Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Helping your Child to Manage Anger

by Elizabeth Campbell, MS, LPC

One of the most beautiful aspects of parenting is your relationship with your child.  In this relationship, you are an attachment figure, and are responsible for shaping a child’s life in many ways.  Attachment influences identity, self-esteem, future relationships, and emotional regulation.  In other words, your child learns from their relationship with you how to calm themselves down when they feel intense emotions.  Often adults immediately go to behavioral means to manage troubling behaviors that come with anger, and although structure is imperative for a child’s development, the parent-child relationship is the foundation for change.

One of the ways that children develop so rapidly in their early years is through modeling.  They utilize mirror neurons within the attachment relationship as a means to grow.  Awareness of these mirror neurons in parenting can be extremely helpful.  The phrase, “actions speak louder than words,” is very accurate in parenting!  Modeling is the most effective way for your child to learn from you.  Therefore, if you use self-care by going to the gym, meditating, spending time with friends, baking, etc., you are providing an excellent model for a child to learn how to regulate themselves.  Controlling anger is not just in the moment, it is a practice of regulating stress overall.  The opposite is also true.  If you are struggling with taking care of yourself and juggling the demands of family, your child sees that and learns from it.  In prioritizing your own self-care, you are also prioritizing your child’s emotional health.  This can be done as an activity to also foster attachment and your relationship with your child.  Self-care can be a family activity such as a family nature walk or sharing a hobby with your child.

Mindfulness is another great skill to teach your child for general emotional regulation and anger management.  This can take many forms.  This may be creating a “comfort corner” in which various senses are stimulated.  For instance, there may be a comfy blanket, a book, calming music, a scented lotion, or a stuffed animal.  A child can visit this corner not just when upset, but frequently to again lower their overall stress level.  Another option is a mindful scavenger hunt, where a child notices things via their senses around them.  A final mindful tool that is very effective with anger management is deep breathing.  Children can learn to take deep belly breaths by putting a stuffed animal on their stomach while laying down, then making it move up and down with their inhales and exhales.  There are also fun breaths such as balloon breath, where a child “blows up” like a balloon with their inhale then exhales like a balloon letting go of its air. 

Another important part of teaching our children anger management is our response to their anger.  Garry Landreth’s Child Parent Relational Training advocates that parents act as a thermostat rather than a thermometer.  You set the temperature rather than reacting to them.  When adults react to anger with anger, the emotionality of the situation increases exponentially.  If you respond calmly and set consistent limits, the child begins to learn parameters and how to regulate themselves. 

By interacting with your child in a ways that demonstrate effective means of regulating your own emotions, modeling self-care, and teaching skills in fun ways, you can set your child up to independently regulate themselves.  Your relationship and your interactions with your child are building blocks for change.

The Anger of Unmet Needs

by Kim Vargas, LCSW

Why does a particular situation bring up anger for one person, and a laugh for someone else? Why is it that some people respond to the words of others with fury, and others can just shrug it off? The answer is two-fold: Each person has different perceptions of any given situation, based on his/her own history, background, and upbringing. In addition, each individual has unique needs that must be met in order for that person to operate optimally. When perception combines with each individual’s needs, interpretations of a situation differ, leading to very different reactions.

When a person perceives that his/her needs remain unmet, feelings of anxiety, loneliness, fear, sadness, and shame develop. Unfortunately, we are not always aware of these underlying feelings, known as the “primary emotions”.  Instead, the conscious manifestation of unmet needs is often a feeling of anger, which is actually the secondary emotion. To visualize this idea of primary and secondary emotions, picture an iceberg with only anger peeking out at the top.  The anger is the tip of the iceberg, and it’s often all that we see. However, this is only a small part of the entire iceberg. The rest of the iceberg, which consists of the primary emotions, lies beneath the surface and is often more difficult to see.  Once primary emotions are identified, unmet needs become evident.  

In 1943, Abraham Maslow proposed a hierarchy of needs that starts with the basic physiological necessities including food, water, shelter, and clothing, and goes on to include the needs for safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. 

When any of these needs remain unmet, two things may happen.  The first is that we are generally at higher risk to feel anger.  For example, if our need for food and sleep is currently unmet, our coping mechanisms may diminish in that moment. The second result is that long-term unmet needs lower our anger threshold and make us more prone to angry feelings and behaviors. For example, a person who lives in an emotionally and physically unsafe environment suffers from many primary emotions, including fear, loneliness, and anxiety.  As a result, that person experiences important unmet needs on a daily basis. These needs for safety, companionship, and lowered stress frequently manifest as a shortened fuse and quick anger.

There is some great news in all of this: When used to its best advantage, anger feelings are an excellent warning mechanism alerting us to the fact that a need is not being met, a primary emotion needs attention, and action is required to remedy the situation.  Once we grasp the true root of the anger, it is easier to address the actual cause rather than just responding to what appears on the surface. Understanding your needs in any situation increases the likelihood of a productive, rather than destructive, response.