To be honest, angry people scare me. I feel myself shutting down when one of my children starts shouting and stamping at me. I don’t know what to do when another person is angry because I’ve never been allowed to get angry myself. As a child, my anger was judged as “disrespectful”. As a teacher, I had to “be professional”, always calm and reasonable. In romantic relationships, my anger has often been ignored.
I know I’m not the only one whose anger has been silenced. It is socially unacceptable to express anger, for women in particular. But, when unacknowleged and unexplored, anger can become harmful to us, turning into depression, addiction and any number of illnesses & destructive behaviours. Although our behaviour may be “unreasonable” when we get angry, we get angry for a reason that is asking to be addressed. When I realised this, I was able to stop judging my boys for their anger and begin to learn how to help them through it.
STEPPING THROUGH ANGER – THE PROCESS
I wanted to find a way to allow my boys their feelings and empathise with their perspective while also upholding one of our highest values – respect for others. I have found that the best thing to do in angry moments is to get really present. This helps me to tune in to what’s really going on with my boys when they can’t understand and express how they’re feeling for themselves.
It also helps me to remind myself that, once we reach anger, most of us, no matter how old we are, are not in a position to be reasoned with. So we cannot appeal to our child’s reason in the midst of their anger and we have to help them to get through it before we help them to learn from it. So, here’s how I have started going about this –
Acknowledge how your child is feeling. Eg. “You’re disappointed that you can’t go to James’ house today, you really wanted to go”. If we only see anger and we’re not sure at this stage what our child’s primary emotion is, (the real reason they’re angry), we can acknowledge their anger.
Allow your child their feeling. Don’t try to talk them out of being angry, distract them from it or criticise them for it. Being with them through all emotions is the nature of unconditional love. This can be hard to do, especially in the company of others because we often feel embarrassed that all eyes are on us to see how we’re going to deal with our “naughty child”. In such moments, I focus on staying present with my child as if no one else were around.
If your child becomes disrespectful, either verbally or physically, state the expectation.Eg. “It’s not ok to hit your brother, it hurts”. We need to be brief here, not letting the setting of this boundary distract us from what’s really going on for our child.
Give your child what they need to get through their anger. Some need a hug, others need space. My Thomas responds well to the assurance of a cuddle and calms himself down quite quickly on my lap. My Jake needs space and only gets more enraged if I engage with him about the situation, so I might say to him, “I’ll be in the kitchen and we can talk about it more when you’re ready”.
Help your child to understand and cope with their primary feeling. Once they are calm, they are in a better position to talk about what was going on for them. Their primary feeling is the one that looked like anger but was actually something else. Eg. I find that my boys’ anger is often actually towards themselves when they feel regretful about how they have behaved. So, in such a situation, they may really be wanting to apologise or make good with the other person. Here our children can begin to learn how their emotions are their spiritual barometers (More on this in my post Anger in Children).
Identify a strategy our child can use to calm themself down when they feel themselves getting angry in future. Here, we can emphasise that it’s important to express their anger but that they need to do so respectfully. We can offer suggestions, but, our child chooses for themself a way to calm down so they’re able to share their feelings respectfully. Eg. asking for a hug, going to their room and having it out on a pillow, doing something they enjoy eg. bike ride or Lego, taking 5 slow tummy breaths. In future, we can remind them of it at step 4.
Throughout this process we are not trying to control our children or to punish them but to teach them how to manage their anger and its underlying emotion. How we go about each step will depend on our child’s stage of development and particular needs. We also need to take a long-term approach, not expecting that, having gone through these steps with them a couple of times, that they will be able to manage their emotions independently – that’s our intention for our 18-year-olds but probably not our 5-year-olds. And helping anyone in a state of anger is rarely neat and tidy. I hope this framework is helpful but, in a state of presence, we ultimately each need to follow what our intuition tells us to do in the moment.
