Anger is human. It is in the interest of self-protection and self-assertion and it is also potentially destructive and self-defeating. As with other emotions, anger is initially and fundamentally a subjective experience. Your child feels angry. This is the experience of anger. In general, the experience of anger in children should not in any way be interfered with. It is, rather, the expression of anger with which parenting is concerned.
What sets off anger in children? Basically, anger in children is set off in the same way and for the same reasons as anger in adults. They become angry when things are not the way they want them to be, when things do not happen the way they want them to happen, or when they feel they are being interfered with. This is primary anger. In general, their anger continues until they get what they want and in the way they want it.
This natural state of affairs cannot continue throughout life. Children cannot always have things the way they want them, when they want them, and in exactly the form they want them. Fortunately, both the experience and the expression of anger have several interesting characteristics enabling children to get beyond this natural state of affairs and allow them to become both civilized and specialized. First, the experience of anger varies from a little to a lot, depending on the circumstances. Next, the initial intensity of anger, high or low, tends to either increase or decrease over time. Thus, the experience of anger can start at a low level and intensify over time with relatively little change in what is causing the anger.
The experience of anger can also start at a fairly extreme level but diminish over time even when there is very little change in what is evoking the anger. For example, a three-year- old is building a tower with blocks and finally gets the structure so high it falls over. Her immediate reaction is intense anger. When nothing happens with the scattered blocks after two or three minutes, she settles down. Clearly, the anger which she initially experienced has diminished.
Can you just ignore your children when they become angry, and assume the anger will go away? In fact, here is what likely happens. Your child gradually no longer experiences anger or does so only occasionally. At the extreme, your child becomes lethargic and almost totally passive, experiencing little if any anger, having an almost total sense of futility and powerlessness, and showing almost no self-assertiveness or autonomy. At the other extreme is a child whose anger always evokes the desired response. Getting angry becomes a nearly guaranteed way to get what he wants. This child learns to experience anger more quickly and more intensely and to express anger more vigorously more often. Getting angry becomes a way of life. Clearly, either extreme (lethargy and powerlessness, or anger as a way of life) is unacceptable for developing children, or adults for that matter. The goal of parenting is to strike a happy medium.
The goal of anger is to modify circumstances – power. Does your child have the power to modify things? For example, your infant may become angry when he becomes uncomfortable from lying on his back too long and is not sleepy. Turning him over onto his stomach or picking him up may make him more comfortable and less angry. (Do be sure he is not left to sleep on his stomach.) Once he has the power to turn himself over, he no longer has to lie on his back and get angry. Having or not having the power to control one’s environment is, then, the operative factor in anger.
Temper tantrums exemplify the expression of anger. It is desirable for your child to experience anger and frustration to motivate him to develop the power to change his world. Your child needs to learn when and how to express his anger, while at the same time developing abilities which help him control things that make him angry. For example, two children are playing checkers and a dispute develops. Both children must learn having temper tantrums, breaking the checkerboard, throwing the checkers, or hitting the other child are not acceptable expressions of anger. It’s alright to be angry but there are acceptable and unacceptable ways of expressing the anger.
One of your children may have already learned something about using power in situations like this. At an unacceptable level, he may have learned threatening to quit is a good way to get his own way. In a more acceptable manner, he may have learned to defer to written directions, a parent or older brother or sister. At an even more advanced level of exercising power, he may have learned to say, “Let’s flip a coin to see who’s right.” Converting the experience of anger into the effective exercise of power has become fairly sophisticated.
As a parent, then, your task is not to deal with the experience of anger but rather to deal with the expression of anger to help your child learn to exercise power over his world. How do you do this? You begin by selectively responding to certain expressions of anger and not to others. For your infant, you consistently respond to expressions of anger when they seem related to discomfort, pain, hunger, or other physical needs. By the time your infant is a few months old, though, you respond less immediately. About the same time, you begin to refrain from always responding to your babys desire to be rocked to sleep, to be held and carried around, and so on. Your child soon learns there is little point in having a temper tantrum over being left in the crib alone at night. The same principle applies to expressions of anger in children of all ages. “You can continue being angry but you might as well settle down because I am not going to do anything just this minute about what is making you angry.”
Your next level of response to unacceptable expressions of anger in your children is negative discipline. The temper tantrum or expression of anger (from your child’s perspective) is expected to lead to desirable results. If a tantrum leads to negative consequences, your child typically gives up expressing anger in this way. You might, for example, make your child sit on a chair, go to her room, or do something else she does not want to do. She learns temper tantrums lead to these unwanted consequences. Over time, she either finds better ways of expressing the anger, comes up with more useful ways of dealing with the situation, or stops experiencing anger about the specific situation or circumstances. Negative discipline is never appropriate for children until they are old enough to begin to understand the relationship between their behavior and your reaction. As a rule of thumb, this understanding does not begin to develop until children are starting to crawl and then it develops only gradually.
Unacceptable expressions of anger such as hitting, kicking, throwing things, and refusing to cooperate can occasionally be ignored and occasionally linked to negative consequences. Whether to ignore or link with negative consequences depends a lot on your individual temperament, how unacceptable the behavior is, how quickly it needs to be stopped, and so on. Most parents develop a good balance. Parents who always link the behavior with negative consequences or always ignore it are not responsibly dealing with the complexity and variability of children or situations. Whatever your preference, do not go to extremes. For example, do not wait until you are yourself angry before dealing with the situation. Your having a tantrum as a reaction to your child’s behavior is always inappropriate and sets a very bad example.
Many times, neither ignoring your child’s behavior nor linking the behavior with negative consequences is appropriate. Your child needs to learn how to do things, how to express himself or herself, how to cause things to happen, how to change situations and circumstances. For instance, your child needs to learn about experiencing and using power. If your children playing checkers get into a fight or start throwing the checkers, firmly insist they settle down and stop being destructive. In addition, you might suggest the possibility of taking turns or looking up the rules. Alternatives to unsocialized expressions of anger may not occur to children spontaneously. This is where you help them develop new skills, encourage them to look at alternative ways of dealing with the situation, help them to slow down so things may work out the way they want them to.
In general, then, the experience of anger in children is natural and healthy. do nothing to interfere with this. The expression of anger in children represents an attempt to exercise power over the environment or is a reaction to having one’s power thwarted. When children are expressing anger you can do one of four things:
You can give in (meet their need or do what they want you to do).
You can give up (do nothing and simply ignore their expressions of anger).
You can give them consequences (respond with negative discipline).
You can give them help (teach them how to express themselves more acceptably or how to get things to work out the way they want them to).
Which alternative you choose depends on your child, the situation, what is wanted or needed, and how developmentally ready your child is to deal with the world differently. When your child is behaving in an unacceptable way, encourage certain responses while discouraging others. Temper tantrums and undesirable or unacceptable expressions of anger are forms of behavior to be discouraged. You can then use a mix of the four types of responses.