietly. But the violence had been averted.
The next time I saw the parents, the non-participating parent asked me, confused and somewhat agitated, “What exactly are we even talking about? What sucks? What’s so hard?” I let both parents know that this was the perfect question to be wondering about with their child since there were assumptions being made about what was causing his upset, but there weren’t any conversations with him about it.
The next time the child became enraged, his parent, shocked at himself for allowing more of his genuine feelings in the moment, shouted, “This sucks!!! It’s so hard!!!”
The child responded, “What are you even talking about?”
The parent was then able to take a breath and ask, “I don’t know, I just know it’s really bad. What is so hard right now?”
And the child started talking. Kids were bullying him at school, and he was angry and embarrassed about it.
Through continued work with the parents—modeling being comfortable in the presence of angry feelings and learning how to talk about them—both parents were able to help their child feel more supported and connected, and his behaviors at home and in school continue to improve.
Khan, M.M.R. 1974. The privacy of the self. London: Hogarth Press.
Winnicott, D.W. 1956. Primary maternal preoccupation. In Collected papers. New York: Basic Books.