TYPICAL FEELINGS OF A CHILD: anxiety, fear, unprotected, confusion, neglected, abandoned, sadness, not trusted, misinformed, victimized, alone, unsafe, unsure.
TYPICAL BELIEFS OF A CHILD: “I need to protect myself.” “My anger will control others.” “My anger will make my fear go away.” “Others deserve my anger for the way they have mistreated me.”
TYPICAL ACTIONS OF A CHILD: hostility, revenge, anxiety, reduced verbal communication about feelings, expressed anger at safest authority figure/parent.
TYPICAL FEELINGS OF AN ADOLESCENT: misunderstood, not valued, not listened to, mistrusted, misinformed, lied to, victimized, sadness, fearful, helplessness, hopelessness.
TYPICAL BELIEFS OF AN ADOLESCENT: “I need to stay angry to protect myself.” “I deserve to be angry.” “My anger intimidates and/or controls others.” “My anger keeps others from knowing how I really feel.”
TYPICAL ACTIONS OF AN ADOLESCENT: Sullen, hostile, withdrawn, belligerent, oppositional, chip-on-shoulder, looking for excuses to blame others, looks for ways to see self as victim.
Anger is the overt symptom that there is something upsetting a child or adolescent. Feelings are manifestations of relationships. Anger is the feeling of someone who believes they have been mistreated in some way. Anger is used to try to gain control of some portion of a relationship.
One of the overlooked aspects of anger is the power of anxiety. When a child or adolescent feels anxious, they often cope by becoming angry. A child’s anxiety is often manifested by having too many choices, by parenting styles that offer inconsistent expectations or behaviors.
For example: There is often tension at the dinner table. From silliness to temper tantrums, the dinner hour becomes a daily struggle to enjoy eating with the family. Use your child as your barometer. If your child becomes demanding, silly, angry, petulant, oppositional—look to the possibility of inconsistent parental expectation and intervention during the family meal time. See what happens if you set limits and enforce them.
Children and adolescents engage in power struggles with both peers and adults. Depending upon the internalized security and safety of the child or adolescent, the power struggle is either met with appropriate coping skills, or is met with anger. Children and adolescents use anger to intimidate and control others.
Children watch adults very closely. They see how often adults use anger to try to get another adult or child to do something they may not want to do. This is called controlling with anger. So when a child is faced with having to do something he doesn’t want to do, he will often initiate his adult role models and become angry.
The wise parent will realize that the angry child “discharges anger” on the parent who is the safest. The safe parent is the parent who will absorb the child’s anger, place consistent expectations and interventions, while maintaining their own measured response. The “unsafe” parent is the parent who is inconsistent, often overwhelming the child with the parent’s own reactionary emotion. (This is why children quickly learn not to verbalize or demonstrate angry feelings to the parent who might “lose it.”)
Children and adolescents raised in an environment of controlling with anger often see themselves as having two choices for reaction: become the victim or the dominator. In other words, they learn to be a victim of anger, or an aggressor with anger. In either case, what they learn is not helpful to them when it comes to being successful with relationships. Neither being a victim nor being the perpetrator is conducive to healthy relationships.
Hidden beneath all anger is the feeling of fear. Anger is the mask for some sort of anxiety and/or fear.
Fear at the sense of loss. Loss has many forms. Loss can be attributed to the loss of a loved one, or the loss of innocence, to the loss of value and trust. Children and adolescents need to feel wanted and special by those that they want to be loved by, wanted by, or respected by. When these “chosen” people do not reciprocate with those feelings, by their actions (which include their words), then the child or adolescent begins to fear the loss of the relationship. This fear usually is demonstrated in the form of anger. Sometimes the loss goes directly into sadness, but usually there is a period of anger before sadness envelopes the child or adolescent.
We know that anger can also be a demonstration of depression. Children and adolescents often mask their sadness with anger behaviors. Not knowing what to do with sadness or not having practiced living through sadness, a child or adolescent will often turn to a more practiced or self-understood emotion–anger.
In some instances, a child or adolescent’s anger is hidden, as he or she becomes more withdrawn and less noticeable. Parents often believe that their sibling is “going through a stage” and that this time of reduced communication and interaction with the family and peers will be of limited time. The time of hidden anger is very concerning, as the sibling can often act upon this anger without the parents knowing that their sibling is so troubled. For example: children and adolescents, who participate in violence, but were not known for their expressed anger.
Anger is a signal to parents and adults. The signal states that the child or adolescent doesn’t feel totally secure within himself and/or with his emotional environment. It can be a signal that all is not well for the moment, or it can be the continuing signal that all hasn’t been well for quite some time. It is extremely beneficial for the child or adolescent to have a response to the anger that gets past the anger and focuses on the feelings and beliefs that are at the root of the anger.
It is important that the adult-figure in the angry child or adolescent’s life does not respond to the anger with anger. This will not help the child or adolescent work through his anger to discover underlying feelings and beliefs that drive the anger. The adult needs to remain calm, maintain the safety of the environment, and respond to the child or adolescent with clear expectations of the need to understand and communicate in a non-threatening manner. Both children and adolescents will respond with growing safety and respect when the adult does not offer to over-power them with his own anger.