"The truth about rage is that it only dissolves when it is really heard and understood, without reservation."—Carl Rogers
Many parents send an angry child to her room to "calm down." After all, what else can we do? We certainly can't reason with her when she's furious. It's no time to teach lessons or ask for an apology. She needs to calm down.
If we send our angry child to his room, he will indeed calm down, eventually. He'll also have gotten some clear messages:
- No one is listening to what's upsetting you.
- No one is going to help you solve the problem you're experiencing.
- Anger is bad.
- You're being bad because you feel angry at us.
- Your anger scares us. You're on your own when it comes to managing those big scary feelings in a responsible way—we don't know how to help you.
- When you're angry, the best thing to do is to stuff those feelings. (Of course, that means they're no longer under your conscious control, and will burst out again soon in unmanageable ways.)
No wonder so many of us develop anger-management issues that last into adulthood, whether that means we yell at our kids, throw tantrums with our partner, or overeat to avoid acknowledging our anger.
What can we do instead? We can help our children learn to manage their anger responsibly. Most of us have a hard time picturing what that looks like. Quite simply, responsible anger management begins with accepting our anger—but refraining from acting on it by lashing out at others. There's always a way to express what we need without attacking the other person.
In fact, when we're willing to stop and notice the deeper feelings under our anger, we find hurt and fear and sadness. If we allow ourselves to feel those emotions, the anger melts away. It was only a reactive defense.
This is one of the most critical tasks of childhood—learning to tolerate the wounds of everyday life without moving into reactive anger. People who can do this are able to work things out with others and manage themselves to achieve their goals. We call them emotionally intelligent.
Children develop emotional intelligence when we teach them that all their feelings are OK, but they always have a choice about how they act. Here's how to do that.
When your child gets angry:
1. Keep yourself from moving into "fight or flight" by taking a few deep breaths and reminding yourself that there's no emergency. This models emotional regulation and helps your child feel safer, so she doesn't have to fight so hard.
2. Listen. Try to see it from his point of view. Often, when people don't feel heard, they escalate. By contrast, when your child feels understood, he'll begin to feel calmer—even when he doesn't get his way.
3. Acknowledge the anger, and the upset underneath it. The more compassionate you can be, the more likely your child will find his way to the tears and fears under the anger: "Oh, Sweetie, I'm sorry this is so hard...You're saying I never understand you...that must feel so terrible and lonely." You don't have to agree, and you don't have to disagree. Just acknowledge his truth in the moment. Once he feels heard, his truth will shift.
4. Don't get hooked by rudeness and personal attacks. Parents are often hurt when children yell at them. But your child doesn't actually hate you, or want a new mom or dad, or whatever she's yelling. She feels hurt and scared and powerless, so she's pulling out the most upsetting thing she can think of, so you'll know how upset she is. Just say "Ouch! You must be so upset to say that to me. Tell me why you're upset. I'm listening."
Your child is not "behaving badly" or "winning." She's showing you in the best way she can at the moment just how upset she is. As she realizes that she doesn't have to raise her voice or go on the attack to be heard, she'll develop the capacity to express her feelings more appropriately.
5. Set whatever limits are necessary to keep everyone safe, while acknowledging the anger and staying compassionate. "You're so mad! You can be as mad as you want, and hitting is still not OK, no matter how upset you are. You can stomp to show me how mad you are. No hitting."
6. If your child is already in a full meltdown, don't talk except to empathize and reassure her that she's safe. Don't try to teach, reason or explain. When she's awash in adrenaline and other fight or flight reactions is not the time to explain why she can't have what she wants, or get her to admit that she actually loves her little sister. Your only job now is to calm the storm. Just acknowledge how upset she is: "You are so upset about this ... I'm sorry it's so hard."
7. Remind yourself that tantrums are nature's way of helping immature brains let off steam. Children don't yet have the frontal cortex neural pathways to control themselves as we do. (And please note that we don't always regulate our anger very well, even as adults!) The best way to help children develop those neural pathways is to offer empathy, while they're angry and any time they're upset. It's OK—good, actually—for your child to express those tangled, angry, hurt feelings. After we support kids through a tantrum, they feel closer to us and more trusting. They feel less wound-up inside, so they can be more emotionally generous. They aren't as rigid and demanding.
8. Remember that anger is a defense against threat. It comes from our "fight, flight or freeze" response. We often overreact as if our child is a threat because we're carrying around old stuffed emotions like hurt, fear or sadness, and whatever's happening in the moment triggers those old feelings. In other words, your angry child really is not a threat to your safety or well-being.
