Children are like little mapmakers. They create meaning out of the events they witness (whether good or bad), and place them on their internal map of the world. This meaning often serves them in the short run —but it can hurt them in the end.
Here’s an example:
Dad checks little Jimmy’s homework after dinner, and he always finds something wrong. When he does, he shouts insults at the boy. He frequently gets out of his chair and swats Jimmy while calling him names, like stupid and lazy. Jimmy sees that his father is drinking a beer while he does this, but he’s not likely to understand that Dad is an alcoholic who is now on his fourth drink since arriving home. Instead of concluding that his dad is an unreasonable alcoholic, Jimmy is likely to believe that he deserves his father’s rebukes, and that all forms of criticism are meant to belittle him and expose him to physical danger. For this reason, as an adult Jimmy may have an exaggerated fear of being criticized.
Anger is a healthy emotion that serves as a signal something is wrong. Very often, what’s wrong is how we are viewing the situation. While some thoughts and beliefs may relate to a current event, most are the residue of past experiences -- and the meaning we gave to them at that time.
Our childhood experience determines our anger and how we handle it in two main ways:
1) As children we observed how our parents and caregivers displayed anger. Whether you vent your anger, squelch it, or push it down inside, you learned this from your parents and other role models.
2) We also learned about how to handle our anger through the explicit and implicit messages that our parents sent us when our own childhood anger showed up. Our parents often told us directly—in no uncertain terms—that our feelings were not okay:
• “Stop crying this instant!”
• “Don’t take that attitude with me!”
3) Upsetting experiences come with implicit messages, such as:
• Anger is bad and should be avoided.
• There is no acceptable way to express your anger.
• If someone gets angry, someone else is going to get hurt.
Parents teach children about anger not only through their own behavior, but also by their responses to a child’s anger. Often, the main message children learn about anger is that it is something to be feared. Many children also learn to say “yes” to unpleasant things so they can avoid being hurt.
Approval or disapproval from a parent becomes a gauge by which we judge all of our feelings. If we were soothed when anxious or afraid, we learned that it was okay to express those feelings. However, a parent who paid no attention to us or disapproved of our emotions made us question the validity of our feelings.
Ironically, when we’re born, anger is a survival tool. Babies know how to be angry in a way that brings them closer to others, and fills their needs. Those early cries and screams say to our caregivers: “Feed me, clothe me, keep me warm, cradle me, attend to my needs.” Because human infants are physically helpless, we must rely on our very first feelings of anger to communicate. When our frustrated and furious outbursts elicit a loving response from kind and attentive parents, it strengthens the attachment being formed during this crucial period.
Because of this understanding, we know that anger is one of our earliest gifts, ensuring our survival by helping us signal for protection and love. So, while we must avoid angry outbursts and actions that could damage our lives and relationships permanently, our challenge as individuals is to honor the anger that was so useful to us as infants, and create a positive balance using the anger we feel as the impetus to take positive action in our lives – in our perspectives, and how we physically shape our futures.
More on how to do this in the second part of this blog. I will post part two on June 8th!