Understanding Anger

There is a myth that anger is something we inherit. Anger is not inherited. We know that the length of our fuse is not predetermined at birth. The way we express anger is not determined by our genes.

How we process anger and respond to the fiery emotion is something that we learn when are children. So we CAN blame our parents, but we can’t blame our genes. It’s not something we inherit, it’s something we learn.

As parents, it is our responsibility to teach our children how to deal with their anger. To help them take advantage of that split second between thinking and feeling to reacting. We’ve all seen an angry child lash out. I almost feel sorry for them, especially when they’re younger. They haven’t learned yet how to properly process and react to their intense feelings. So if we can teach them what to do between the time the fuse is lit and the moment before the explosion, we can help our kids learn to handle their anger in a way that is less aggressive and immature.

Fire In the Brain!

Anger is a complex, full-body emotion. It begins when the brain is triggered by a thought. The brain gears up to fight based on it’s perception of that thought. The fuse has been lit as our body brings in more thoughts in an attempt to support the angry response.

Next, the brain releases chemicals that travel throughout the body. These chemicals cause our muscles to tense and our blood pressure to increase. Heart rate and breathing rate increases and our body temperature rises which may cause us to sweat. This is called the fight or flight response.

If we haven’t learned healthy coping techniques, our brain and body will reach the point of exploding, figuratively speaking. Our body is driven to do something. Whether that’s move, run, hit, or fight, the emotion of anger requires a release. Very often, this looks like aggression in young children.

In the aftermath, after the explosion, our activity level decreases but it takes at least 20 minutes for the fight or flight chemicals to leave the body.

The Day I Yelled at the Grocery Store

I used to like grocery shopping. But since having children, any kind of shopping is now stressful, especially when I have a child – or five – along.

One summer day, all five of my kids came grocery shopping with me. I wasn’t excited about the thought because, based on past experiences, I knew it was going to be challenging. But I was determined to make the best of it.

I wasn’t surprised when my oldest and second oldest children began fighting over who would push the cart. My youngest two children wandered around aimlessly, getting in other people’s way. Or they stood in front of the cart, which encouraged whoever was pushing the cart to become impatient. My very middle child couldn’t cope. He put his fingers in his ears, closed his eyes, and stuck to me like velcro.

And me? I was working off of an incomplete list, trying to think of what food we would need for the week, how much toilet paper was left, and whether or not we needed to get dog food. On my own, I would have been flustered, but then add two fighting kids, two wandering kids, and one cling-on to this frustrating shopping excursion and you had a recipe for disaster.

By the time we got to the check out and all the kids were fighting over who would put what on the conveyor belt, I had had enough. And I shouted at my kids at the grocery store. My fuse had simmered for 45 minutes while my kids picked on each other, bumped into me, and annoyed other customers while I shopped off of an incomplete list, wishing that I could be swallowed up by a black hole instead.

I don’t remember what I said – or shouted – but I remember other people nearby looking at me and my kids. I remember my kids looking at me with eyes that were suddenly wide. I remember feeling hot and sweaty, my muscles clenched, as I tried to keep my voice down.

You’re right, I was angry! Didn’t I have a right to me?! My brain had struggled through 45 minutes of perceived torture, all the while being fed thoughts of “these kids always fight”, and “why can’t they look where they’re going”, and “will these kids every help me out?”

These thoughts peppered my already-overwhelmed brain until finally I had had enough. My brain was exhausted and my body was tense. And then I shouted. I reacted inappropriately to the triggers because I didn’t know what else to do.

Teaching Kids About Anger

There is a danger to not expressing or reacting appropriately to anger. Holding anger in can lead to nightmares and aggression in children and depression and anxiety later on in life.

As parents, we need to help our children learn how to cope with their anger and how to express it in ways that don’t involve aggression. First of all, let your child know that anger is just another emotion. It is not something they need to be ashamed of. We need to remove the stigma that anger is wrong. Anger isn’t wrong but aggression is.

Break it up into the 4 stages

  • The spark – an event or events that lead trigger the anger. Think of it as a swelling that begins.
  • The fuse – once the spark lits the fuse it is a matter of time before something happens unless the fuse is cut off.
  • The explosion – no explanation required here
  • The aftermath – you either choose to ignore the consequence or go in for the repair and strengthen the relationship.

Teach your child that when they begin to feel angry, they should look for a way to cool down. Walk away if they can. If they can’t, give them tools to cope with the thoughts that come in. Those thoughts that are building an argument as their fuse burns. Science has proven that it is harder to control our actions when we’re angry. If we can cool down, we have a better chance of making smarter choices. We can’t problem solve in the height of anger.

You can also teach them to move their body in a positive – rather than destructive – way when they’re angry. Do some pushups, go for a run, punch a punching bag. Remember, emotions are not always subject to reason but they are always subject to motion.

In the aftermath of an anger outburst, as parents, we need to decide what can be done to repair the situation. And what lesson can be learned. Talk with your child to identify the trigger and talk through the thoughts that lead up to the explosion. Talk about what they did right and what things they can improve on. End the talk with some positive praise. Talking about anger, especially if it ended in an explosion, isn’t easy to do. The more your child talks about it, the sooner they will learn to deal with their anger.

Other Things to Remember:

  • lead by example. When you shout at your kids in the grocery store, talk to your kids later on and explain what happened. Let them know what you should have done instead and tell them you are not proud of your behaviour.
  • treat your child’s feelings with respect. When you notice their emotions are beginning to bubble under the surface, take time to connect with them. Otherwise, help them out by removing them from the situation or help diffuse it by changing the subject or inserting some humour if the situation allows for it.
  • teaching your child about anger also involves teaching problem solving skills. What made them angry and what can they do about the situation? Or what can they do instead of acting aggressively?
  • explain to your child the difference between anger and aggression. Remind them that anger is a normal emotion everyone feels. But we have the ability to choose whether or not we will act aggressively.

Recipe for Tool #19:

Ingredients:

  • a child learning to regulate their emotions,
  • a parent with patience and understanding.

Step 1 – Prepare Your Child

Children should know that anger is a normal emotion everyone feels. When they are in a calm state of mind, talk about anger, how it feels, what it does, and how they can handle themselves the next time they get angry.

Step 2 – Step In

The next time you see your child beginning to get angry, intervene with a gentle, “Remember what we talked about” and do what you can to change the situation, perhaps by removing the child from what’s making her angry, by using humour, or by simply talking to them about what they’re thinking and feeling.

Step 3 – Explosion and Aftermath

Should an explosion occur, give your child plenty of time to cool down before attempting to talk about it. Remember, those fight or flight chemicals your brain sent racing through your body take at least 20 minutes to filter out. Respect your child by giving them plenty of time to tune back in with their logical side before attempting to talk about what happened and extract the lesson from it.

Anger is an intense, full-body emotion. Children need to be taught about anger – what it is and how to deal with it. Everyone will get angry at some point in their lives but hopefully they won’t yell in the grocery store like I did. We set the example. If we’re always flying off the handle, expect your child to do the same. But if we take time to help our children learn how to cope with their angry feelings and we do the same, our children will avoid a lifetime of aggression, depression, and anxiety.

HB

HB is a roller coaster father, one minute he is ecstatic about his children, the next he wonders if life will ever get any better. A long standing member of the 'I yell at my kids' club, he writes with passion and an analytical mind. Dissecting and separating the nuanced strategies that make a good parent great. He experiments with parenting techniques on his 3 year old so you don't have to.

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