WHAT CAUSES INAPPROPRIATE EXPRESSION OF ANGER?
Anger is a natural emotion which must be allowed expression when it occurs. Anger is often triggered by frustration individuals experience achieving their goals (getting something they want or losing something they value). This is a very typical reason children have temper outbursts; they don't get their way.
Anger may also be triggered by other emotions. For instance, a child may feel hurt by something someone else says or does to him. Expression of hurt feelings may be perceived as showing vulnerability. So the child expresses anger to show strength and to retaliate for being injured physically or emotionally. The anger energizes action to respond to the persecutor and punish him or her. Expression of the anger allows the person to release tension.
When children seem to express anger in an exaggerated and inappropriate manner, or express it frequently, it may be due to a number of factors.
(1) Skills Deficit - They may not have learned more appropriate ways of expressing it. Children may have learned inappropriate expression of anger by family members. If a parent blows up and screams or becomes aggressive when angry and frustrated, his child is liable to imitate this coping strategy. On the other hand if anger expression is taboo in the household, a child gets the message and suppresses overt expression of anger. The child may need to be taught skills for the appropriate expression of anger.
(2) Negative Self-Talk - Children may be engaged in negative self-talk which fuels angry feelings. If a child says to himself things like, "They don't care about me. I never get anything I want. She always chooses brother or sister over me. They never keep their promises," it is likely that anger will follow. We need to find out as much as possible what the child is thinking about that precedes angry outbursts. Children may have developed a negative attitude toward themselves, life, and expectations of other people based upon early childhood experiences. They then continue to act toward others as if they were still in the early childhood situations. We may find them expressing anger often as a consequence of these negative thought patterns that recur over and over again. If we understand what these thought patterns are, we can attempt to modify them and thus decrease the frequency of angry feelings. This is where counseling and therapy may be needed.
(3) Perception of Attack - Children may perceive the behavior and communication of others as being an attack upon them. When they feel attacked or neglected, angry feelings may surface. For instance, if a child is criticized, this may produce anger that may or may not be expressed immediately. If not expressed immediately it may come out in a completely irrelevant situation or with another person over some mild conflict or slight. It may be that a child will feel attacked when they haven't been. For instance, if a parent asks a child to do a chore such as clear the table or pick up the toys, he may feel like he is being unfairly singled out to do what others could do. The child may seem to have a chip on his should or a bad attitude because he responds often with irritation or anger when communicating with others. He has a tendency to perceive others as attacking or neglecting him maybe because of a history of such interactions.
(4) Parental Reinforcement - Children may also be reinforced by the consequences of their inappropriate, angry outbursts (a pleasant event follows or they achieve one of their goals). If a child has a temper outburst because he does not get what he wants, parents may give the child what he wants or anything rewarding or reinforcing in order to stop the outburst. However, the outbursts are likely to increase in frequency. In a similar way a child's temper outbursts may be reinforced when a parent tries to stop or cut short a temper outburst by lettting the child avoid an unpleasant task.
WHAT ARE INAPPROPRIATE AND APPRROPRIATE WAYS TO EXPRESS ANGER?
1. Inappropriate expression of anger includes yelling at someone, cursing someone, hitting, kicking, throwing things, biting, spitting, smashing things, having a temper tantrum, bottling up anger, passive-aggressive behavior, displacing aggressive feelings on others or objects.
2. Appropriate expression of anger includes the following: expressing your feelings to another person in a modulated tone of voice, telling him/her you are angry, telling them why you are angry, telling them what you are thinking about, walking away from the provocative situation or person, taking a self-imposed timeout, yelling outside but not directly at the person, hitting a soft object such as a bed or couch so as not to hurt self of damage object, practicing anger management skills, exercising vigorously, stating what you want and/or need, getting help from an adult, taking deep breaths, counting slowly to a specific number, using the turtle technique, using coping self-statements, using relaxing self-statements, using relaxing imagery, suggesting solutions to a conflict, or correction of a wrong done.
HOW CAN I HELP MY CHILD COPE WITH AND EXPRESS ANGER APPROPRIATELY?
1. Parental Modeling - The most important thing a parent can do to help a child deal with anger is to model appropriate expression of anger in front of the child. If a parent yells, curses, threatens, spanks, throws things, or hits things in anger, the child observes and remembers this. The child believes this display of anger gives him permission to do the same when he feels angry. The child then imitates the parent when he feels angry. It is important then for parents to learn to control their own anger so that they can model appropriate behavior and not inappropriate behavior. When parents model appropriate expression of anger, they should use this as a teaching opportunity. They can encourage and speed up the process of imitation learning by discussing with the child later specifically how they expressed their anger and how it affected their child.
