Angry Good/Hitting Bad: Teaching children how to be angry
Anger is an important emotion, and it is also important to teach our children how to be ‘with’ anger, without increasing feelings of shame, hurt, and isolation.
Anger is good thing
Let’s be clear about this. There’s nothing wrong with the feeling of anger, in fact it’s very important to healthy emotional functioning and development.
A colleague of mine is an anger management therapist at Man Alive, and he’s always telling clients that anger is the healthy response to being violated. He’s not wrong. Anger lets you know when something is not ok, and it gives you the energy to do something about it. It’s the emotional equivalent of saying “no, I’m worth more than that”.
When anger becomes a problem
Most of us are taught from a young age that it isn’t ok to be angry. When children are angry, they will say and do things that are harmful to others, and this leads to punishment, isolation, and increased feelings of shame.
In a typical “child get’s angry, hits someone, get’s punished” scenario, anger ‘the feeling’, isn’t treated as separate from anger ‘the behaviour’. The child learns to suppress ‘anger the feeling’ to avoid the shame and isolation that comes from being punished... and here’s where the real problem starts.
Suppressed anger is an unpredictable beast. It may be turned inward and contribute to depression, low self-worth, and self-harm. Or it may be turned outward, and burst forth in unpredictable and unruly ways, leading to violence, punishment, and further shame. Often times, suppressed anger will simmer as resentment, and finds expression through sarcasm or deceit.
These are just some of the ways suppressed anger may effect us, and there are studies that link anger to many mental and physical health issues, such as anxiety, autoimmune conditions, and chronic pain.
Teaching our children how to be angry
The first step to supporting children to have a healthy relationship with anger, is to help them separate ‘anger the feeling’, from ‘anger the behaviour’.
Obviously, we need to deal with hurtful or dangerous behaviour as it occurs, but even as you do this you can talk about differently from the feeling. An example might be “I know you’re angry, and that’s ok, but throwing toys at mummy is not”.
With some children, you will need to wait for everyone to calm down before you can go a little deeper into the feeling, but the key takeaway here is to acknowledge and validate the feeling of anger, and treat this as seperate from the harmful behaviour.
Another important aspect of learning how to be angry, is modelling. If you are a parent who never looses their temper, congratulations! You’re in a great position to talk through things that frustrate you as they arise. For example:
“I’m feeling frustrated about x, it’s like a hot soup in my stomach, but talking about it is helping me feel better...”
If you are someone who struggles with anger yourself, then you have a great opportunity to show your children that it’s possible to be really angry, without doing anything harmful. Let your children know you’re angry, tell them how it feels, explain why you need to take a break, or whatever it is you do to calm down. This is really valuable modelling for a little person who is frequently overwhelmed by their enormous feelings.
If you have some useful strategies for managing big emotions with your tamariki, we’d love to hear about it in the comments below.
WebMD (2020). Men and anger management. https://www.webmd.com/men/guide/anger-management
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