As a parent, are you comfortable allowing your children to express their anger? Do you rush to shut it down, for fear they, or you, will lose control? Do you see anger as a negative emotion? When it is handled unskillfully it certainly can be. But it can also be a guide. Learning to express our anger in non-harmful ways is healthy, and it is a skill that our children need to be able to navigate this world successfully.
The world is filled with anger. Right now, it seems there is more anger than ever before, or maybe it’s just more in your face in our hyper-connected society. It is certainly true that social media and constant news is fueling the collective anger of citizens around the world.
There is not a single 24 hour news cycle that does not involve someone espousing their anger at some person or group that they feel is responsible for all their woes. Faces screwed up in anger can be found on every news feed. We are an angry species and many of us are not afraid to show it.
But most of us are uncomfortable with anger — ours and other people’s. We do not think anger has a place in a civil society. Certain segments of society are especially not allowed to express their anger, and many of us have learned to keep it inside.
The unskillful expression of anger is what causes verbal and physical attacks, mass shootings and even wars. Closer to home, anger that is not handled appropriately can destroy marriages, families and partnerships of every kind.
While it would be easy to point the finger at anger as the culprit behind so many tragedies, anger is not the problem. It is our inability to express anger in ways that are productive, safe, and conducive to resolution that is the problem.
As parents we have the opportunity to teach our children to manage their anger in ways that are not destructive or harmful to themselves and others. We can teach them to use their anger as a guide to help them express their needs. But in order to do this, we have to allow them to feel their anger. And, we have to not be afraid of our children’s anger.
The Problem With Anger
One of the problems is that anger is a taboo emotion in our society. We believe that anger is bad because it can make people do terrible things. But remember, anger is not the problem. Not knowing how to express it safely is the problem.
Not many of us have been given the tools to work with an emotion that feels as dangerous and frightening as anger. Many people were raised in homes where anger was played out as rage, and to a child, nothing can be more terrifying.
Or, anger was an emotion that we were not allowed to express in our homes so we learned to stuff it away, attempting to not feel it. This unexpressed anger then comes out in other ways, either as uncontrollable rage or as depression, eating disorders or compulsive people-pleasing.
Anger is many times used as a weapon to keep others in control, inciting fear, which can be seen as respect by the perpetrator. If we were controlled by an angry parent when we were a child, chances are we were not allowed to express our own anger. It had nowhere to go but inward. Anger that is held inside turns to poison in our bodies and our minds.
If we can teach our children not to be afraid of anger, but to respect it as a guide, we can help to turn the tide of anger that has been unleashed in our world to wreak havoc on all of us.
Teaching What We Do Not Know
Very few of us learned the skills we need to handle anger wisely. We were most likely raised by parents who did not have these skills, either, and now we are expected to teach our children something we don’t know ourselves? How can we do this?
We need to do some soul searching and ask ourselves some pointed, and possibly painful, questions.
- How do I feel about anger?
Is anger something I was taught to stuff, or was I taught to use it as a weapon? Am I comfortable with my own response to anger when it arises? Is there a way that I can change the way I react when I get angry that will make life better for me and those around me? Am I willing to be honest about my relationship to anger so I can change?
2. Have I used anger to harm others in the past?
Am I afraid of the fear that lies under my anger? Does this make me act out in ways that harm others in order to protect myself? Am I afraid of my own anger? Do I feel out of control when I get angry? How has my anger affected my relationships?
3. Do I have permission to feel angry?
Many times when we are raised by parents who could not allow us to feel our anger we learn that anger is bad. I have heard parents shut their children down when tears flow and emotions rise. “Stop crying or I will give you something to cry about,” is a common phrase that parents have used to repress their children’s anger.
If we get these kinds of messages when we feel angry, we feel like we are bad, too. We learn to hold it in. If we are not okay with feeling our anger, then we need to examine how this unexpressed anger comes out.
If you use passive-aggression, it is likely unexpressed anger. If you work really hard to keep the peace with everyone around you, likely you are afraid of your, and others’, anger. When we do not feel like we have a right to feel angry it can lead to all kinds of health and relationship issues directly related to our inability to process our anger.
Helping Our Children and Helping Ourselves
So how do we deal with anger in ways that help, not harm? First we have to see anger for what it is — a sign that we have an unmet need, or that something is happening that is not ok with us.
When a baby cries in anger, it is always a sign that there is a need that is not being met. Either she is hungry, wet, in pain, or simply needs to be held and comforted. As parents, our job is to figure out what the need is and meet it as quickly as possible.
Whenever anger arises for us, it is no different. We have an unmet need, too, although many times it is difficult for us to see what that need really is. It may take some detective work to see beneath the trigger to the underlying need.
