Managing Anger Between Parent and Child
By Nancy Carlsson-Paige
Mothers often say that they get "horribly angry" with their young children. As one mother stated "I get so mad at them sometimes, mostly when they fight, that I end up screaming—no screeching—at them. I even told them I hate them one time recently. I feel so out of control when I'm like that. I know I scare them. Then I feel so bad for unleashing my uncontrollable temper onto my kids."
When we're in an emotional state, we can't communicate or problem solve constructively—our feelings hijack us and block our capacity to focus. We need to find ways to reduce the anger so that we can begin to communicate again.
Learning to deal with our own anger is an essential skill for conflict resolution and for life. First, it can help just to notice that you're getting angry. What's happening in my body? Is my breathing more rapid? Does my face flush? Is my voice rising or my heartbeat increasing? Then you can ask yourself, what is it that's triggering my anger?
Next, see if you can lower the intensity of your feelings by breathing deeply, using "self talk," such as repeating a key calming word or phrase, or taking a step away for a moment, or just simply pausing and waiting. Then try to communicate your anger in an "I" statement—using words that say what you feel, what is making you angry, and what you need.
It's worth noting here that anger is often a secondary emotion—that is, it can arise as a response to other emotions such as fear, sadness, or insecurity—and it can be a challenge to go inward and try to find the underlying feeling or need.
Marshall Rosenberg, founder and educational director of the Center for Nonviolent Communication, explores anger deeply in his nonviolent communication (NVC) approach, set out in a body of work that may be very helpful for many parents. Rosenberg explains that often what triggers our anger is not its true cause; that is, it isn't what people do that makes us angry but something in us that responds to what they do. He encourages us to try to go beyond what triggered our anger and become more conscious of the need that is at its root. His belief is that we get angry because our needs are not getting met, but that often we are not in touch with those needs and instead of recognizing them within ourselves we focus on what's wrong with other people.
On the other side of the equation, what happens when we're dealing with a child who is angry? First, if the child is acting aggressively, it's vital before anything else to ensure the safety of everyone involved. Once you've made sure everyone is physically safe, try to listen attentively to the angry child while he or she expresses how he or she feels. Try to reflect back the essence of what you hear.
Sometimes this alone is enough, especially for a young child, to enable him or her to move beyond being upset. With younger kids anger often passes quickly, especially if they know they are being listened to and respected for how they feel.
For a child whose anger is not dissipating, suggest that they try one or two of the calming techniques mentioned above.
I believe that by helping kids develop inner life skills, we're putting in their hands new tools that will help them manage all kinds of life situations. And when there are conflicts, or kids are angry, we can call on these skills to help bring down tension and restore peace.
Nancy Carlsson-Paige is a professor of education at Lesley University and the author or co-author of five books. Her most recent book is Taking Back Childhood: Helping Your Kids Thrive in a Fast-Paced, Media-Saturated, Violence-Filled World. Nancy writes and speaks about how media, violence, consumerism, and other social trends are shaping children today and what parents and teachers can do to raise caring and compassionate children. For more information visit www.nancycarlssonpaige.org.