Read an Excerpt
It's hard to pinpoint the exact moment the change occurs. One day your otherwise sunny child is merely prone to the occasional nasty outburst, and the next a permanent storm cloud seems to have taken up residence over her head. Small social problems or household disagreements escalate into major battles that leave all participants wounded and wary. Your once predictable child has become more than temperamental; you never know when the next meltdown will occur or where. And the effort of trying to control these outbursts or avoid them at any cost may be impacting on how you deal with others in your family, social circle, and your child's school.
If you have a child whose anger and rage holds your family emotionally hostage, embarrasses you in public, or intimidates you and others with threats of violence or vicious comments, you know exactly what I'm talking about. It may come in the form of a toddler's tantrums or a teenager's tirade, in silent refusals or violent rage. Whichever form it takes, this anger is destroying our children and our families, and it's becoming epidemic.
You probably know how difficult it is to convince friends and family that your four or fourteen-year old is terrorizing your house. But it's true. Anger, especially out-of-control anger, is without a doubt one of the most demanding situations parents regularly face. Most children have occasional outbursts, but sooner rather than later they calm down and life goes on. A single outburst does not make "an angry child." Unchecked, however, continued anger is a sign that something is terribly wrong and must be addressed soon.
Does this mean that today's difficult four-year-old will turn into tomorrow's headline maker? Not at all. But parents need to know that unless the tide of anger is turned, an angry child will grow into the angry adult who perpetuates an unhealthy cycle of active abuse or passive aggression. It's never too early to start helping your child bring his or her anger under control. Adopting the strategies that follow will aid you in doing exactly that.
This book grew out of my work as a child psychologist. For over twenty years I've helped children understand their anger, working with both them and their families. During that time, I've seen that amazing turnarounds are possible. In this book I'll tell it as I've come to understand it, for while you might know an angry child or two, I've worked with hundreds of them. The good news is that most of them are delightful kids with bright futures. But they are at a crossroads, and often there's great urgency to helping them travel the correct path before they've gone too far astray.
As I reached for books to recommend for my patients, I found there were none I felt comfortable with. Some of the guidance was outdated. Some was skewed toward only the most violent children. Some was too research-oriented and lacked practical advice. Many books and mental health professionals still advocated old anger management methods, such as yelling or punching a pillow, while visualizing the image of the person with whom one might be upset. But as a parent, would you allow your son or daughter to play with matches and gasoline to satisfy a curiosity about fire? Why, then, would you allow your child to stage angry outbursts to let off steam?
The child who vents her anger by using bad language around the house, smashing toys, or unleashing her anger on others feels the false sense that "since I feel better when I let out my anger, this must be the right thing to do." She mistakes the feeling of relief for resolution. These are misguided methods of handling anger. They reinforce the idea that lashing out, disrespecting others while losing one's temper, are okay if you're angry. But it's never okay to lash out or attack when angry. Although it's sometimes okay to be angry, it's never okay to be mean. When you reinforce the connection between anger and a violent outburst, the child will surely attack aggressively the next time.
In 1999, Dr. Brad J. Bushman, an associate professor of psychology at Iowa State University, led a study on letting out aggression. (1) He and his colleagues described venting as poor practice. In layman's terms, this study's subjects who were given the message that hitting objects was an effective way of venting anger and then actually hit a punching bag were later more aggressive toward their rivals. It's a matter of displaced aggression, sometimes directed toward an innocent third party.
Venting, therefore, is not the solution I want to give parents, teachers, other therapists, and anyone else with a vested interest in teaching children that anger need not be a way of life. What they need are easy-to-follow strategies for coping with all the conflicts, both large and small, that arise each day. I'll show you how to fight fair when arguments arise, and how to administer discipline in such a way that a child's self-esteem remains intact. You'll find helpful methods for conquering the angry child's resistance to everyday chores and responsibilities without incurring their resentment, and ideas for ameliorating the effects of divorce on those caught in the cross fire. These strategies, together with a caring, involved parent, can douse the embers of a child's anger and eliminate the constant fear that the fire will rekindle at any moment.
I wrote this book to give parents and others a more comprehensive yet practical approach to handling anger. As you read it, you should get a better understanding of your child and your role in helping him or her cope with angry impulses. If you need to seek help beyond this book, your child's doctor may be your first stop for professional support. This book will help you formulate questions to ask yourself and the doctor: Has this reached the level where I need help? Is this more than just a prolonged bad mood? What can I do to help him change? Is there hope?
But true change takes work. It requires, first, understanding the genesis of an individual child's reservoir of anger and the specific ways in which it manifests itself. There is no single strategy that is right for every child and every family. (Since anger knows no gender boundaries, I'll try to interchange pronouns to reflect both boys and girls. Truly, the characteristics can apply to both.)
