Children and anger
Parents often seek counselling because they are struggling with a child or young person who is displaying a lot of anger. This is not an unusual occurrence as children experience anger for much the same reasons as adults. However, if the outbursts are frequent or are beginning to disrupt the routines of the household, then empathic exploration is needed to find the underlying cause of the child’s unhappiness.
Anger, as we all know is a powerful emotion, and many of us as adults will try and suppress feelings of anger believing that it is a ‘negative’ emotion and others will not like us if we show we are angry. Yet our feelings of anger do not go away because we deny or suppress them, they sit within and erode our happiness. When our feelings of anger are accepted and expressed in a healthy way, they can be a power for good and a route to closer contact and intimacy.
For young children feelings of sadness, disappointment, frustration, confusion and anger can feel overpowering and all-consuming. We have all seen a toddler erupt into wails of distress when a desired toy or treat is not forthcoming, with calm words and the comfort of physical contact the feelings of distress will be soothed and the incident soon forgotten.
Children under the age of five years have a very immature arousal system, so when something happens that triggers distress their brains and body become flooded with chemicals that cause the pain that we see. Young children lack the necessary pathways between the higher brain and lower brain which are essential in managing their big feelings. Distress tantrums triggered by rage, fear and/or separation, the three alarm systems that will activate the child’s lower brain, require sensitive handling with calming words and soothing physical contact.
The sense of safety, comfort and reassurance provided will help them to manage their intense feelings of rage, frustration and distress and promote healthy pathways for later life. Once your child has calmed, distraction is a useful technique, activating the seeking system in their lower brain so they become curious and interested.
There are six primary triggers for poor behaviour – tiredness and hunger, an immature brain, unmet psychological needs, intense emotions, parental stress, and a parenting style that activates the alarm systems in a child’s lower brain.
When children express frequent bouts of anger it is often because one of their psychological needs is not being met. From experience, I have learned that negotiating and setting boundaries are needs that parents find the most challenging. Children of all ages need healthy boundaries, as they provide a sense of safety and containment.
Boundaries that are too restrictive or rigid are likely to cause resentment, too loose or inconsistent and anger and frustration will result. Children over five years have more mature frontal lobes and respond well to choices, this also encourages them to think about their behaviour and the impact on others. Children under five years need firm, calm handling and simple explanations about what is desirable and expected.
No behaviour in a child is ‘bad’ behaviour, children are programmed from birth to respond to the world in such a way that their needs are met, in order to survive. So, if you feel that a child or young person is using their behaviour for “attention seeking” purposes, in a way you would be right. If they are unable to tell you what is wrong, or perhaps, as parents, we are too busy to listen, then they will use behaviour to gain our attention.