IN SUMMARY – BECOMING UNSTUCK
No more hiding from angry children for me. No more punishing, placating, pleading and all those other things I used to do because I didn’t know how to respond to their anger. I’ve found that taking this time to write a few posts about anger has made me far more comfortable with it and has enlightened me as to what would really help my boys when they’re angry. I will leave you with this quote –
“The more you try to push a child’s unhappy feelings away, the more he becomes stuck in them. The more comfortably you can accept the bad feelings, the easier it is for kids to let go of them”. A. Faber & E Mazlish, “How to Talk so Kids will Listen & Listen so Kids will Talk”, p42
Much love to you and your little souls,
PS – Do you have a strategy for helping angry children to share with us? Comment below.
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Most of us have heard it said that, when someone feels angry, they’re not really angry, it’s a symptom of something else that they feel deeper down. But often I forget this truth because, in the moment, it certainly feels like anger – all that boiling within and, usually, roaring without. However, a few things happened recently which reminded me to look for what’s really going on beneath a person’s anger and have helped me to feel more confident about dealing with anger – mine and my children’s.
THE ANGRY FORK STORY
Begin with a recent Summer evening. Having enjoyed a barbeque dinner outside, I was sitting at the patio table and my boys were playing on our lawn. Jake picked a stray fork off the ground and I could see in his eyes that he thought it would be a fun idea to throw it.
“Please don’t throw the fork”, I said.
He threw it.
“Jake, I told you not to throw it”, I said calmly.
Jake immediately jumped into a defence of himself, accompanied by angry faces & gestures, volume quickly rising. He ended it all with the exclamation, “You’re always so rude to me!”
“I don’t want him talking to me like that”, I thought but, perhaps thanks to the warm evening and a satisfied belly, I was able to keep calm and present. Without knowing what I was going to say, I asked Jake to come and sit down next to me. He reluctantly sat at the table beside me.
“The way you spoke to me wasn’t respectful. What were you really trying to say?”
He was a little surprised by my question. I think he sensed that I was right – his response to me was out of proportion to my simple statement that I’d asked him not to throw the fork – but he needed to figure out for himself why he was so upset.
“Tell me what you were trying to say, respectfully” I encouraged.
“I’m sorry for throwing the fork!”, he suddenly blurted, brow creased and avoiding eye contact with me.
“Is that what you were really trying to say when you were shouting at me?”
“Tell me if I’m wrong, but when you shouted why are you always rude to me? were you actually feeling bad that you threw the fork, even though I’d asked you not to?” I didn’t want to put words in his mouth but I felt he perhaps didn’t know or couldn’t quite articulate what had happened for him and needed a little help.
“You shouted at me, but really you were angry with yourself? You felt kind of guilty?”
He needed no reprimand for throwing the fork or shouting at me, the natural consequence – the discomfort of his guilt – was enough.
THE PURPOSE OF ANGER
It was an eye-opening conversation for us both. It made me wonder, how often do we end up “disciplining” our children for showing anger when really they just had an emotion they didn’t know what to do with? We need to teach them to take a moment to recognise their feelings and respond intentionally to them. To do this, we can guide them through a kind of self-exploration suitable to their age and give them an opportunity to understand what’s happening for them, like I did in the angry fork story. And, importantly, we need to do this without punishing or criticising them for their age-appropriate struggles with their emotions.
Guiding our children through their anger is part of growing their broader emotional intelligence. Our parenting can help them to develop emotional awareness and an ability to articulate what’s going on for them. In this way, our children can become more at ease with the range of human emotions available to them, less controlled by them and able to choose good-feeling ones for themselves.
Our emotions are like a spiritual barometer. The good-feeling ones tell us we are aligned with our truth. The bad-feeling ones show us something we need to be aware of in order to become more aligned. By taking a moment to be with Jake’s anger, he was able to realise that he, in fact, felt guilty and it showed him that not listening to me when I asked him not to throw the fork wasn’t aligned with his true loving self .
