Parent-Child Relationships

How Do I Support a Child with Explosive Anger?

Amidst talk about smartphones and social media, mounting depression, anxiety, and addiction—far less attention goes to how to best work through intense and destructive levels of anger, both in ourselves—and for those we love and have responsibility over.

Amidst talk about smartphones and social media, mounting depression, anxiety, and addiction—far less attention goes to how to best work through intense and destructive levels of anger, both in ourselves—and for those we love and have responsibility over. 

Here are a few pointers on working through anger skillfully:   

1. Taking care of their bodies. As simplistic as it sounds, your Mom’s old advice about eating, sleeping, etc—really does make a difference for all sorts of things. Just like better physical health can lessen our vulnerability to extreme sorrow, fear and cravings, a healthy body can help us—and the people we are supporting—navigate the ups and downs of intense frustration as well. For instance, some studies suggest that reducing certain food dyes help children with ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder) manage their emotions better. And sometimes it’s really true:  a good rest can shift our mood in significant ways. 

2. Supplementing their mental diet. Media and technology can, of course, affect our emotions. What we put into our minds impacts us all—but perhaps especially those who are emotionally volatile.  Dark, ominous or fearsome media can really do a number on someone with this kind of vulnerability. And equally so, encouraging, uplifting media can counterbalance and strengthen someone to be able to navigate intense frustration in calm ways.  

3. Accepting the experience of anger. It’s common in some cultures to portray anger as inherently wrong—or even evil. This is something women, some minority groups, and many religious communities often hear.  While there is value in helping people be cautious about anger—for all the obvious reasons —there are less obvious problems with over-reacting to anger, e.g., “getting angry at yourself for getting angry.” It can be helpful to remember that feeling anger itself is normal and part of being human—especially surrounded by a world that is difficult and often unjust. You can help your child understand that—and encourage them to accept and feel their emotions without acting on them unkindly.

4. Taking advantage of non-angry moments. It’s helpful to learn how to work through anger (or help someone else do it) when it spikes. But if that’s all we pay attention to, we’re missing something especially valuable:  namely, all the times when someone is not encountering anger.  Fill the calm times with good times to strengthen your relationship. Those periods offer tremendous potential for learning and growth—teaching, training, encouragement—that can help strengthen someone for when the anger comes up again. And having a stronger, more loving relationship as a foundation will help you navigate the challenging times without eroding your love as a parent and child.

5.  Exploring emotions underneath the anger.  Very often, anger can be a manifestation of something deeper—for instance, anger is one of the symptoms of depression in men and women alike, and can also reflect deeper anxiety or loneliness. Rather than paying attention to these deeper contributors, however, it’s easy to get lost in blame and acrimony towards others—thereby missing the emotional roots of what we’re feeling. If your child is acting out angrily, put on your investigative hat and dig deeper. What is really troubling them?

6. Channeling anger in healthy directions. There are justified reasons we feel anger, and both wisdom and messages it can offer. When anger is especially justified, you might think of ways to right the wrong that provoked your anger. But even if you can’t, you can raise your voice to advocate a solution.  Finding a wholesome way to use the energy that surges through you when you are angry can be invigorating.

7. Get really good at forgiving, and asking for their grace too. Have you ever noticed how apologizing to somebody often evokes an apology from the other person too? If you have handled a bout of anger with less patience than you would like, don’t be afraid to apologize. It won’t “hurt your authority” as a parent—it will set an example to your child to acknowledge a wrong and try to make it right.

Psychologist Everett Worthington has spent his career exploring the scientific benefits of forgiveness as a life practice. Would it surprise you that people who learn to forgive are better off emotionally on many dimensions? Whatever your philosophical or spiritual background, there are many reasons to take extending (and receiving) forgiveness seriously.

In addition to enhanced mood and overall well-being, forgiveness can deepen our connection to others around us and our ability to offer love, compassion and empathy to others. 

Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

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