It seems that even though anger is a natural and vital human emotion that needs to be recognized, expressed and acknowledged, it is not clearly understood. When someone is angry, it is an important signal that some deeper inner feelings need to be explored. In the same way that pain is a symptom of physical illness or injury, anger is a symptom of emotional pain or injury. The source is usually about hurt feelings because one has been mistreated, disrespected, ignored, maligned, or experiences the feeling that in some way an injustice has been done.
Angry feelings are not a bad thing. Anger can be positive and appropriate, says author Rachel Remen, M.D., in her book, “Kitchen Table Wisdom … Stories that Heal.” “Often, anger is a sign of engagement with life. People who are angry are touched deeply by the events of their lives, and feel intensely about them. Anger is a demand for change, a passionate wish for things to be different.”
So, one of the most important things that parents can do to promote their children’s emotional health is to teach them, at a very early age, to recognize their anger and to explore it to find out what is the underlying issue. When anger is not recognized and explored, it builds as it moves through stages of irritation, annoyance, frustration and, ultimately, rage. If angry feelings are not addressed appropriately they will be expressed in highly dysfunctional ways with a child acting out those feelings in destructive behaviors — hitting siblings, doing poorly at school, defying parental rules.
Parents need to ask their children with kindness, “What are you angry about? Is that the only thing you are angry about or is there something else?” If a child is unable to verbalize the source of his or her angry feelings, a parent might suggest that the child think about what’s bothering him or her, and that they will talk about it a little later. Of course, children who have not yet learned the language of expressing feelings may not be able to share them clearly, so a parent might make it a little game. “OK, let’s play a guessing game, I’ll guess what’s bothering you and you can tell me if I’m getting it right by saying ‘warm, cold, or hot!” Creating a safe, fun atmosphere allows the child to understand that it is a good thing to understand what angry feelings are about.
Parents also need to teach their children appropriate ways to express their anger, without name-calling, intimidation or violence. Teach them to use “I” statements: “I’m angry because I have to go to bed when I’m not tired. It seems like my feelings don’t matter.” Another way to handle their frustrations is to provide them — with the caveat that punching a person is never, ever allowed — a punching pillow, coaching them to verbalize what’s bothering them as they punch the pillow. (Many adults could benefit from this approach as well.)
Most importantly, parents need to patiently listen to and acknowledge their children’s anger: “I can see why that makes you angry. Your feelings do matter to me, but you need to be well-rested for school. Maybe we can pick a ‘stay-up-late’ night on a weekend when you don’t have school the next day!”
The reality of daily life is that human conflict is natural and common, even in the most loving families. However, when every family member’s angry feelings are allowed to be recognized, expressed, acknowledged and especially, respected, families can resolve their differences peacefully and productively.
Based in Rockport, psychotherapist and life coach Susan Britt, M.Ed., formerly a university director of counseling and career services, teaches individuals, couples and families to resolve relationship conflicts, clarify and achieve life and career goals, and accelerate personal growth. Questions and comments may be addressed to her at firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone, 978 546-9431.