Your negative feelings are there for a reason. Like pain in the body, they are a call for awareness and healing. There’s nothing wrong with you. You are not your emotions. But your emotions do come bearing lessons, and you can’t learn those lessons until you feel them. – Mastin Kipp, Claim Your Power, p.51
ADULTS GET ANGRY TOO
But developing this kind of emotional intelligence is a long-term goal for our children. I cannot expect my 6 year-old to deftly manage all of his many emotions. Especially as our emotions sometimes hide beneath anger, they can be hard to get to. Heck, we adults struggle ourselves. Here’s my story –
The next night after the barbeque, I slept in the spare bedroom downstairs because my husband was feeling unwell and I didn’t want to get sick too. When Jake came in to see me in the morning, he said he’d vomited during the night. When I got up, I saw that my husband had left a bundle of Jake’s dirty bed sheets in the laundry sink. I started fuming. Why hadn’t he rinsed and soaked them – or asked for my help to clean them?! I might not be able to get the stains out now! I splashed & stomped & barked around for a while and my poor boys steered clear of me. Then I asked myself, “why am I so angry?” My husband had done the best he could in the middle of the night, trying not to wake me so I could have a good sleep. I paused and realised that I wasn’t really angry, I actually felt guilty that he’d dealt with a vomiting Jake and the dirty sheets on his own when he was feeling unwell himself.
It really is never anger, it’s always something else. Thinking back to Mastin’s quote, my guilt was pointing to my discomfort at the thought of causing someone else any kind of trouble, an aspect of my sometimes shaky sense of self-worth that I’m still working on.
IN SUMMARY – THE ANGER ICEBERG
Later that day on Pinterest, I came across this anger iceberg infographic by The Gottman Institute. I think The Universe wanted to drive the point home to me, make sure I really got it.
For me, it feels easier to know that I’m dealing with guilt or some emotion other than anger. Anger seems so explosive and unreasonable (even in a person who quietly seethesrather than shouting) and I’m never sure how to approach it in another person. But these experiences of late have given me some ideas about how to go about it. Keep an eye out for my upcoming post about how we can respond helpfully to our children when they are angry.
Much love to you and your little souls,
PS – What emotions have you noticed sometimes appear as anger in your child/ren? Comment below.
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I’m aware of a book called Joy is My Compass – Taking the Risk to Follow Your Bliss by Alan Cohen. Despite declaring in January that joy will be my compass for 2017, I’ve not yet read the book but the phrase joy is my compass captivated me. It reminds me that we are intended to live joyfully – not in the fearful, grasping way we are socialised to. It can be hard to switch from believing that sacrifice & sheer hard work are required to live a good life to allowing ourselves joy and, even, prioritising our joy. But my intention is to raise my boys with a different world view – to value joy, to seek it and create it in every moment. I want joyful to be our normal. For such a life, joy is the perfect compass.
HOW ARE JOY & HAPPINESS DIFFERENT?
Happiness comes to us in moments. It is dependent on external circumstances – like getting a particular job, partner or fashion item. Therefore, just as easily as favourable circumstances can come and go, so, too, can happiness. Happiness is high GI, causing spikes in our emotions. Joy is something quieter yet deeper and more stable. There is a sense of meaning in joy that there isn’t in happiness. It is always available to us, we just have to choose it. And there are so many ways to let joy in.
“Happiness is like rising bubbles — delightful and inevitably fleeting. Joy is the oxygen — ever present” – Danielle La Porte
My son Jake, loves eating ice-cream and he also loves building Lego. I would argue that the ice-cream makes him happy but, once it’s eaten, the happiness it brought dissipates quickly. On the other hand, building Lego is a fun & engrossing activity for him and the satisfaction he gets from it is nourishing in a way that ice-cream just isn’t. I would call this joy. Danielle says that “joy is the fibre of your soul”. It is the fuel for our lives. Joy is low GI.
THE VALUE OF JOY
Joy Indicates Spiritual Alignment
Joy is our natural way of being. It indicates to us that we are in alignment. By this, I mean that our mind, body and spirit are working together for the greater purposes of our soul. I think the experience of flow is actually an experience of deep joy. I wrote the following about flow in my post How Our Children Raise Us –
At times, I have watched my boys play and have recognised their feeling of full absorption & joy from my own childhood. I used to get it when I was swimming in our pool, singing along to music and writing stories. Scientists call this state “flow” and I think of it as allowing God to flow through me. Do you remember the healing quality of that feeling? How content and internally energised it left you?
