Coping with explosive anger
Children suffering from anger issues experience added distress. Help them – and yourself – through understanding, and therapeutic techniques.
Anger management is often associated with adults trying to address their flaring tempers or violent outbursts, but many children also struggle to understand and cope with anger. Joanna Kleovoulou, clinical psychologist and founder of Joburg-based PsychMatters Wellness Centre, offers advice on how both you and your child can learn to understand and address their ‘explosive anger’ together.
Why do some children lash out?
All children throw tantrums or have angry outbursts occasionally, but if your child often reacts by aggressively snapping or expressing angry behaviour disproportionate to the situation, they may be dealing with explosive anger.
According to Joanna, US studies suggest 25-40% of boys and 10-28% of girls aged between two and five years are rated by their preschool teachers as having moderate to high levels of aggression. In South Africa the prevalence
is estimated to be much higher, given the high level of violence and crime rates as well as socio-economic factors.
Joanna explains the importance of trying to find the root of the problem, rather than simply reacting to their anger. She suggests viewing your child’s behaviour as goal-directed: ‘Are they seeking a need, trying to express something, or displaying a condition to be addressed? Your child’s explosive behaviour could be multifaceted,’ she says, explaining there are various potential explanations or catalysts for their behaviour. They may be experiencing one or a combination of these issues:
Diagnosable physiological disorders such as hypoglycaemia, low cholesterol, hypothyroidism, viral infections, concussion, high testosterone or environmental toxins.
A mental disorder, for example a type of epilepsy, ADHD, depression, bipolar disorder, conduct disorder, untreated trauma, autism, sensory processing problems or cognitive impairment.
A lack of communication skills to properly express their frustrations in a healthy way. ‘It has been documented that children with expressive language delays are four times more likely to be aggressive,’ Joanna explains.
Biochemical imbalance, for example, serotonin assists in regulating mood, sleep and appetite. Dopamine assists in impulse control, motivation and cognitive functioning. Other neurotransmitters, such as glutamate, affect hyperactivity, mood, aggressive behaviour and irritability, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) calms behaviours, anxiety and aggression, and regulates mood.
Genetic factors have been strongly associated with the development of physical aggression in toddlers. Joanna explains, ‘One of our most important jobs as parents is to help our children regulate their feelings, and they do this through mirroring. When children get upset, parents should help them work through and soothe their agitation, not inflame it.’
How should you handle an outburst?
Identify the cause.
Take time to listen and identify the context of your child’s anger. Was it triggered by hunger, tiredness, or pain? Although you may feel annoyed or frustrated at their behaviour, don’t lash out – address the reason for their anger and ensure their safety. Joanna advises that tantrums between the ages of two and eight are normal, and you can try a firm hug to calm them. She cautions that young children shouldn’t be isolated after or during an outburst, as they don’t have the necessary skills to soothe themselves and may feel abandoned.
Allow them space.
For older kids and teens, a time-out tactic may be more effective. Allow them space to think through the situation and give them time to deliberate their actions and choices. When you do directly address your child regarding their behaviour, it’s important to stay calm and regulate your feelings, as this models emotional control, advises Joanna. Engaging calmly and maintaining a reassuring presence will help to diffuse a meltdown, and demonstrate to your child how they should be behaving.
Stay calm and listen.
‘The first thing you need to do is acknowledge their feelings. It’s important to respond to anger and aggression in a caring manner instead of with anger. Set the rules then give them choices. You want your child to know they’re loved unconditionally, without shaming them,’ says Joanna. Make sure you’re truly listening to your child’s responses.
‘Perhaps they’re stressed, or may not understand boundaries. They might not have been given appropriate choices with consequences previously. Never label your child as this will just break their self-esteem,’ she advises.
It’s also helpful to remember that when your child is displaying explosive anger, the higher cortical-thinking centres of the brain are not functioning normally. You can help by giving your child words to anchor their experience, such as ‘I can see you’re feeling angry right now, I’m going to help you calm down.’ Other calming strategies Joanna suggests are:
- Teaching breathing techniques and other calming tools
- Listening to music
- Taking a shower
- Hitting a punch bag
- Going for a bike ride
Family therapy and social skills programmes could also be beneficial, as well as visiting a paediatrician to check for
A cycle of aggression
‘Psychopathology stems from adults not being able to control or manage their feelings. Research shows that kids who are repeatedly smacked become more likely to be physically aggressive and are increasingly vulnerable to mental health conditions,’ says Joanna. This cyclical behaviour may continue into adulthood, as, she explains, ‘40% of adult violent behaviour begins before the age of 8’.
Dealing with your emotions and responses
When your kids lash out, they’ll inevitably push some of your buttons or say hurtful things. It’s important to gather yourself and not respond in anger, as this could be harmful to your child during their formative years and start a cycle of anger that continues into adulthood.
‘Each one of us enters adulthood wounded in some way from our childhood, and our partners and children will trigger those wounds. It’s important to begin your own healing, as unprocessed trauma is often re-enacted in your present life, potentially transferring an intergenerational defective pattern to your children,’ explains Joanna. Losing control in front of or in response to your child could have disastrous repercussions. ‘You represent the primary source of love, comfort, care, nurturance, and sense of safety for your child. Their sense of self is moulded through your actions and words.
When you speak or treat your partner and/or child disrespectfully, it has a profound negative impact on the psyche, chipping away at their sense of self.’ Children who are met with aggression from parents are at higher risk of depression, unhealthy relationships and substance abuse later in life. Remind yourself that your child is still learning and they might not know the rules before they break them, so set limits and boundaries.
Joanna advises that you make a commitment never to act while you’re angry. Remove yourself and find a space where you can calm down before responding, if you need to. ‘Creating self-awareness is the first step to change – it’ll help you channel your self-control and shift your internal state. Remember to take deep breaths – in those moments you create space for another choice,’ she says. Importantly, you don’t need to pretend you’re not affected by their behaviour. Be honest, let them know you’re feeling too angry to talk about the situation right now, and that you’re going to take a time-out and calm down.
Joanna says, ‘Know you’re not alone, and remember to take care of your own wellbeing. This isn’t a selfish act, as you need to be a healthy, present adult to be a good parent.’ If your child’s angry behaviour persists or if you feel under stress, contact PsychMatters Centre on 011 450 3576 or [email protected]
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