Anger is actually a secondary emotion, the result of something else that has happened to us—like smashing your thumb with a hammer: it hurts, you get angry, and you yell. Anger manifests itself in your child when:
- He does something right to please you and you fail to notice. The child is hurt that he was not appreciated for his good effort and expresses that hurt with anger.
- He gets left out of a group at school and experiences rejection, loneliness, and disappointment. He may not take that anger out on friends, but when he gets home, guess who is the recipient of his blowup? Mom, Dad, sister, brother, dog, cat.
- A sibling uses a cutting remark to get back at him for borrowing something without asking. The remark hurts, so the child lashes back with a verbal barrage at the sibling and it escalates into a shouting match. The angry words are the result of the cutting comments.
Anger is almost always a response. When your child is angry you can help him understand what hurt him and work through that issue.
In some ways the most devastating type of anger results in behavior that doesn’t even look like anger. In his book, How to Really Love Your Teenager, Ross Campbell writes, “Passive-aggressive (PA) behavior causes most problems with today’s teenagers, from poor grades to drugs on to suicide. Tragically, if a teenager does not learn to handle anger maturely and grow out of the PA stage by the age of 16 or 17, this trait will harden and become a permanent part of his or her personality for life.”
If you are to choose between allowing your preadolescent or teenager to express anger openly and loudly or to stuff it, it seems preferable to err on the side of letting your child release too much anger. As Campbell notes, young people who do not express their anger are in far greater jeopardy than those who express it.
Passive anger is deceptive, because it seems easier to tolerate than the behavior of a child who screams and throws a fit. But it’s a pay-now-or-pay-later proposition. All anger that is not identified and addressed will bear bitter fruit later in obstinate attitudes, irrational behavior to punish parents or other authority figures, physical symptoms, or depression.
If your child seldom expresses anger openly, pay close attention to how he responds in situations that would normally provoke disappointment, anger, or frustration.
The time to address anger in a child is not in the midst of an argument or heated words. You may need to give your teenager some time to cool off or to remind him to choose his words carefully. “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1).
A child who is full of anger and is expressing it wrongly is like a mud wrestler. A parent must stay outside the ring, remaining as objective and loving as possible. When a parent joins the child in slinging mud emotionally and irrationally, he has stepped in and become a mud wrestler, too.
We have concluded that God must want us parents to repeatedly train our children in conflict management, because a good bit of the New Testament speaks of maintaining relationships. Additionally, most people, regardless of age, do not seem to know how to manage anger and resolve conflict skillfully with another person.
If the red oil light starts blinking on your car’s dashboard, you don’t pull out a sledgehammer and beat the light to pieces. You pull off the side of the road and deal with the core issue by adding oil.
That’s how anger should be handled in a conflict. Anger should be wisely seen as the red light telling you that something is wrong—unmet expectations, hurt, disappointment, and so on. We need to train our children to pull off to the side and clearly ascertain the problem and then address the core issue.
Dr. Ross Campbell, whom we quoted earlier in this article, has been our guest on the radio broadcast FamilyLife Today. Ross has years of experience in dealing with issues between parents and children and has said more than once during interviews that he believes strongly that one of the most mismanaged, misunderstood emotions in young people today is anger. He believes that most parents are squelching their children and not appropriately letting them express their anger.
Parents need to talk about anger as a couple and discuss what will be considered good and bad anger in their home. (In our family, inappropriate expressions of anger include physically harming another child, using words that threaten to bring emotional damage to another child, or showing disrespect to a parent.)
Hammer out your boundaries by grappling with these questions:
- Can anger be expressed in your home?
- Are children allowed to be angry? If so, what is your definition of appropriate anger? When has that expression of anger gone too far?
- Will children be allowed to withdraw from conflicts and never deal with their anger and the conflict?
- Will children be allowed to express anger by passively ignoring the commands of a parent or the request of a sibling?
As your children step too far and go beyond your boundaries, use these opportunities to teach them how they should have handled their anger in the situation. This repetitious training is tiresome at times, but as your teenager moves into adulthood, he will be able to express himself honestly in relationships.
Adapted from Parenting Today’s Adolescent: Helping Your Child Avoid the Traps of the Preteen and Teen Years. Copyright 1998 by Dennis and Barbara Rainey. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson, Inc., Publishers.