How to Create Healthier Anger in Your Children
Andrea Brandt Ph.D. M.F.T. | My Soul
Anger often makes us uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable to witness and uncomfortable to feel. Witnessing your child’s anger can be especially uncomfortable. In order to relieve this feeling, parents will often encourage children to “stop crying” and say things like “it’s nothing to cry about.” It’s moments like these that plant the seeds of unhealthy anger.
The “stop crying” parent is just doing what they were taught by their own parents, who were probably taught that by their parents, and on and on. While telling your child to “stop crying” isn’t emotional child abuse per se, your child may still need help with depression,addiction, or other issues later in life. This cycle can be stopped, however, if we learn how to create healthier anger in our kids, and in ourselves.
To understand why stuffing emotions away is unhealthy, think of emotions like they are physical wounds. When you cut your finger, your body knows to tighten blood vessels and release white blood cells. In order to let your cut finger heal, you’ve got to let the body’s natural process work. Like the body, the psyche knows what needs to happen to heal emotional wounds. To let your mind heal, you’ve got to let yourself go through a healing process as well. If you don’t let yourself heal, whenever a similar event happens in your life, the old emotions will emerge and cause you pain. Until you learn to examine your feelings, retrieve their messages, and let them go, they’ll act like cuts that never close.
When we find our anger too uncomfortable to process and let go, we set that model for our children to copy. If a child never sees his or her parent express anger, the parent teaches that child that they, too, should never express anger. Or, if a parent always expresses their anger loudly and hurtfully, or there is a violent relationship between parents, the child may start to think of anger as something that is always frightening.
The first thing you can do to create healthier anger in your children is to practice creating healthier anger in yourself. Try mindfulness exercises to start feeling more comfortable being angry. It’s our resistance to anger that often makes our anger worse. Once you’re better at experiencing anger and expressing it in a healthy way – a way that isn’t passive-aggressive or an explosion of rage – you’ll be able to model a good anger style for your kids.
Some kids deal with anger by creating a “false self”: a child who is perfect for their parents. If you still use this coping skill as an adult, the result can be catastrophic. Inside a false self, you become separated from your true feelings. While you never express anger openly, the “true you” inside has to deal with all those repressed emotions. People who have developed a false self are often passive aggressive and seem shallow because they’ve tucked away all the feelings that would give them depth and character.
Preventing kids from expressing their feelings may also create shame. While you feel guiltwhen you think you’ve done something wrong, you feel shame when you believe you yourself are wrong. Children can’t separate their feelings from their self-image, so when they express their feelings and are told that it’s “nothing to cry about,” they come to the conclusion that they themselves are bad.
How do we keep kids from creating false selves or from believing that they should be ashamed of their feelings? We need to raise them in an environment where it’s safe to express feelings. Once you feel more comfortable with your own anger, you can teach your children why anger is a helpful emotion. When your kid expresses anger, help them examine what it is that has made them angry. Why did it make them angry? How did it do that? Then, you can teach them that while emotions are never wrong and are always valid, our expressions of our emotions are within our control.
Parenting styles that teach children to stuff their anger creates adults who are bursting at the seams with repressed emotions. People who are afraid of their own anger will never learn how to listen to what their anger is trying to tell them. Instead of teaching our kids that their anger is wrong, that “happy families” are never angry, or that all feelings of anger lead to violence and fear, we can teach our children that anger is ok. Anger is natural, it is normal, and it can be experienced and expressed in a healthy way.