What to Do When the Kids Get Angry

What to Do When the Kids Get Angry

I was raised in a culture where strong emotions were a difficult topic. When we were enjoying ourselves and laughed hysterically, we heard things like “Laughing now, crying later.” It looked like it was hard in those times to fully experience joy.
Equally uncomfortable seemed to be anger. When powerfully reacting to hurt or unfairness with rage, we were immediately sent away to deal with those emotions in solitude: “go to your room” or immediately cease their display: “stop crying, we’re in public” or “stop this noise, you are exaggerating!”
And because the manifestations of my emotions have been conditioned, I grew up to believe that somehow, what I felt was wrong. As an adult, I thought I have “anger issues,” but what I had, was an immaturity in dealing with emotions. In my formative years I didn’t learn how to accept and deal with them, and instead, I feared, avoided, felt shame and built this facade to show something else other than the real truth of what was happening inside my soul.

With years and maturity, I educated myself, revisited my past, cried over the unfairness of not being accepted fully for who I was and vowed to do better when it was my turn. It was and still is, the slice of parenting that requires tremendous mindfulness on my part. It is extremely easy to fall back into automatic reactions and tell my children exactly what I heard when I was their age. But I actively resist doing so.

Somewhere before their 2-year birthday, children, for the first time, become aware of the fact that they are their own person. The celebration of this realization is usually done with what we, wise people call “the terrible two – ” the onset of tantrums, uncontrollable crying, unreasonableness, poor decision making, and confusion. As parents, we panic, rightfully so. We think something is wrong with us and everything will be so much smoother if only we were better parents who cater to every demand of our child. Or we think something is wrong with our kids and everything will be better if only they were more reasonable.
Mostly, we feel helplessness, and a vast majority of us fall back into old patterns, saying the same things we heard and reacting the same way.
In reality, it is their job to experiment with these feelings and test themselves and us in expressing them. We should be worried if they have no such episodes.
What starts around this age with tantrums focused on cereal crunchiness or the shade of green on the monster truck, will eventually evolve to root-causes of “nobody wants to be my best friend,” “I’m the only one in my class who doesn’t understand math” and “I didn’t dare to ask the person I like to come with me to the prom.”
How we react to one of them is how we respond to all of them. So start early and focus this work on yourself, addressing your past issues around this topic. It is a difficult time for parents. I struggled with it tremendously when it first started, and it was the trigger into educating myself about emotional literacy and slowly becoming one such emotionally literate person.

Before I start telling you about what I do about anger, I want to share with you a big truth:

We don’t feel anger because we are bad. We feel anger because we are hurt.

It was easier to accept this for my kids than for myself, but ultimately, nobody ever feels angry because they are a rotten-souled human. Anger is a reaction to injustice, shame, loneliness, not belonging, or feeling tender-hearted.

Before the storm

This is an essential part of the equation. One that took me the most to learn. I can’t come up with solutions, coping mechanisms or wisdom when I’m in the middle of intense difficulty.

Learning how to deal with anger doesn’t happen in the middle of being angry.

So if your kids are in the middle of the crisis, that’s not when you sit them down to talk about big feelings. We do that in “times of peace”:

  • Embrace talking about emotions as a part of your daily dialogue. Talk about your own big feelings and how you deal with them when they arise.
  • Tell them how you had a hard day and now you need to go for a walk and move your body before you can sort what happens in your mind.
  • Normalize the existence of such emotions and do not label them as weakness or as a personality trait.

Anger is energy, and it’s easy for this energy to come out when there is so much pressure, it will just explode. Nevertheless, it’s more sustainable to empty the container of big feelings on a regular basis.
We do that by going for a run or screaming from the top of our lungs. Pillow-fights, kicking newspapers, pushing hands or swimming.
Most of the times, anger is triggered by other emotions. Allow those to come out openly, even when their manifestation is uncomfortable. When I’m saying this, I mostly think about frustration. When my child is feeling frustrated, rather than offering options for it to stop, I encourage them to express it, either verbally, or physically, without judging its cause. When I do this, it is much more likely for the frustration to dissipate and not escalate into anger.

In the middle of the storm

  • Get out of their way.
  • Let them express in whatever way they feel, provided your boundaries are respected. For me, those boundaries sit around violence. They can’t hit me, their siblings or other people because they are angry. And they can’t shout profanities. They can hit a pillow, or the wall and can scream unfairness from the top of their lungs, but calling names or slapping another person is off limits.
  • Minimize the damage.

That’s it. There’s nothing more you can do. It’s not the time for “the talk” or handing them tools they don’t know how to use for the first time. If they can remember all the tools you practice with “before” then the crisis will be navigated smoother. Very likely, they will use one tool. The easiest one. If they remember.
But mostly, during these hard times, try to mentally and emotionally detach from what is happening and see your child with compassion. Self-talk in a kind way. Don’t make this about you. They are hurting, their reasons for feeling the way they do are valid and not up for negotiation (especially now and especially by somebody else).

After the storm

Remember that it’s not your job to fix it for them. It’s not your job to offer solutions, options or alternatives. Your duty as a mother is to sit with them through their pain, in full trust that they will find their own way through and out of this.
Talk about it. Tell them they are not alone. Tell them you feel that too. Allow them to imagine how they could do differently next time. Go deeper and explore the space under the manifestation of anger and into the real reason of hurt. Talk about how they can recognize it in the future. Ask them about the story they tell themselves in regards to this event. Don’t dismiss it, just listen.

Tell them you love them.
Remind them that they are good.
Reassure them of your trust in them to figure it out.

Observing my kids expand their emotional range and experiment with their expression has proved to be one of the biggest lessons of my life. I learned to respect the purity of these emotions and allow them space to express them safely.

Remember, anger is not your primary problem. Anger is an indicator. The alarm that goes on when the storm is about to start. Why the blast started is what you should get curious about.
Guide your kids towards mindfulness and the full acceptance of who they are and what they feel. And extend yourself the same courtesy.

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