It is also common to believe that we are not allowed to have needs since we were not allowed to express those needs through our anger. Learning to allow our anger and our needs is a big step in the direction of wholeness, for ourselves and our children.
By allowing our children to express their anger, we are helping them learn to trust their inner voice. When they become angry, they are expressing an unmet need. Simply saying, “I know you are angry. How does it feel to be angry?” will bring them up short to get in touch with their feelings.
You can say, “How can you express your anger without screaming or hitting?” If they are unsure of an alternative, give them some healthy and safe options. Going outside to run, drawing a picture of the anger inside them, allowing their anger to do a dance.
Then, it is our job to help them figure out what the anger is about. Sometimes it has nothing to do with the thing that triggered it. If their brother won’t stay out of their room and they become inordinately angry, spending time helping them see what’s really going on is a lesson in looking beyond their anger to their deeper feelings.
Maybe someone teased them at school today and they are feeling hurt and ashamed. Many times our anger is a mask for our pain. Teach them to inquire within when they are feeling angry to see what the real need is. In this case, they really just need a hug and reassurance, and someone to listen to them.
We must guard against making them feel they are not allowed to be angry, even when the unmet need is unreasonable in our mind. Instead, we should give them the tools to express that anger in ways that will allow it to move through them instead of getting stuck and stuffed down to cause harm later. If we can allow anger to move through us, it usually burns itself out.
When our children become angry, we would do well to tune in and see beneath the anger and tears to find the real need. Teaching our children that they can trust their anger to show them what they need, and then teaching them to give voice to those needs in more skillful ways, will enable them to move through anger quickly.
But learning to allow our children to be angry takes a lot of courage, especially if we are not comfortable with our own anger. Many times, it feels threatening to let our kids express themselves in ways that we, ourselves, have not learned to do skillfully.
If we use anger to tamp down our children’s anger, we are perpetuating in them an unhealthy relationship to their emotions that will continue the cycle of pain and suffering that is on the loose in our world.
Mitigate the potentially negative power of anger in your family by setting healthy parameters for its expression. Decide what is acceptable and what is not. Destroying property is not acceptable. Screaming and calling names is not acceptable. Whatever guidelines you set in your home, make sure you follow them as well.
But, whatever you do, do not squash anger down. On her blog Musings, Kristin Saylor, a female priest, says “Anger doesn’t need to be controlled. It needs to be felt. Like any of us when we’re upset, all our emotions want is to be seen and honored and witnessed. You can’t reason with rage, you can’t lure it away with logical explanations. But you can honor it. You can hold space for it. And once you acknowledge that it’s real and valid, anger gets a lot less hot. It softens its death grip on us and makes space for other things.”
When their anger is too big, and too scary, to be felt by your children alone, they will need you to hold space for them.
When I was raising my children, the pediatrician and author T. Berry Brazelton was teaching us how to raise our children differently than we had been raised. He said, “We’re very good at identifying everything that’s wrong with anybody, but we don’t have any idea about what’s going on in them or what’s right about them.”
Teaching our children to trust their anger, to allow it as a healthy emotion, to learn to express it skillfully, sends them the message that there is nothing “wrong” with feeling mad. It teaches them that what’s going on inside them is legitimate and deserves to be acknowledged. It gives them the confidence to get their needs met in ways that prevent themselves or others from being harmed.
Dr. Brazelton taught that when your child was having an uncontrolled tantrum, you could take them in your arms and hold them firmly, close to your body. You affirm their feelings. You say, “ You are feeling out of control right now. This anger feels too big for you, so I will sit with you now until you are able to handle it on your own.” (This is my interpretation of Dr. Brazelton’s teaching.)
When we do this, we are giving our children the tools they need to deal with powerful emotions without being swept away by them. We are teaching them they can calm down and express themselves without harming. If we teach them these skills when they are young, they will have them at their disposal when they are older.
Allowing them to feel anger is a gift that we can give our children as well as the world. When we are willing to listen to someone’s anger for the message of the unmet need, instead of answering their anger with our own, or shutting them down because their anger threatens us, we are getting closer to creating a world we can all feel safe to live in.
Learning to relate to anger as a guide, trusting it to show us what we need, and then expressing those needs in a clear and concise way are the keys to changing the paradigm of anger. Instead of something to be feared, or tamped down, anger can take its place in the line-up of healthy emotions when we learn to handle it wisely.
When our children develop a healthy relationship with anger, they are better equipped to deal with the challenges of this world without using violence. They will be able to hold space for others as they, too, express their anger. They will have no need to shut down their emotions or act out in rage.
By teaching our children — and ourselves — to honor the anger we all feel, we are creating a new paradigm for the future. We are creating a world where anger does not have to escalate into a tragedy that will be the top story on the next news cycle.