2. Accepting child's anger - It must be understood that expression of anger is a natural and sometimes even healthy way of behaving. Parents often express anger toward their children while telling their children not to express anger toward them. This is an unfair double standard. Parents often think that allowing children to express anger toward them is giving them permission to be disrespectful. There is a difference between appropriate expression of anger and disrespect. When a child talks in a loud tone of voice with an angry expression on his face and complains about a situation, parents need to listen and accept the child's anger. It is sometimes even appropriate to validate the child's anger by communicating the parent's understanding of it. This does not mean that the parent agrees with the child's complaint. Parents can restate their position at the same time they acknowledge the child's anger. When a child feels understood it sometimes takes the energy out of his/her anger.
3. Consequences for inappropriate expression of anger - Parents should not accept or ignore inappropriate expression of anger such as temper outburst, violence, threats, or disrespect. Teach your child exactly what behaviors will not be tolerated. Then inform your child what the consequences will be if he or she exhibits these behaviors. Use logical consequences if at all possible. Make the punishment fit the crime. For example, if the child has a temper outburst because he can't watch TV when he wants to, he loses TV privileges for a certain period of time. When a child is engaged in a temper outburst, first try ignoring it. Separate yourself from the child. If your child has a high risk of doing something destructive or violent when having a temper outburst, monitor his behavior without giving undue attention. Warn him of the consequences of violent or destructive behavior. Put him in time out or put yourself in time out. If he becomes violent or aggressive, take action to avoid injury or property damage. Then administer consequences once he has settled down.
4. Develop Feelings Vocabulary - Enhance your child's ability to understand and express feelings. Sometimes children do not understand their feelings or what to do with them. They either bottle them up or blow up. An adult should help the child to identify and express different feelings. The first step is to increase the child's feeling vocabulary. A feelings vocabulary chart can be used for this purpose. It lists feelings and shows pictures of faces expressing these feelings. Have the child read through the feelings or you may have to read the feelings. Be sure the child understands clearly what each feeling is about. Use examples and role play situations that trigger these feelings. Have the child come up with examples from his or her own life. The second step involves the adult modeling the expression of feelings for the child. Each time a feeling is experienced by the adult, the adult can label this feeling out loud for the child. The third step involves the child practicing identifying and expressing emotions. Initially the adult should try to guess the child's feelings in a situation and label them for the child. The adult should check out his accuracy with the child, but the child may not be able to verify this in the early stages of practice. Then the child is asked to label her own feelings. Whenever an adult witnesses the child experiencing an emotion, the adult prompts the child to label that emotion. A feelings chart could be made available for the child to point to the appropriate feeling face. The fourth step is to institute a formal practice procedure. A child could write a feelings diary each day. The diary would involve writing down the events of the day and attaching a feeling the child felt during that event. The child could be rewarded for completing the feelings diary each day (from Skills Training for Children with Behavior Disorders: A Parent and Therapist Guidebook, by Michael Bloomquist).
5. Define anger for your child. Anger is a negative emotion caused when a person does not get what her or she wants or gets something he or she doesn't want. Anger is produced when the child perceives the above situation whether or not it is real or imaginary.
6.Recognize anger signals - Teach your child to recognize the signals that precede or accompany anger. The signals of anger usually come in three parts: body signals, thought signals, and action signals. Help your child make a list of the signals that he or she experiences. Here are some examples:
Heart beats faster
Red face color
Body feels hot
Muscles are tense
I hate her.
I'm going to hit him.
I can't do anything right.
He thinks he is tough.
She is so messy.
Hit another person
Help your child to think about and discuss times when he/she has been angry. Then see if you can help him to identify the body, thought, and action signals that preceded and accompanied the anger. Make a list of these. Then as part of a plan of action the child can carry the list around with him or post it somewhere so that he can refer to it. The list can be used to prompt the child to identify these signals when he gets angry. If a child can identify the signals before anger gets out of control, he can take action to express anger in an appropriate manner.
7. There are three main approaches to managing anger: (A) Controlling the body by engaging in methods of relaxation; (B) Controlling the mind by replacing anger thoughts with more pleasant, relaxing, confident, or distracting thoughts; and (C) taking action to stop the anger provoking situation. Let's take each approach one at a time.
A. Body Relaxation
Have your child take slow, deep breathes and fill his lungs completely. Then have him hold his breath for a short period of time (no more than five seconds). Finally, have your child breath out slowly. Encourage your child to practice this exercise daily with you taking no more than three deep breaths together. Then have him breath normally. Once he gets familiar with this skill, he can then do this exercise anywhere anytime when he finds himself getting angry. You can prompt him to use it if you see him getting angry.