This also explains why your child overreacts with rage to something minor. While your child may be super-threatened by something in the moment, it may also be that he's lugging around a full emotional backpack, and just needs to express those old tears and fears. A new disappointment can feel like the end of the world to a child, because all those old feelings come up.
9. Make it safe for your child to move past anger. If they feel safe expressing their anger, and we meet that anger with compassion, the anger will begin to melt. So while we accept our child's anger, it isn't the anger that is healing. It's the expression of the tears and fears beneath the anger that washes out the hurt and sadness and makes the anger vanish. That's because once your child shows you those more vulnerable feelings, the anger is no longer necessary as a defense.
10. Stay as close as you can. Your child needs an accepting witness who loves him even when he's angry. If you need to move away to stay safe, tell him "I'm keeping us both safe, so I'm moving back a bit, but I am right here. Whenever you're ready for a hug, I'm right here."
If he yells at you to "Go away!", say "You're telling me to go away, so I am moving back, OK? I won't leave you alone with these scary feelings, but I'm moving back."
11. Keep yourself safe. Kids often benefit from pushing against us when they're upset, so if you can tolerate it and stay compassionate, that's fine to allow. But if your child is hitting you, move away. If she pursues you, hold her wrist and say "I don't think I want that angry fist so close to me. I see how angry you are. You can push against my hands, but no hurting." Kids don't really want to hurt us—it scares them and makes them feel guilty. Most of the time, when we move into compassion and they feel heard, kids stop hitting us and start crying.
12. Don't try to evaluate whether he's over-reacting. Of course he's over-reacting! But remember that children experience daily hurts and fears that they can't verbalize and that we don't even notice. They store them up and then look for an opportunity to "discharge" them. So if your kid has a meltdown over the blue cup and you really can't go right now to get the blue cup out of the car, it's OK to just lovingly welcome his meltdown. Most of the time, it wasn't about the cup, or whatever he's demanding. When children get whiny and impossible to please, they usually just need to cry.
13. Acknowledging her anger will help her calm down a bit. Then help her get under the anger by softening yourself. If you can really feel compassion for this struggling young person, she'll feel it and respond. Don't analyze, just empathize. "You really wanted that; I'm so sorry, Sweetie." Once you recognize the feelings under the anger, she will probably pause and stop lashing out. You'll see some vulnerability or even tears. You can help her surface those feelings by focusing on the original trigger: "I'm so sorry you can't have the _____ you want, Sweetie. I'm sorry this is so hard." When our loving compassion meets her wound, that's when she collapses into our arms for a good cry. And all those upset feelings evaporate.
14. After he's calmed down, you can talk. Resist the urge to lecture. Tell a story to help him put this big wave of emotion in context. "Those were some big feelings...everyone needs to cry sometimes. ... You wanted ... I said no ... You were very disappointed ... You got so angry ... You were sad and disappointed ... Thank you for showing me how you felt ..." If he just wants to change the subject, let him. You can circle back to bring closure later in the day or at bedtime, while you're snuggling. But most young children want to hear the story of how they got mad and cried, as long as it's a story, not a lecture. It helps them understand themselves, and makes them feel heard.
15. What about teaching? You don't have to do as much as you think. Your child knows what she did was wrong. It was those big feelings that made her feel like it was an emergency, so she had to break the rule about being kind. By helping her with the emotions, you're making a repeat infraction less likely.
Wait until after the emotional closure, when you're re-connected, and then keep it simple. Recognize that part of her wants to make a better choice next time, and align with that part. No shame or blame at all. Be sure to give her a chance to practice a better solution to her problem.
"When we get really angry, like you were angry at your sister, we forget how much we love the other person. They look like they're our enemy. Right? You were so very mad at her. We all get mad like that and when we are very mad, we feel like hitting. But if we do, later we're sorry that we hurt someone. We wish we could have used our words. I wonder what else you could have said or done, instead of hitting?"
Accepting emotions like this is the beginning of resilience. Gradually, your child will internalize the ability to weather disappointment, and learn that he can't always get what he wants, but he can always get something better—someone who loves and accepts all of him, including the yucky parts like disappointment and anger. He'll have learned that emotions aren't dangerous—they can be tolerated without acting on them, and they pass. Gradually, he'll learn to verbalize his feelings and needs without attacking the other person—even when he's furious.
You'll have taught him how to manage his emotions. And you'll have strengthened, rather than eroded, your bond with him. All by taking a deep breath and staying compassionate in the face of rage.
Sounds saintly, I know, and you won't always be able to pull it off. But every time you do, you'll be helping your child grow the neural pathways for a more emotionally intelligent brain. And you'll be gifting yourself a lot less drama—and a lot more love.