Every day I see or hear about children who speak with anger—even rage—at their parents, usually about something they didn’t get or about a parent’s instructions to do something they didn’t want to do. We have become so accustomed to anger in our world that mostly we don’t even note how venomous it is or how it consumes and controls both the giver and receiver.
Anger is a Response to Fear
Anger is a response to fear, and both feelings are so overwhelming that they eliminate the possibility for the feelings that contribute to happiness: gratitude, peace, a sense of connection to others, and more. Because of the severe—even emotionally fatal—effects of anger, parents must learn how to address it in children.
If a child becomes angry, we must immediately—with no delay whatever—help the child identify how they’re feeling. For the sake of simplicity and brevity, here we’ll address talking to a child who is verbal. What could you say to a child who is angry? Some examples:
“You seem to be angry. Can you tell me about it in words?”
“You certainly look angry to me.” After acknowledgment from the child, say, “I might be able to help if you tell me what you’re angry about.”
“Tell me with your words how you’re feeling.”
“Tell me with your words what you want.”
Absolutely never give children what they want while they’re angry, because although it’s unintentional, it would be positively rewarding their anger and would actually train them to use anger the next time they want or dislike something.
Most parents reward their children for anger or whining—which is just a more subtle form of anger—many times every day. No wonder they’re frustrated and irritated, trapped in a unconscious system where unpredictable manipulation is the rule.
Notice that I’m not suggesting that children SHOULD NOT be angry. Anger is a natural reaction to pain and fear, so we can’t just tell them to stop it.
But what children do is VENT their feelings. They just spew them out, and this has no positive effect. Contrary to conventional wisdom, venting anger does NOT release anger. Studies have proven that the more people express their anger, the angrier they become.
And their unfocused, violent anger provokes fear in the people around them—notably their parents—who tend overwhelmingly to respond by protecting themselves rather than addressing the needs of the child.
Then what? After children are guided to speak their anger—perhaps using words like those suggested above—how can you respond? You can express understanding of their anger, just one of many examples being, “I understand why you want XX, and it would be disappointing not to get it.” This is called LISTENING, and it’s the first and possibly most important step in loving.
After listening, the choices vary widely, including:
- Tell them another time or situation where they can get or do what they wanted.
- Describe what they can get or do instead of what they are fussing about.
- If the child continues to vent anger indiscriminately, tell the child to spend some time alone thinking of how he could express his anger in words.
- If the child continues to be non-verbally angry, say, “I can think of a way that you get or do what you wanted, but if you continue to not use your words calmly, then you will never get or do that thing.”
Want to learn more?
Eliminate confusion and conflict with your children.
What to Do with An Angry Adult
The same principle I just described for use with children can be just as applicable to the adults we interact with.
A woman recently asked me what she could do when her husband was angry while he was driving, which distracted him from driving safely. I suggested that next time she tell him to pull into the next parking lot, which he did. She then said, “I can see that you’re angry. The directions were wrong, and the traffic is heavy, and we might be late. That can be stressful, and I’m becoming frightened by the way you’re driving. Would you be willing to tell me exactly what I could do to help this situation?” He asked her to take over the directions and to make a couple of phone calls for guidance, and soon his anger was gone.
Instead of sitting by while he vented his anger, she loved him—by listening—and took action that improved the situation and his reactions.
Unfocused anger is like a car without a steering wheel. If we can help people express their anger with words, we can begin to love them and even to change the circumstances to lessen the underlying fears or stress.