Anger and Children

How to Deal With Children and Anger

Conduct disorders are a complicated group of behavior and emotional problems in youngsters. Children and adolescents with these disorders have great difficulty following rules and behaving in a socially acceptable way. They are often viewed by other children, adults and social agencies as “bad” or delinquent, rather than mentally ill.

Their expression of anger is the major problem. They are often aggressive, both physically and verbally, with other children and adults. They may lie, steal, destroy property and misbehave sexually.

Research shows that the future of these youngsters is likely to be very unhappy if they and their families do not receive early, ongoing and comprehensive treatment. Without treatment, many youngsters with conduct disorders are unable to adapt to the demands of adulthood and continue to have problems with relationships and holding a job. They often break laws or behave antisocially.

Handling children’s anger can be puzzling, draining and distressing for adults. In fact, one of the major problems in dealing with anger in children is dealing with the angry feelings that are often felt by adults. It has been said that we, as parents, teachers, counselors and administrators need to remind ourselves that we were not always taught how to deal with anger as a fact of life during our own childhood. We were led to believe that to be angry was to be bad, and we were often made to feel guilty for expressing anger. It will be easier to deal with children’s anger if we get rid of this notion. Our goal is not to repress or destroy angry feelings in children — or in ourselves — but rather to accept the feelings and to help channel and direct them to constructive ends.

We must allow children to feel all their feelings. Adult skills should be directed toward showing children acceptable ways of expressing their feelings. Strong feelings cannot be denied, and angry outbursts should not always be viewed as a sign of serious problems; they should be recognized and treated with respect. To respond effectively to overly aggressive behavior in children, we need to have some ideas about what might have triggered an outburst. Anger may be a defense to avoid painful feelings; it may be associated with failure, low self-esteem, and feelings of isolation; or it may be related to anxiety about situations over which the child has no control.

Angry defiance may also be associated with feelings of dependency, and anger may be associated with sadness and depression. In childhood, anger and sadness are very close to one another and it is very important to remember that much of what the adult experiences as sadness is expressed by the child as anger. Before we look at specific ways to manage aggressive and angry outbursts, several points should be highlighted.

We should distinguish between anger and aggression. Anger is a temporary emotional state caused by frustration; aggression is often an attempt to hurt a person or to destroy property.

Anger and aggression do not have to be dirty words. In looking at aggressive behavior in children, we must be careful to distinguish between behavior that indicates emotional problems and behavior that is normal.

In dealing with angry children, our actions should be motivated by the need to protect and to teach, not by a desire to punish. Parents and teachers should show a child they accept his or her feelings, while suggesting other ways to express the feelings. An adult might say, for example, “Let me tell you what some children would do in a situation like this.. . “. It is not enough to tell children what behavior we find unacceptable. We must teach them acceptable ways of coping. Ways must be found to communicate what we expect of them. Contrary to popular opinion, punishment is not the most effective way to communicate to children what we expect of them.

When a child is angry:
Accept the child’s anger as legitimate.
Reassure the child that it is OK to be angry.
Reassure the child that he/she is worthwhile even when angry.
Help the child “own” his/her anger.
Help the child express anger directly and appropriately.
Share your response to the child’s anger.
Help the child figure out the source of the anger.
Help the child identify and meet his/her underlying needs (explore alternatives, problem-solving).

Preventing inappropriate expressions of anger:
Model appropriate behavior; be aware of the powerful influence of your actions on a child’s behavior.
Talk with the child about anger; what it is, what makes him/her angry, etc.
Determine with the child situations in which the direct expression of anger would be inappropriate or ineffective.
Identify with the child what behaviors are unacceptable as a means of expressing behavior.
Talk with the child about ways to avoid escalating angry feelings (timeout).
Develop with the child practical and safe methods for expressing angry feelings when the direct expression of anger is not advisable.

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