Anger is probably the single biggest reason parents bring their children, and teachers send their students, to see a therapist. Working in a school-based mental health clinic in Brooklyn a few years ago, the students referred to my colleagues and myself, as “Anger Management”. If they were coming to see us it must be because they were angry. The students thought our job was to help them get rid of their anger. In fact, many children are angry. In my experience anger doesn’t need management so much as it needs interpretation.
Anger as a Cover Up
As a parent you have probably wondered “Why is my child angry? or “What is it that is causing him to be angry.” But are they really angry, or is the behavior labeled anger a cover up for some other, deeper, emotion like fear, jealousy or grief? Anger is easy to express and easy to identify. When your child yells and screams, refuses to do school work or breaks things, they are displaying anger. But it may be a signal for something else that is more troubling or more difficult to express. Often times underneath the anger are feelings, fears, or needs, that a child doesn’t understand themselves or cannot express in any other way.
Anger as Way to Gain Control.
Angry behavior at home and school is usually seen as a negative behavior and it generates a response from those in charge. Children who are coping with situations that are overwhelming or frustrating, or if they are feeling hopeless, may use anger as a safety valve. Expressing anger can be a way for a child to gain attention, even if that attention results in a punishment. When a child explodes with curses or punches they can quickly see the impact they are having on their environment. This impact, though negative, may actually provide a child with a sense of control in a circumstance that a child has no control over.
Anger as Age Appropriate
Anger can be considered a normal response to challenges your child experiences at different levels of their development. The behavior needs to be looked at in terms of the child’s age and developmental stage. A pre-schooler is probably exhibiting age appropriate behavior if they scream, hit or even bite a playmate when squabbling over a toy. But a junior high school child who hits their friends or sibling as a routine way to settle a dispute is expressing a less age appropriate response. As children grow they will learn more subtle ways to express their anger. A teenager may express their anger with a polite refusal to join the family for dinner, or by insisting they are texting messages about important homework, while you are trying to talk to them.
Anger as a Warning Note
Anger can be seen as a healthy or functional response to many situations. If a child is being overlooked, treated unfairly or is feeling events as home or at school have gone beyond their own control, anger may be the by-product. Anger can be read like a whistle on a tea kettle, telling you that the water is boiling and you need to turn the fire down. Angry behavior on your child’s part may signal they are in danger, or they need you to pay attention to them. In these situations anger can be an early warning signal, that if ignored may result in more serious behavior like social withdrawal, depression or self injury.
If Your Child Is Angry, Try Being An Interpreter
Look at angry behavior as form of communication and try interpreting what is being communicated. Take note of when they are angry; and what situations appear to make them angry. Is your child’s anger more like a change in the weather, with their mood going from happy or neutral to angry and out of control. Or does the anger flare up at the point you say “No” to request for a toy or a treat? Ask your child if they can interpret what their anger is saying. They may deny that they are angry or offer nothing in response. Or, they may surprise you with an answer that provides new information. Just asking them to explain themselves, may get their attention and show them you are thinking about them.
Often children are angry when they are trying to be seen, but no one is looking, or trying to be heard, but no one is listening. If you think of anger as needing interpretation rather than management, you may gain more insight into the language of feelings whether it is anxiety, grief or fear that your child is attempting to express.