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The Angry Child

What's going on inside a child who lashes out. And what can you do about it?

"My son is always angry at every one, and I just can't stand dealing with him anymore!" says Sarah, the mother of 9-year-old Jimmy (not their real names). We're on the phone before our first counseling session and she sounds desperate.

The stereotype of children is that they are happy, carefree little bundles of sunshine who take life as it comes and have much to teach adults about seeing the bright side of life. But in truth, there are many children who have problems managing their anger. They start arguments with siblings, parents, friends, and teachers. They may become physically aggressive, verbally abusive, or withdrawn and isolated. An angry child can cause difficult family relationships and tense social situations.

Anger in children is a sometimes mysterious and usually stressful experience for parents. It may be the most challenging and intimidating emotion because of its tremendous potential for destructiveness. At the same time, we can't afford to ignore or downplay the anger our children feel. Because of its intensity, mishandled anger can create anxiety, fear, low self-esteem, and despair in children.

As if anger isn't challenging enough, the church often imposes unnecessary and even unhealthy taboos against anger for both adults and children. While the Bible says, "In your anger do not sin" (Psalm 4:4), many Christians hear and teach only, "Do not be angry."

Anger is a natural human emotion and it's essential that we help our children learn to deal with it in healthy ways. But before we teach them effective anger management, we need to understand the causes of their anger.

The Body Connection

When parents come to me looking for help with their angry child, I usually start by looking for a biological cause behind the problem. Not only can a physical factor like an allergy, learning disability, or developmental disorder be a key element of a child's anger, in many cases, finding a biological cause can shift a parent's entire understanding of the problem and make the situation much more manageable.

Remember the mother of that 9-year-old boy I mentioned? When we sat down and talked about her son's behavior, we discovered a seasonal pattern to his irritability and impulsive outbursts. Because he was restless and unfocused in class, Jimmy had already been labeled with ADD by his teacher. But Jimmy's mother, Sarah, felt like there was something else going on. She spoke with Jimmy's tutor who confirmed the fall/spring pattern of loosing focus, while doing well in summer and winter. I recommended allergy testing, which identified severe allergies to mold, pollen, ragweed, and grass. Jimmy was put on allergy medication and within two weeks, the anger and the ADD-like behaviors disappeared. Jimmy was a new student and son.

Figuring this out took some investigating on Sarah's part, but it was worth the effort. If you have a child who's struggling with anger, do a little detective work of your own. Look back over the past several months of your child's life and ask a few questions. How often does he act out? In what context do his outbursts occur? How long has this been a problem? What behaviors are you seeing? Is there any seasonality to the outbursts? Does your child get irritable only when he's tired, stressed, or hungry? Ask your spouse for feedback on your notes to get another perspective. Take any suspicions about biological factors to your child's doctor.

It's important to remember that children are not always capable of identifying their real needs and feelings. Their anger can be the result of being confused during math class, not feeling well physically, or even needing a nap. Talk to your child and help him name what's going on. Address that problem and you might see a change in behavior.

The Stress Test

We don't often think of children as experiencing daily stress, but they do. Is your child booked every minute of every day with church, school, sports, scouting, and other activities? Does she have any down time? Just like adults, children's tempers can flare when mental and physical fatigue set in.

Our culture almost insists that a rushed lifestyle is the norm. One of my patients, a 10-year-old, told me he hated Wednesdays. When I asked why, he said, "I get up and get to school by 8:00 a.m. for chorus then I have my school day. After school, I have 10 minutes to have a snack and run to my piano lesson down the street. I get back and have 15 minutes to eat dinner before I have to leave for swim practice. I get home from practice at 7:00 p.m. and then I start two hours of homework. That's why I hate Wednesdays!" The fatigue and frustration on this young child's face made him look twice his age. If this sounds like your family's life, scale back (I recommend no more than two activities per child per week) so that life can be enjoyed and not endured.

If your family is experiencing a major stressor, like an illness or divorce, make extra room in your schedule to identify your child's reactions to what's happening. Sometimes kids know they're feeling something but don't know what the feeling is. To help your child identify her feelings, use "I" statements and tentative language when you do so. You could say, "I wonder if you might be angry at your sister because her illness is getting her more attention from your dad and me right now." Whatever your child is feeling, let her know that her reactions are normal. You can also offer empathy by talking about your own feelings and the adjustments the whole family is going through. Praise your child for some of the healthy ways she's handling her feelings. Most of all, pray with your child and remind her that God can and will help her cope with her feelings.