For children 10 and younger teach them the robot-rag doll relaxation method. Have the child tense all the muscles in his body at one time by acting like a robot. He makes his body stiff and straight like a board. He holds his arms straight at his side and makes his legs straight. Then he becomes completely limp and relaxed like a rag doll. All the muscles in his body go limp at the same time. This is best done in a comfortable chair or lying on the floor or bed.
For children 11 and older you can teach them to tense muscle groups one at a time. This is called progressive muscle relaxation. A separate handout guides you in the use of this approach.
Exercise can have a relaxing effect on the body, especially aerobic exercise like walking, running, swimming, sit ups, push ups, playing basketball, riding a bicycle.
B.Mental Coping Strategies
Angry feelings are often preceded by or accompanied by visual images, verbal statements by others, or the perception of insults to our bodies or self-concept. All these various sources of input to our minds are transformed into thoughts and memories. Both during the process of receiving these sources of input and then again during the process of remembering these events we trigger angry feelings. So another way of coping with angry feelings is to replace those thoughts that trigger anger with thoughts that trigger feelings of relaxation, self-confidence, strength, peace, humor, fun, and pleasure.
One method of accomplishing this is to use relaxing imagery. Have your child choose a place or situation that he finds relaxing, fun, or makes him feel proud, strong, confident. Then help him or her write a script describing that scene in detail using explanations of as many sensations as possible. For example, if the child likes playing at the beach, he can write about how the sand feels beneath his feet, how the breeze feels on his body, how the ocean and sky look, and how the birds and ocean sound. After the child writes his or her script, read it to him several times over a few days while the child's eyes are closed and focusing on the pleasant scene. Then prompt your child to sit down and imagine this scene whenever he begins getting angry. If successful, the angry feelings will decrease as the feelings associated with the pleasant scene take hold.
Another mental coping strategy is called coping self-talk. Your child may be thinking negative statements to and about himself as he gets angry. Talk to your child about the situation that gives rise to his anger and see if you can find out what he might be thinking about. He may express that openly in the course of a temper outburst, or you may have to ask him to tell you out loud what he is thinking. When he tells you, help him to come up with positive statements that counteract the negative, angry statements. In this way he can take control over the thoughts that lead to anger, and thus reduce his angry feelings. Here are some examples of negative statements and a positive alternative:
They don't care about me.
I never get anything I want.
He always gets his way.
She is picking on me.
I'm going to lose it.
I know my parents love me, but sometimes I don't feel they do.
I don't always get what I want, but I do get a lot.
He may get his way this time, but my time will come.
I'm not going to let her get to me.
I can handle this.
A third mental coping strategy is called problem-solving. When your child faces a difficult challenge, and this causes him repeatedly to get angry and lose control of himself, help him to do problem-solving. This strategy involves the following steps:
1.Define the problem. Before we can attempt to solve a problem, we have to be sure we are both talking about the same thing.
2.List possible solutions to the problem.
3.Choose the best one.
4.Make a plan to try this solution.
5.Try this solution.
6.Did it work? If so, great! If not, go back and try another solution.
7.Get help from an adult at any time you need to but especially if a couple of solutions don't work. An adult may help you come up with possible solutions you hadn't thought of.
C. TAKE ACTION TO STOP THE EXTERNAL CAUSE OF ANGER
The third approach to anger management is taking action to stop or prevent the bad event from happening again. If a child feels angry because he is getting teased, left out, bullied, hurt, or not cared for, he needs to learn to put a stop to the offensive behavior of another person.
Teach your child how to ignore anger provoking behavior of others. Truly ignoring another child will usually result in a decrease in the offensive behavior. But you must be sure that the child is totally ignoring the aggressive person. When the aggressive person is ignored repeatedly, he gets bored, tired, and unrewarded for his effort and gradually stops aggravating. If, however, another child is threatening physical violence, ignoring may be inappropriate. In this case, your child should be instructed to seek help from a trusted adult immediately.
Teach your child to complain to an adult in an effective way. Tell your child that if he or she complains too much about other people, his complaints will lose their desired effect. The adults may start ignoring him, thinking that he can't take teasing that most children encounter. Suggest that your child try to deal with situations that provoke anger with some of the other strategies taught in this guide. Then if several don't seem to work, have your child go to an adult and ask for help, letting the adult know what he has tried already.
Teach your child to be assertive. Being assertive involves expressing your feelings and requesting a change in the other person's behavior. It means standing up for yourself without standing on someone else's toes. It may mean telling the person what you are going to do if he doesn't stop the hurtful or aggravating behavior. This gives the person a chance to choose not to receive a negative consequence of his aggressive behavior.
Once your child has learned some coping strategies to use in anger provoking situations, set up a signal you can give him to remind him to use his skills in case he forgets.
Author: David W. Kidder, Ph.D.