Some psychologists argue that anger is a secondary emotion – a behavioral expression that is rooted in a core emotion of fear or grief. The idea is that when overwhelmed by one of those vulnerable emotions, it’s easier to express that as anger than get lost in those feelings.
Next time your child is angry, it may be helpful for you to remember this and to ask yourself: what’s behind the anger – is the child afraid of something or sad about something? Addressing the underlying emotion can sometimes be the key to resolving the angry behavior. Let me share a story:
Recently, our four year old was angry. The angriest he’s ever been. Shaking with anger. Yelling so loud I’m sure all the neighbors heard, and hitting and scratching. It was only for a couple minutes, but it sure felt longer than that!
It could have been tempting in the moment to scold him or punish him for his bad behavior. It would have been easy to be angry right back. That would have just escalated the situation. Understanding and acknowledging the context of his anger helped us to resolve it and move forward in a positive way. Here’s the full story:
It was a Friday night at the end of a very busy week for both my husband and I. We’d been swamped with work, and not paying as much attention to our son as usual. It was an hour past his bedtime. Why was he still up? Because I was so busy trying to get a project done for the next day that I hadn’t really been thinking about his schedule. I let him watch videos, which we usually don’t do at night, because it makes bedtime harder. He was tired and hungry. We were tired and stressed. He had just watched a video of Cat in the Hat, singing Calculatus Eliminatus, which shows the Cat recommending that when you lose something, you walk around the house and write numbers on all the places that it is not located. Our son was talking about going around the house and writing on furniture and walls and such. We were, distractedly, telling him that wasn’t a good idea, and no, he wasn’t allowed to do that.
Then suddenly he ran into the kitchen where I was working, and scribbled on the cherry-wood kitchen cabinets with a black permanent magic marker.
I yelled. My husband yelled.
My son yelled back. He was angry! He was a seething mass of four year old fury.
We told him he could not draw on the house and it was not OK. He got angrier. He was hitting and trying to hurt.
I held his wrists, telling him that hurting me is not OK. He got angrier.
Instead of getting angry back, I took a breath and thought, and then said to him “You are really really mad because you were really really scared, is that right?”
Immediately, the fists went down, the tears welled up. I said “It was really really scary to you when Daddy and I yelled at you, wasn’t it?” He sank down to the floor and started crying. I sat on the floor and held him, and we talked about being scared and we apologized for scaring him. We also apologized that we had been so busy and stressed all week, and acknowledged that was hard for him.
But we didn’t change any rules. We still stuck to and reiterated the limits that it’s not OK to draw on the house and it’s not OK to hit people. We talked about the idea of permanent markers and only using them on things like paper, not on permanent things like furniture. We said we understood that the Cat in the Hat game looked fun, and suggested that we could do it by writing numbers on post-it notes and putting those on the doors and the furniture, but that we never write on furniture.
When he was calmed down, I took him to bed, and read I Love You Forever, a sweet book about how even when kids drive parents crazy in the moment, they still love them forever.
He was asleep five minutes later.
It was about 15 minutes after the blow-up. My husband had managed to get the marker off the cabinet. But more importantly, the emotional explosion was also resolved, and the relationship restored.
The name of this blog is More Good Days. It ties into my philosophy of “we’re going to have good days as parents and we’re going to have bad days when we really screw it up…. in the end, we hope for more good days than bad.” This episode was a few minutes of really bad parenting following a week of mediocre parenting. But, in the end, it was a positive resolution, based on understanding and acknowledging his feelings. In the end, it was a good day.
To learn more about children’s emotions and our own, check out these posts:
Is It OK to get Angry? Focuses on understanding a child’s anger and accepting their feelings, but placing appropriate limits on behavior.
Parental Anger: a multi-post series on preventing parental meltdowns, coping with them when they happen, fighting with your partner in front of your child, and resolving these issues and moving on.