Updated: Oct 21, 2021
'You are allowed to be mad, but you are not allowed to be mean.'
Anger is a challenging emotion to deal with, regardless of your age, regardless of you being a child, teen, or parent. Anger brings out the worst in us and is very hard to positively react to. Anger often spurs anger in others, so it takes deliberate intent to react calmly and reasonably.
Repeat after me: Anger is a normal emotion. I know it may seem as though getting angry is counter-productive, but if we could remember that the actual emotion of anger is part of a healthy range of emotions, then we can better understand that it is not the emotion itself that is harmful or destructive; rather it is how we express the emotion that can be damaging. Thankfully, with practice, we can all learn how to properly control and/or express our anger.
Foremost, I want to point out again that anger is normal. Anger in and of itself is an extreme emotion, sure, but what is more distressing about anger it is often accompanied by behaviors that are viewed as negative: hitting, yelling, being unkind. It’s important to find healthy ways to process anger without resorting to negative behaviors. It is also important to understand and acknowledge anger and use its energy in a positive manner.
Anger is a strong and dominant emotion. Anger is also almost always a secondary emotion, following an initial strong emotion (called a trigger). Triggers are generally one or two of five sources: threats to self-esteem; biological; stress or anxiety; sadness or frustration. These triggers can be in the form of sibling and family interactions to treatment at school to hunger to test anxiety, and all will fall into one of these five categories. Note: the greater one's feelings of self-efficacy (the belief of one's own effectiveness on personal successes), the greater one's feelings of 'grit', then the more likely feelings of anger will NOT be triggered as a result of feelings of unfairness or jealousy. Self-confidence and self-esteem help one to rebound from challenges and to move towards trying again instead of getting frustrated and angry. Sure, there may be biological or health-related causes of excessive anger, but beyond those exceptions, one can learn to manage their response to anger.
Moving towards a healthy emotional response includes three steps: expressing, redirecting, and suppressing.
Part 1 – Expressing
Use your words. Yes, in fact, being able to properly express how you are feeling, - using ‘I’ statements, not accusing, accepting responsibility, looking for solutions – is important. Being able to label what you are feeling, to describe what you believe to be causing your emotional state, and to tell another person what you are feeling is a big step in learning how to deal healthfully with big emotions. This is not just appropriate for anger, but for a whole range of emotions from happy to sad to confused. This is typically a challenge for kids to learn; all they know is that they are feeling something really big, and it is feeling overwhelming. This is not just a kid state, though; many adults also struggle with naming their emotions and feeling permission to talk about how they are feeling. This is where having good friends plays an important role in emotional health; having people you trust to safeguard your emotions is like having all of the side pieces of your puzzle: friends give you support and guidance. Without friends, it’s hard to know where the other pieces can be placed.
When our kids become throw-themselves-on-the-ground-red-faced-and-be-completely-unreasonable angry, we have to do our best to be empathetic. Sure, we are now too mature to mimic that sort of behavior ourselves when something sets us off, but we all know what it's like to get angry. Letting our kids know we care that they are mad, that we've been there and understand what it feels like can help them to know that we are on their side ... even when it is something we did/said that set them off in the first place. At the same time, our kids watch and learn when we get angry ourselves, and will ape what we do and say with amazing accuracy. So … make sure you have a comfortable repertoire of anger management tools on display for them to mimic.
Anger in teenagers can be even more difficult, as there are biological issues at play that may exacerbate what is already a strong emotion. Teenagers have a lot of hormones coursing through their bodies; couple that with an almost-but-not-quite-fully developed prefrontal cortex (read: the part of the brain that is involved with problem solving and impulse control) can lead to a lot of drama and hysterics when anger is fanning the emotion flame. Kids may be making impulsive decisions or overreacting to small provocations in ways that seem way out of proportion to the situation; remember, to them, what they are feeling is very real, and very big.
As parents, we can help our kids learn the proper labels for emotions by identifying them in others when we see them occur, or labeling them ourselves in front of our kids when we feel them ourselves. Learning statements that help to properly label feelings without blaming or accusing is a big part of having healthy emotions. Additionally, it is important for us to teach our kids that things are not always black or white; rigid thinking can cause feelings of anger because it is hard to understand things that don't (usually) fall into just either extreme. Children have to learn to understand and accept shades of grey. As kids gain more and more varied experiences, they begin to realize that their childhood beliefs are too simplistic; age and experience brings complexity to their understandings. Helping our kids – regardless of age – to better understand what they are feeling, and to feel okay about what they are feeling will help them to move towards finding safer, less harmful, and possibly even productive ways of expressing it.
