Responding to Children's Anger

July 12, 2021

What is our first response when our child has an angry emotional outburst? Is it to get them to stop behaving that way? Or is it to understand what’s behind the anger, and — more importantly — help them understand what’s behind the anger, and how to manage it?

In a recent article in the Boston Globe Magazine, educator and parent Deborah Kris wrote a sensitive piece targeting the importance of listening to our kids’ emotional language. This means, she explained, hearing what is shown through their behavior, instead of just managing the way their emotions are expressed in action. It is difficult to see children in distress, so we are tempted to “fix” their behavior (and feelings) to make it better, or make it just go away. After all, it’s what most of us experienced as children, ourselves. And if we’re anxious and uncomfortable with our own anger and sadness, it’s going to be hard to help with our kids’ heightened emotions. Too often our goal might be eliminating the behavior and feelings, instead of turning toward them with understanding and support, and really listening to the distress being shouted out in their behavior.  

What if we practiced stepping toward our kids rather than sending them away until they’ve pulled themselves together?" ~Deborah Kris, Boston Globe Magazine

The hardest challenge for most parents — particularly if we’re a bit uncomfortable with expressing our own emotions — is to be with our kids when they are experiencing a challenging emotion. Their experience of being out of control, of not being in charge of their emotions, feels like an extension of us—something influenced by us, something that reflects upon us, something we aren’t in control of, either. What then gets activated is the desire to fix it — and fix it is a euphemism for get rid of it. We’ve all experienced the sense of dissatisfaction of turning to a family member, colleague, or friend for support and understanding, and instead find them automatically offering solutions. Essentially making it go away, when half of our problem is wanting to be heard and understood. The person wanting to help really believes they are, which often leaves you feeling worse — misunderstood. 

This is why the reaction you see in your child when you try to respond with reasonable solutions is anger and frustration. Your heart is in the right place. But the real solution is not having someone step in with the fix. It’s having someone step in listen with support, to empathize. Once you know they get how you’re feeling, then it feels right to have them work with you to figure out what’s needed.

I want my kids and students to learn that there is no such thing as a good or bad emotion — that there is no shame in anger or fear. But that can only happen if I’m willing to make room for their distress. And in doing so, I have to fight the instinct to “fix the feeling” for them by jumping in with advice or distractions." ~Debra Kris

The message that all feelings are okay is one of the most challenging messages to follow through with — because we often feel our own feelings aren’t quite ok, and we work hard to squelch them. Which is not the message we want to pass along to our children. Children after all are emotional detectives, they pick up on our emotional cues and reactions. The better message is to show honesty with your emotions and let our kids know that all emotions are ok, it is what we do with those emotions that matter.  It is important to be aware of and understand your emotions, and how best to manage them, because only then can you be ready for the fix. And remember — being ok with the feelings doesn’t mean being ok with the behavior.

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