For some parents, working toward calming their child's anger will require a close examination of their own relationship with anger. I wish I could sugarcoat much of this material, but I cannot. From my perspective, I liken it to going to a medical doctor time and again with certain symptoms. If you finally found out there was something you were doing to cause or worsen your ailments, I'm sure you'd be frustrated that the doctor didn't share this with you at the first visit. I firmly believe most parents want only the best for their children, and they'd go to almost any lengths to ensure a happy future for them-even if it means altering their own behavior.
In my role as a member of the Pennsylvania State Senate, I've faced a broad range of social concerns affecting children and adults, not only in my home district but nationwide. There is a constant public outcry for a legislative fix for society's problems. Although I believe there may be times government can help, I feel even more strongly that the real solutions lie in strong families. The solutions do not come from the state house. Rather, they must come from everyone's house. Instead of making laws that affect children after they commit a crime, I'd like to see us solve some of these issues at the root level so that no child, no family, no community, must deal with the aftermath of rage.
When society fails to stop anger at its source, violence ensues. With this book, I hope those who care about children's anger will embrace new strategies. It takes practice, hard work, persistence, and, yes, time. Be patient. There is much hope. And if you struggle with persistent anger in your child, in yourself, or in your family, seek the help of a trained psychotherapist. This book may offer you tremendous insight, but it's in no way meant to replace the intervention of a professional.
In The Angry Child, I don't claim to have every answer. I can't even claim to be the perfect parent myself. Who can? I do think, however, that together we can harness the hysteria of news headlines and take some real ownership of anger in our world. The challenge of halting childhood anger may seem daunting, but if we get to the root of the problem, we can make important headway toward resolution.
How Angry Is Too Angry? Identifying an Angry Child
We've all seen them. The temperamental toddler whose seemingly unprovoked tantrums leave her desperate parents scrambling to appease her; the bossy preschooler who never learns to share toys or interact socially with other children or strangers; the sullen teen who regards any request as the first volley in a verbal world war of wills; the unhappy bully whose short fuse and violent reactions to conflict make him feared, friendless, and hopelessly lonely. Most of these children have all the creature comforts they require, and live in loving, supportive homes, yet for some inexplicable reason they feel that everything that happens to them is simply unfair. They start the day with a chip on their shoulders, and can erupt into full-blown rage over minor disappointments or imagined slights. These are children, in short, who are filled with rage that has no clear-cut genesis or cause.
Any parent knows what it feels like to be pushed to the edge by a child's actions or back talk. We've all been there after a hard day, left wondering if negotiating world peace would be a simpler task than getting our children to clear the table or finish their homework. And much of the time we're simply baffled by the force and frequency of these eruptions. Where, we ask ourselves, is all this anger and hostility coming from? Is it normal for my child to be so easily provoked and aggressive, to speak so disrespectfully, to lash out over the tiniest things-or nothing at all?
The answer, sadly, is no. A happy child with strong self-esteem and an optimistic outlook is not so quick on the draw; she's more likely to empathize with others and can apply better problem-solving skills to frustrating situations. So if you or your caregiver or your child's teachers have felt the heat of your child's anger more than just occasionally, there is indeed cause for concern.
Anger itself is not always the demon emotion others have made it out to be; children can and should be allowed to react angrily to injustices, just as adults do. But while it is not always inappropriate for a child to be angry, it is never appropriate for a child to be mean. An angry child tends to react to everyday disappointments in a way that is inappropriate-and brings discomfort to those around her.
Many things can cause a child to misbehave or act unkindly toward others. He may be frustrated, lonely, overwhelmed, or suffering some hurt feelings. The anger may stem from family problems (such as divorce, alcoholism, death in the family), social problems (loneliness, teasing from peers), school problems (learning difficulties, underachieving), or internal problems (such as depression). The anger can be a reaction to stress in the overwhelmed family, or can be the way the child learned to act in order to get what she wants.
Every parent has had to face an angry child at one time or another; an angry outburst is a common reaction to life's troubles. How a parent deals with this anger can mean the difference between raising a confident and pleasant child or an insecure and ornery one. And stemming the tide of anger before it becomes an engrained response to any adversity or friction that arises, can make the difference between a home that is happy and one that is fraught with tension and animosity.
Perhaps you feel (or hope) your child's angry behavior is just a phase that will disappear in time. Sadly, this is unlikely to be the case. In my experience anger is an emotion that generally grows stronger over time. Left unaddressed, it can lead to more serious problems, even violence. It can be a corrosive force within a family that harms not only the child herself, but those around her. For this reason, it's important to identify anger as early as possible and lay the groundwork for change at once.