If your child seems depressed or is unable to deal with the stresses in her life, consider talking with a professional Christian counselor.

Know and Grow

Children's inability to process complex emotions is tied to their emotional development which matures steadily throughout childhood. Ironically, the process of learning to understand his emotions can contribute to your child's anger. Emotional development involves a stage called assimilation where a child learns new skills, strategies, and behaviors. It's a stage where a child faces new emotional challenges but doesn't feel ready for them. During this stage, kids often feel insecure, edgy, and overwhelmed. These feelings can come out as irritability and anger.

If you want to know what this phase looks like, think of a toddler. Many of the behaviors seen in the "terrible twos" are the result of this assimilation process. Toddlers learn new skills?both physical and emotional? at an incredibly fast pace. It doesn't take long for them to feel overwhelmed and act out. As children get older, they begin to learn more appropriate ways of expressing their frustration and anger, but those feelings remain.

Child development experts believe that kids generally move from six months of assimilation to six months of accommodation?fine tuning those new skills. During the accommodation phase, kids are more pleasant because they are more at ease with themselves and the skills they're learning. Most children cycle through these stages over and over again throughout childhood and early adolescence.

If you're starting to see more anger than usual in your child, it could be that he's going through an assimilation phase. You can help your child manage his anger by teaching him impulse control and basic anger management techniques. Say something like, "When I feel frustrated, I count to five slowly and take a deep breath. That gives me a minute to calm down and think about what I want to say."

What About You?

One of parenting's most difficult challenges is modeling the behavior we want our children to emulate. That can be especially hard when it comes to anger, since many of us still struggle with how we express our anger. If you can let your life be a lesson in progress and be extremely humble, your children can learn from both your successes and your mistakes. When you explode in anger, take a deep breath, walk away, or do whatever it takes to calm down. When you've recovered, talk to your children about what you did right and what you need to work on. If your angry outburst was directed at them, make sure you offer your children a sincere apology for your actions.

Parents can also model self-control in the way we discipline our children. How many times do you find yourself roughly telling your child to go to time out or raising your voice as you dole out punishment? Instead, take a moment and regroup, then verbally give the consequence in a matter-of-fact manner. Say something like, "It's time for a ten minute time-out while you calm down and think about why we don't hit people."

If you're not sure how anger is impacting your parenting, try this quick test: Ask yourself, "How would an adult friend or co-worker react if I spoke to them this way?" If you think they'd be shocked, insulted, or hurt, reword your sentence, watch your tone of voice, and try again.

Recognizing our role in our child's anger is a painful prospect. But as Christians, we need to submit ourselves honestly and openly to God and let him show us how to express anger in appropriate and productive ways.

Home, Calm Home

Even if you're not sure where your child's anger is coming from, there are ways you can bring some peace into your home.

Hold a family meeting. Anger often flares up due to differing and uncommunicated expectations of a certain event or activity. To avoid miscommunication, get together at a regular time once a month or even once a week, depending on your family's schedule and needs. Have a snack together and talk about the days or weeks to come. Get your calendar and write down concerts, games, and any other events everyone needs to know about. Go over any behavioral expectations, chore and household guidelines, or other family issues. Make sure your children get a chance to talk and express any concerns they have.

Affirm the feelings and guide the actions. It's important that we allow our children to feel angry, even if their anger is directed at us. They also need to know that God can handle their angry feelings. One look at David's cries of anger in the Psalms tells us that God values our honest emotions. When your child acts out in anger, help her name the feeling by saying, "I can tell you're angry"; then help her find a constructive way to deal with her feelings. Let her take a walk, cry in her room, pray, or just talk through whatever is bothering her.

Pray to see your child through God's eyes. When you have a child who is prone to angry outbursts, it's easy to pigeonhole him. When that happens, you can start to read anger into every problem your child has, or dismiss real emotions as part of his "anger problem." To avoid labeling your child, ask God to help you see the complex, unique person he created. Remember that God loves your child even in a fit of rage. He can give you the ability to do the same.

Allow yourself to make mistakes. We often pressure ourselves to provide absolute protection and perfect training for our children. This is unrealistic. We need to be conscientious, willing to learn, apologize when we make mistakes, and accept God's grace to us. "Love covers over all wrongs" (Prov. 10:12) is the verse I rely on. Rest in the fact that God has chosen you as the right parent for your children.

Karen L. Maudlin, Psy.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in marriage and family therapy. She is the mother of two and lives in the Chicago area.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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