Now, I still experience flow when I write and have found a way to use my writing to encourage other parents. What brings our children joy in childhood may be the same things that bring them joy in adulthood. Those things may end up being connected with the contribution they make in the world.
Joy Attracts More Joy
Have you noticed how a day that begins with joy often continues that way? Perhaps it starts with a particularly heart-felt “good morning” hug from your child which you take a moment to appreciate fully, right down to your toes. Then, as you go about your day, people everywhere seem to be particularly friendly & helpful to you and, in the afternoon, you receive a piece of good news then your partner arrives home in the evening with your favourite wine/chocolate/desert for “no reason”. It just feels that life is going well for you and you feel joyful. This is the law of attraction at work. We attract the feeling we are putting out. So, by deliberately letting joy in where we find it (and it’s always there), we cultivate more joyful experiences. Choosing what we focus on is key to utilising the power of this law – so let’s focus on joy!
Joy Supports Emotional Resilience
When joyful is our normal, our capacity to weather difficult experiences is much greater. No matter how much joy we cultivate, life is intended to grow us and no one is exempt from its challenges. With a joyful way of being, though, we know we have that joyful place to return to once we are through the difficult experience. My son Jake is easily joyful, something I am so grateful for. As a result, he moves through difficult emotions quite quickly. It’s not that upsetting emotions should be avoided – they have something to tell us – but they don’t need to keep us down. We can even feel that life is ultimately joyful while at the same time going through a major experience that deeply saddens or angers us.
CULTIVATING JOY IN OUR CHILDREN
Notice the activities, places and people who bring our children joy and create opportunities for them to spend time with these people, places and activities. For example a place may be anywhere by water and a person may be a particular friend who is on the same wavelength. I don’t think having things brings joy but the actual using of things may bring joy – such as playing an instrument or, as in Thomas’ case, the process of lining up his toy cars.
Help our children to recognise for themselves the activities, places and people who bring them joy. For younger children, we might point out “you seem to feel really good when you’re playing outside with a ball”. For older children, we might ask, “which of your friends do you feel most like yourself and relaxed with?”
Teach our children joyful habits of mind. Gratitude is a powerful place to start. Self-love is essential.
When we notice our children are in a joyless state of mind, perhaps whining for things they want or hanging on to a grudge after a sibling argument, remind them that they will get more of how they feel and help them to choose a more joyful state of mind.
When things are deteriorating for the whole family, stop for a joy break. Having fun with people we love is a joyful experience and can act as the reset button for everyone. Our family loves playing indoor soccer together.
Find a way to do the boring/difficult things joyfully. When my boys were younger, I used to sing a tidying song as we put away the toys. I find interesting ways for my son to practise the spelling words he’s learning for school. This shows them that joy is always there, waiting for us to notice it and to take it.
Be the example of joyful living. Our example is our greatest teacher. Be joyful for your children’s sake…and your own.
IN SUMMARY – NUTRITION FOR OUR SOULS
Joy can feel like a guilty pleasure at first, especially for those of us who have been taught that using our own effort is the only way to build a satisfying life. But, if joy is our compass, pointing in the direction of our purpose and giving our lives richness & ease, it is, surely, nutrition for our souls. Actually, there’s also a book called The Joy Diet by Martha Beck (and also on my “books to read” list). I’m putting my family on the diet now.
Much love to you and your little souls,
PS – Where is your compass pointing? Comment below.
