: I have a 9 year-old stepson with a very angry temper. When he is getting scolded for doing something wrong (like pulling his sister’s hair), he yells at me and curses and sometimes throws things. I have given him time-outs. I have made him write 100 times that he will be respectful. Nothing has worked. He does know how to be respectful-just not when he is in trouble. Please help.
There are several things to think about here. First, it is important to consider the sources of your step-son’s anger. Second, you need to think about the experiences he has had in learning how to express his anger. Finally, you can think about some steps to help him learn how to understand his angry feelings and express them safely and positively.
Anger is a complex emotion. Children experience it as they encounter the normal frustrations, struggles, confusions and disappointments of growing up. Some children may have the added challenge of stresses in their family, school or with peers. It is important to discover the underlying causes of children’s anger. If they are under undo stress, it is essential to deal with the source of their anger, as well as with their response to it. A child who is being teased or targeted at school, for instance, needs help dealing with that situation.
Children may experience their feelings of anger differently, depending on their temperament. Some children experience frustration more intensely and may be quick to anger. Others may be less sensitive and less prone to frequent or intense anger. Knowing your child’s unique temperament will help you and your child learn to predict and manage his anger. Here are some things to think about:
. Work to discover the sources of his anger. By talking with your stepson and observing what precedes his angry outbursts, you may be able to figure out what makes him angry. The things that make us angry fall into two categories: things we can do something about and things we can’t do anything about. You can help your stepson discern which things he can work to change from the outside and which he needs to work on from the inside. For instance, when his soccer team looses a game, he might feel angry about it, but there is nothing he can do to change the outcome. His choice, at this point, is to work with his feelings about it. On the other hand, if he is given an assignment from school that doesn’t seem fair or understandable, he can write or talk to the teacher about it (and if it seems appropriate, you can intervene as well). In that instance, he doesn’t only have to deal with his angry feelings internally; he can work to change the circumstances he is in.
All of your stepson’s feelings, including anger, are also affected by his physical state. Tiredness and hunger are often predispose someone to anger. At nine, your son may be able to start seeing a connection between his hunger, his tiredness, his state of health and his angry outbursts.
Another important thing about angry feelings is that they are often displaced. Your stepson might feel angry/hurt about not getting chosen for the team during recess and not show his anger until he gets home and his little sister helps herself to some of his chips.
. Find a good time to talk to him about his anger. Sometimes talking with our kids when they are upset is very productive. They are in the midst of their intense feelings and may be willing to discuss things they wouldn’t normally be open to. Other times, talking with kids when they have cooled off and have a little more perspective can be useful. Experiment with different times to find what works best for you and your child.
. Explore the underlying feelings. It is important to help your son understand that anger is a secondary emotion. This means that there are a number of emotions people have before they feel anger. Anger is usually precipitated by sadness, frustration, rejection, hurt, confusion or fear. Many people feel that anger is a more “acceptable” emotion and may not even be aware of their underlying feelings. Their first feelings may leave them feeling vulnerable and they may prefer the power they feel when they’re angry to vulnerability that goes with the other feelings. However, unless the underlying feelings are acknowledged and dealt with, the anger won’t be fully resolved and will continue to erupt.
Your son may not be able to understand all of this theory about underlying emotion. But you can help him discover these other feelings by asking him during (or after) his angry outbursts if there are other things he is mad about or other feelings he is having. You can also suggest feelings. “It can be really disappointing to lose a soccer game when you worked so hard at practice.” “Sounds like maybe you are feeling confused and frustrated about this homework assignment.” Or, “It can feel really hurtful and sad when a friend ignores you.”
. Help your son learn the early warning signs that precede his anger. Often, anger (and other hurt feelings) grow gradually, but we don’t acknowledge them until they are huge and overwhelming. In one of the examples you give about your son, the event that precedes his anger is pulling his sister’s hair. It sounds like he is already having feelings when he decides to pull his sister’s hair. If he can start to recognize those feelings, he may be able to manage and express them earlier and more effectively than waiting until they overpower him. You might say to him, “I’m wondering how you were feeling before you pulled your sister’s hair? Was there something you were trying to tell her?” Your stepson still needs to understand that pulling his sister’s hair is not safe or allowed, but if he can look at his underlying feelings, he may be more effective in redirecting his behavior to a safer outlet the next time.
. Provide support and coaching when he is feeling angry. Often our first impulse when our kids get angry and start “acting out” is to leave or ask them to leave. It can be overwhelming and frustrating to witness that intensity of feeling, especially when we are feeling angry about the situation ourselves.
If, however, you can think about what is happening differently, you may be able to alter your role. If you believe that your son is doing the best he can with his feelings, it is easier to understand that he really needs some help, support and instruction. As hard as it is to believe, you son really doesn’t have control over or understanding of the strong feelings he is having. He is probably as confused and scared about what is happening as you are. If you can see his vulnerability, you may be able to provide support and coaching (at the same time you are setting clear limits on his behavior) to help him get through his feelings positively. “It looks like you are feeling really upset right now. I can’t let you throw your toys, but I’ll stay with you and help you figure out what else you can do to express your feelings.”
Sometimes kids push us away in the middle of their angry feelings. If your son demands that you “go away,” you can back up some, but he probably wants you there as much as he wants you to leave, so don’t go too far away. If you move out of sight, let him know that you are going to check back with him in a couple of minutes.
Ultimately, what your presence can do is allow him to safety explore all of his feelings. Often, when kids gets angry and start yelling and they are supported in expressing those feelings, they end up crying and letting out their more vulnerable feelings. If we just deal with the “anger,” we may miss the opportunity to discover what is really going on underneath.
. Explore alternate ways of expressing anger and other feelings. Children learn though modeling, talking and practicing. Practice can be very important in learning alternative, healthy ways to show anger. You and your child can pretend and practice. You could use puppets or “role play” yourselves. Sometimes it adds a little humor to do a couple of “negative” examples along with the positive ones. “I’m going to throw this tomato at your head I’m so mad at you…Just kidding! But I am going to tell you how furious I am at what you did.”
Families have come up with a variety of positive expressions, including hitting the couch or bed with a soft bat, growling, stomping, digging, throwing soft things at a target, using big, interesting angry words (furious, irate, incensed), or yelling (not name-calling).
It is also important to consider what models our children have for the expression of anger. Children look to family members, friends and media for information about appropriate expressions. Unfortunately, violence and aggressiveness are the predominant models in the media. Limiting access to these images and discussing them with our kids is important if we want them to learn more positive methods. Equally important is being conscious of how anger is expressed in the child’s immediate environment. If adults are having scary, hurtful, and/or violent outbursts, it will be difficult for children to do otherwise. Working on positive expressions of your own anger and talking to your kids about your goals for anger expression (even when you haven’t fully achieved them), will help them understand how important it is to you.