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Understanding Anger in Kids

I am currently reading a book on Leadership by Laurie Beth Jones, and she gives very helpful examples to illustrate how Leadership is discovered, practiced and developed. In one of the chapters, she discusses the importance of expressing yourself and the results of doing so from a leadership perspective. But, what does that have to do with anger, you ask? In the book, she gives an example I would like to share with you to perfectly explain anger and how it is not often what you think.

In several of my other posts, I have discussed the impact of Reflecting Feelings and how kids will often express Physical Symptoms when the issue is actually emotional. Emotions are a crucial element to relating to children, helping children communicate and children learning how to express themselves. Which brings us back to the book.

In the book, Jones tells a story about one of her close friends who is a probation officer in a juvenile prison filled with gang members. Her friend tells her that those kids “seem to know only two emotions, rage and loyalty.” Her goal is to teach them that there is a broad spectrum of emotions that they can allow themselves to feel and then identify. It then goes on to tell of Jimmy, who was always talking about how angry he was. When she finally confronted him about whether of not he was truly angry or just disappointed, he realized it was disappointment. Jones then makes the argument that being unable to accurately express real emotion is a catalyst for anger and violence.

I found that entire story very interesting for several reasons. First, I felt like a broken record at my practice explaining to parents that kids do not have the verbal or cognitive ability to understand and communicate feelings until the age of twelve or so. I also talked about how it is a learning process for kids to do so, and it doesn’t happen without practice and encouragement. So, we often think that once kids can talk, they should be able to tell us what they are feeling, but that isn’t always the case. In the case of the gang members, they learned to express only certain feelings, but were inept at identifying others.

Second, it does not surprise me that she had to use a feeling chart to get Jimmy to see that disappointment was related to, but not the same as, anger. In a course I teach at USF, I talk heavily about the relationship between different feelings, all at once connected and separate. One of the tools that I love to use for a visual representation is this Feelings Cone (to the right). Notice how there is a gradient of strength of the emotion. Also, there are emotional dyads and triads that are interconnected (such as anger and disgust, or anger, disgust and sadness).

Finally, I agree with Jones that the inability to recognize and talk about feelings leads to maladaptive (and often aggressive) behavior. Based on my experience with families in my practice, children will exhibit anger more predominantly than any other emotion. Parents will often tell me that their child is mean, argumentative, or displaying an attitude much of the time. However, I usually discover that the child is feeling a negative emotion, easily displayed with anger.

Negative emotions tend to work in tandem with each other. So, sadness blends with disappointment. Frustration pairs with boredom. Fear accompanies anger. Interestingly, though, anger is the only negative feeling that doesn’t also imply vulnerability. You can be angry and feel in control and powerful; any other emotion means weakness. As as result, kids will often mask what they are really feeling with anger, coupled with their lack of skill to really define what is going on.

From this point forward, you now can analyze what your child is demonstrating and decide if they really are angry, or if that doesn’t really make sense based on the situation. Once you learn to identify what they are really feeling (read the other articles linked above for examples of how to do that), they will begin to build an emotional vocabulary. This new base upon which they can build understanding of their feelings will help them to better explain what they are experiencing, and learn that it is okay to be sad, scared, hurt or let down. Anger will no longer be the go-to feeling!

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