In­ves­ti­gate rea­sons why child is an­gry

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - LIVING - Meghan Meghan Leahy is the mother of three daugh­ters. She holds a bach­e­lor’s de­gree in English and sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion, a mas­ter’s de­gree in school coun­sel­ing and is a cer­ti­fied par­ent coach.

QUES­TION: We have an an­gry child. Is this nor­mal?

AN­SWER: Anger is an is­sue for many fam­i­lies, and al­though I would love to give you some firm answers here, I am afraid I can­not.

Here’s the thing with anger: No one wants to be on the re­ceiv­ing end of it. Chil­dren’s anger is ex­haust­ing and dispir­it­ing, and of course par­ents want the anger to end — and now. We want for the child to sim­ply stop be­ing ex­plo­sive or vi­o­lent, mak­ing mean faces or us­ing harsh lan­guage. This de­sire to just “make it stop” is nor­mal, and I don’t blame you for feel­ing this way.

But be­cause your son “has al­ways been an­gry,” and be­cause it got bet­ter (and now worse), and be­cause his teach­ers no­ticed, and be­cause he hits and can­not ac­cess his emo­tions . . . well, we need to get to the bot­tom of what is go­ing on with your son. That he is an­gry we know, but why is the mil­lion-dol­lar ques­tion.

Here’s the cy­cle that I see most of­ten when it comes to the “an­gry child.” We have a child who may have been born a tiny bit more sen­si­tive. They feel their own and other’s emo­tions a lit­tle more in­tensely than some chil­dren. Or maybe their bod­ies are send­ing them mixed mes­sages — feel­ing the world too much or too lit­tle. Or maybe the child is an ex­tro­vert born into a fam­ily of in­tro­verts (or vice versa). What­ever the case may be, there is some level of in­ten­sity, and there is frus­tra­tion.

Add to this in­ten­sity how we par­ent this child, and then we have some anger is­sues. I want to be clear: Not ev­ery child is an­gry be­cause of the par­ent’s treat­ment, but in my ex­pe­ri­ence, par­ents un­know­ingly grow the frus­tra­tion and anger with their re­ac­tions. When a child is hit­ting or scowl­ing or mean, our par­ent­ing in­stinct is of­ten to pun­ish. This isn’t wrong or right, but when it doesn’t work with the child (he be­comes an­grier, meaner, more vi­o­lent), in­stead of choos­ing another strat­egy, we dou­ble down on con­se­quences and pun­ish­ments. It’s like not be­ing able to speak a lan­guage, and in­stead of learn­ing it, you just keep re­peat­ing your own lan­guage, but louder. It is not go­ing to ever work.

Again, I don’t blame you for be­ing frus­trated, but this is your first bit of home­work:

1. When did the anger re­ally be­gin? And what has been your part of the frus­tra­tion? I want you to zero in on the “when he does this, I do that” dy­namic, and what you may dis­cover is some­thing like this: “Robert be­came an­gry af­ter his brother was born and he went to school. I had a hard preg­nancy and wasn’t re­ally emo­tion­ally avail­able for any­one, in­clud­ing my­self. That’s when he started get­ting an­gry. We have been mostly pun­ish­ing him since.” Again, I don’t know what you’ll find out, but you must dig down if you want to help your son.

2. Ac­knowl­edge that what you are do­ing doesn’t work. Ob­vi­ously, you know this, be­cause you wrote to me. (Good first step!) But I want you to make a list of what isn’t work­ing, from the pun­ish­ment, to forc­ing him to talk about his feel­ings, to drag­ging him to his room, what­ever it is. Again, this is not a tool of shame: This is a tool of clar­ity. The clearer you get about how you can con­trol your­self, the eas­ier the path for­ward.

3. Ac­cept that anger is a form of frus­tra­tion, and con­nec­tion is the an­swer to this prob­lem. Yes, you must stop him from harm­ing hu­mans and houses, but your son needs to feel you come along­side him, not work against him. The hard part of this pos­i­tive work is that it takes time; there are no overnight fixes. I would rec­om­mend get­ting sup­port to en­cour­age you as you do this work. Also, pick up “The Ex­plo­sive Child” by Ross Greene. I love his prac­ti­cal and pos­i­tive vibes when it comes with work­ing with dif­fi­cult kids, and he has work­sheets that help. I also love “How to Stop Los­ing Your Sh*t with Your Kids” by Carla Naum­burg for a lighter (but still im­por­tant) tone and for keep­ing your­self ac­count­able.

4. Watch the bound­aries. Just as I don’t want you to use be­hav­ioral strate­gies to con­trol your child’s be­hav­ior, you do need to be­gin to meet with him to cre­ate some rules that you will stick to. For in­stance, you may al­low ugly faces (be­cause, re­ally, who cares?), but hit­ting peo­ple will not be per­mit­ted. You may al­low him to yell while in his room, but he can­not call names to ev­ery­one in the house. Work with your son in small, lim­ited ways to keep bound­aries firm and friendly while also not low­er­ing the hammer on ev­ery­thing.

Fi­nally, please get sup­port. If your son has had anger is­sues forever, you will want to call his pe­di­a­tri­cian and do a full work-up to check for any allergies or other is­sues. I would also rec­om­mend work­ing with a neu­ropsy­chol­o­gist to check on learn­ing is­sues, ex­ec­u­tive func­tion­ing is­sues or anx­i­ety.

And it goes without say­ing, but please check into trauma (known or not), as trauma of­ten has a way of show­ing up as anger in young chil­dren.

Good luck.


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