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“Jake! How many times have I asked you to put your things in the car?! We haven’t got time for this!” I shouted, wondering how many of my neighbours could hear me right now. It was cold and I was trying to bundle my boys and all their gear into the car to get Jake to school on time. I grabbed Jake’s coat & bag off him and put them into the boot myself. My uncharacteristic outburst shocked him into action and he was in his car seat in a flash, ready for me to do up the seatbelt. But, as I clipped him in, he said, “You didn’t need to talk to me like that,” his eyes becoming wet. Of course, I knew he was right. I took a breath. “You’re right”, I said. “I’m sorry I didn’t speak nicely to you. I should’ve said ‘Jake, I’m feeling angry that you still haven’t put your things in the car and I need your help to get to school on time. Do it now please’”, modelling a more respectful tone of voice.
By giving Jake an example of a better response, I was trying to show him that it’s ok to express emotions but not to let them run riot. I started replaying verbal exchanges in this way a couple of months ago. The idea came to me once when the roles were reversed and Jake was shouting at me. I just said to him “try that again”. He knew I meant, “say that in a respectful way please” and did so straight away. I see adults and children as equals so, on that cold morning, with the clock ticking, I had to “try that again” too.
The above situation was not monumental, but it counts. The little, everyday interactions we have with our children are frequent and provide both the example & the practice ground for “bigger” emotional events – practice for adults and children alike!
HOW CAN WE HELP OUR CHILDREN TO NAVIGATE DIFFICULT EMOTIONS?
As parents, our hearts bleed along with our children when they are upset. Our first instinct is to defend and protect them but what we really need to do is to build their ability to cope with emotional pain in all of its forms.
How do we help them to accept their emotions instead of avoiding them?
How do we help them to express their emotions without disrespecting others?
How do we help them to grow from difficult emotional experiences?
How do we help them to respond wisely to situations that have resulted in uncomfortable emotions?
I could list many more questions that I had when I started writing this post. Through the writing process, I’ve come up with 3 steps that I think can help to answer them. Honestly though, I haven’t yet had to nurture my boys through any really overwhelming emotions so it’s a largely untested approach. As they get older, I expect it to be thoroughly tested out and can let you know how it goes! As I’ve said on my website, my posts are simply the explorations of an ordinary mother, intended to prompt other parents & caregivers to reflect, not necessarily to agree. So, see what you think –
STEP 1: VALIDATE & BE
When my boys are experiencing difficult emotions, I initially just “validate and be” with them & their emotion.
To validate, I name the emotion and offer my understanding, eg. “I can see you’re disappointed that it’s time to leave the playground, you were having fun”. When we’re upset, having just one person understand and acknowledge how we’re feeling helps at least a little, doesn’t it?
Then, I offer just to be with them and their emotion until the bigger part of it has passed. “Being” looks different depending on the age & personality of the child and the situation that has given rise to the emotion. It may be having a cuddle on the sofa, sitting with our child while they pace the room or giving them space but having them know I’m on hand while they take time out in their bedroom, for example. This “being” stage may last from one minute to, I imagine, a number of days. Whatever form it takes and however long it takes, the essence of “being” is that we adults do nothing but be fully present with our child – not judging their emotion or trying to stop them from feeling it or fixing the situation. We’re just there, letting the emotion take its course.
As a toddler, Jake rarely got upset but, when he did, he was loud and inconsolable. Nothing worked to calm him down. All I could do was wait it out and this is how I learned to “validate and be”. Once, at a mothers’ coffee group get-together, something upset him and he launched into a good, loud cry over it. I just sat and cuddled him, while some of the other mums looked at me as if to say “why aren’t you doing something?” They seemed to think there was a problem to be solved and started offering him toys and food to distract him – with no effect. I told them he’d soon calm down on his own – and he did. When I sensed he was ready, I played with him for a few minutes before he returned to playing happily alongside the other children.
“Being” with an emotion results in more calm but the journey to calm is often not calm itself. Our bodies and brains do all sorts of things to make us feel our emotions. So, stamping feet, crying, sulking, scowling is all permmited. My opinion is that everyone is allowed to be in a mood and to express it, but not to take it out on others. I’m finding this a hard line to judge. Jake has taken to expressing his anger with a loud dinosaur-like roar and it’s difficult to tell whether a roar has been directed at me because I’ve told him to set the table or whether it’s just a release to get it out.