It’s also important to understand that there is a big difference between feelings and acting: being angry is okay, acting aggressively is not. Having strong emotions is not a reason to hit, yell, name-call or act otherwise aggressively. It is not a reason to threaten violence. Anger is an emotion, not/not an excuse to behave unacceptably or irresponsibly.
It is also important for parents to be aware of any underlying situations that may be exacerbating the anger response in their kids. Irritability, mood swings, outburst may be symptoms of underlying disorders like anxiety or depression; stronger-than-expected outbursts might be the result of trauma or abuse; even seemingly less significant struggles like trouble at school or problems with friends may masquerade as anger, especially if your child lacks the tools to articulate their feelings.
One final thought about being able to talk about and through our angry feelings: anger tends to relate directly to thought patterns triggered when someone perceives a situation to be unfair, unjust or ‘wrong’, triggering a feeling that the ‘unfairness’ is a personal attack. A short-fused individual might then rashly respond, exacerbating the situation. Much of the reaction can be boiled down to the individual not having the emotional literacy to know what is going on within themselves, and a lack of knowledge of how to care for themselves. By developing this toolbox, by learning how to label our emotions, and talk about them in a constructive manner, we are enabling our kids (and big people) to productively deal with these strong emotions and move past them.
Part two – Redirecting
There is a time and a place for all emotions, including anger. In fact, some kids (and big people) benefit from having a prescribed place to express their aggression, namely a sport wherein being aggressive is okay. Sports like boxing, karate or other martial arts, or even face-paced sports like handball or squash can be an excellent avenue for reducing feelings of aggression at other times.
Other good outlets for managing strong feelings might be drawing pictures of how we feel, or writing in a journal or poetry. All of these outlets offer a constructive avenue for feelings.
As a parent, it is very important that we do not give in to angry behaviors when our kids (or other big people) exhibit them. When your child is angry, and they are acting on their strong feelings (i.e. having a tantrum), giving in to their behaviors not only rewards them for their poor behavior choices but also reinforces the behavior, making them more likely to respond this way again. Trust me, this is not what you want. I’m sure you’ve been giving the advice not to give into a temper tantrum. Absolutely true: it just teaches that the tantrum works; giving in to a tantrum will bring about more tantrums. No one wins in this situation, not the one giving the tantrum nor the one giving in. Have you ever seen a child after a tantrum? They are beyond listening to reason; they are just in the middle of a whirlwind of emotions, spent, and a hiccupping mess. When the storm has passed, let them know they are safe, they are loved, and that you are still holding firm: the answer is still no. There are few times in your parenting career that you are required to be a hard-a$$ and this is one of them.
Also, know that an angry outburst or two does not necessarily mean your child is being abused or has an anxiety problem. What it does mean is there your child has a need to be helped and they need attention. Maybe they need to calm down first, maybe they need to vent first, but they also need to know that you understand that they are angry, and you are there for them when they are ready.
One note on redirecting: I am not saying you should ignore the situation, or the problem. When a problem is ignored instead of resolved, it doesn’t go away. Rather, the problem – and the strong feeling about it – tend to grow and get bigger and more difficult. It is worth the time and energy to come to resolution rather than shelving problems. Resolutions may look differently for different ages, but nonetheless, facing the problem is a better choice than letting it fester in the corner.
Part three - Calming
It’s okay to be angry. It’s okay to have strong feelings. But having strong feelings for a long period of time can be hurtful to one’s health and body. Literally, having the stress hormones associated with anger present in the body can wreak havoc on one’s emotional and physical health. Part of the art of managing anger includes learning skills and behaviors that can help to calm these strong feelings. Activities like yoga, meditation, going for a walk, or breathing exercises can help reduce the angry response and promote a more peaceful frame of mind.
A very important skill everyone benefits from is learning how to calm their own emotional response; each person will find a unique mix of activities that can help ease their strong emotional state, and help them to feel more at peace. What brings you to your happy place? What helps you to feel more calm and centered? Teaching these skills to your kids can be a rewarding experience. Okay, so we may not want their yoga mat right next to our own all of the time but perhaps sharing the calm you feel after a class, or bringing them along on your walk can help teach them the beauty of finding peace, and they can start to develop their own repertoire of anger (and stress) reducing activities.
When calm again, it is a great time to think about the situation, the cause, the response, and talk about what might be done to avoid that sort of situation again. Did we learn anything from it? What can we do to prevent it from happening again? Or, if unavoidable, what can we do to have a more positive response? Life is, unfortunately, always going to throw us curve balls, and we can't avoid all of them. If we learn from the ones that do come our way, we are in a better position - emotionally, mentally, and physically - when the next one comes our way. Learning from life's challenges is the best way to improve our emotional agility.
It’s okay to be angry. Anger is part of a healthy spectrum of emotions. It’s what one does with their anger that may be unhealthy. These are life-long skills one can develop and employ.
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