Our willingness to be with their emotion shows our children that emotions are not to be feared or avoided. They are part of our experience in life but not part of us, so will come and go on their own, if allowed. Often, “validate and be” is enough on its own. Our children will talk if they want to, but they won’t always need to.
STEP 2: PLUG INTO LOVE
“The best way to get rid of the pain is to feel the pain. And when you feel the pain and go beyond it, you’ll see there’s a very intense love that is wanting to awaken itself.” – Deepak Chopra.
This quote popped up on my Instagram feed this week. I had to use it because it is so relevant to my post. I don’t think I understand yet all that it means but I think step 2 relates to it.
When I was losing patience with Jake as we were getting into the car that cold morning, without thinking about it, I took a breath get me back to centre. For me, even one breath can act as a switch. It doesn’t turn the emotion off but it helps my mind to plug into my higher self instead of the emotion. Plugging in, helps me to see the situation differently, in a way that is more loving and useful. Using their “breathing switch” is definitely something I could teach my boys.
In this step, we are choosing compassion. Compassion both for ourselves and for any other people involved. I think Love has a lesson or message to offer in every difficult situation. And, even when we are sure that we are the one who has been unfairly wronged, there is a lesson for us and about us. We can’t undo whatever has happened, but we can choose to grow from it.
After school yesterday, Jake was upset because he had been called a nasty name in the playground simply because he was in another child’s way. Logically, it seems simple – the other child had called Jake a name and he shouldn’t have done that. What more is there to it? But switching from the emotional position of seeing my son as a victim to seeing through the eyes of Love, I saw an opportunity for Jake to learn about self-love. I wanted to help him to understand that people won’t always treat him nicely but it doesn’t mean that he deserves to be treated poorly. I also wanted him to realise that the other child’s behaviour was not to be taken personally, it was simply that he happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. These are seemingly little lessons but, remove the context, and they are very important ones. Through the experience and our discussion of it, Jake has begun to learn that he is worthy of good treatment and that, when he’s not treated well, it’s not personal. (If only I had understood these things about life earlier, I would’ve hurt so much less!)
With my eldest being only 5 years old, I currently have to do most of the work in this step. But by showing my boys how to look for Love’s lesson, they will eventually learn to do it on their own. As they get older, my job will be more to ask questions than to explain – questions that help them to connect with their true selves so they can interpret and respond to the situation upsetting them with Love, rather than with the emotion itself. They can also remember the lesson next time they find themselves in a similar situation, which may lessen the emotional blow.
STEP 3: RESPOND
Responding to an action comes only after validating, being with the emotion and tuning into Love’s wisdom. In the grip of difficult emotions, we are not able to deal effectively with the situations we find ourselves in. We might resort to blame, shouting, self-medicating, avoidance… Then we are left to deal with both our unattended emotion and regret over our reaction to it. So, once our child is present, calm(er) and plugged in, they are in a better position to decide on a response that is loving towards both themselves and the others involved.
Again, I will usually direct my boys at this stage while they are so young. As they get older, my role will shift from making suggestions to asking questions that lead them on their own answers. One day, they will be ready to decide for themselves.
Sometimes the conclusion is that there is nothing to do but accept the situation as it is and be prepared for a similar situation if it reoccurs. In the case of Jake being called a nasty name at school, he walked away at the time and there really was nothing more to do once he’d got home, had a cry and realised that it wasn’t personal to him. He agreed he will just walk away if he finds himself in a similar situation again.
IN SUMMARY: EMOTIONAL RESILIENCE
If we take these 3 steps when our children are experiencing difficult emotions, I think we can help them to navigate the emotion of their current situation but also begin to build their emotional resilience. By this, I mean their ability to tolerate difficult emotions without handing their power over to them. Instead, they can choose to receive the wisdom that comes with their pain – wisdom that can help them to respond with love to this situation and that may reduce the extent of their pain the next time they’re in similar circumstances.
PS: These 3 steps are the same for adults. Doing them ourselves will help us to guide our children through them.
Much love to you and your little souls,
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