The Dynamics of Anger in Children
Author: Lynne Namka, Ed. D.
A large group of our young people suffer from emotional and behavioral problems. Studies indicate that between 17% to 22% of youth under age 18 suffer from emotional and behavioral problems. This means that between 11 million to 14 million children are at risk for emotional impairment. A majority of these children have difficulty in handling anger and act out in violence and intolerance.
Expression of hostility without problem solving creates more hostility for the child and ends up with peer rejection. Habitual, hostile expression of anger perpetuates an environment that is unhealthy for all involved. Venting anger only turns up the heat and keeps it flaming through justification of the right to be angry. The angry person may feel better for a short time after raging but underneath he often feels worse for losing his cool. Or he may hold on to his anger rationalizing it to himself and others in an attempt to maintain his right to behave in violent ways.
Anger and Social Skill Deficits
Children who are habitually angry typically suffer from skill deficits. They have missed learning some of the basic skills in getting along with others. They misinterpret social situations that are ambiguous and respond with aggressive behavior. They have a set of beliefs that emphasize retaliation. They may erroneously believe that self righteous expression of anger is healthy. Habitually angry children have not learned to put themselves in others’ shoes and see things from other people’s perspective. They have not learned the skill of consequential thinking. They do not know how to break into their rigid thinking and cannot stop making judgments about others. They have strong “shoulds” for others and get upset when others do not follow their wishes. They blame others for their problems and do not take responsibility for their own actions. They cannot allow themselves to see that they are at fault for some of their problems.
Individuals who get upset daily over many small things have a one-response perspective on life. Their belief is that “I want what I want when I want it and can do whatever it takes to get it! I have the right to get angry over every little thing. It is right for me to be angry and express it any way that I want. I have a right to have it my way.” They have destructive entitlement beliefs that keep them convinced that others must conform to their wishes. They believe that the world “owes them” because they are “special.” Since the world rarely goes the way they want, they are continually disappointed and become more angry. Their negative self talk convinces them that it is horrible when things do not happen the way that they want it to be.
Some angry children are internalizers–they take negative things inside and are secretly angry. They are not comfortable in letting others know how they feel. They rarely talk about or express their anger directly to others. Their belief is “I must be the nice guy and can’t let you know how angry I really am.” They develop physical symptoms due to the stuffing of the anger. Anger can be directed inwardly or outwardly. In either case the person is caught in behavior that alienates him from others.
Parental Styles and Children’s Anger
Parenting styles that often correspond with children’s excessive anger are “giving too much” or “giving too little.” The “giving too much” parent tries to meet the child’s every need. This results in the child believing that the world revolves around them. Children who are spoiled by their parents often grow up believing that they should get everything they want and they have the right to be angry if they do not get it. This parenting style results in a high demand child who has a sense of entitlement from others. He does not learn to deal with inner frustration and delay gratification. At a deep level, what the spoiled child really wants is parents who consistently set limits, say no in a loving manner and give him attention when he acts appropriately. Not being given limits and structure, he is angry.
The “giving too little” parent is self involved and does not nurture the child. The parent may be cold and rejecting, due to being involved with addictions or be an angry person himself. The parent may be busy and self involved and literally is never at home for the child. The unwanted child grows up feeling neglected, rejected and abandoned. Every day he must contend with feelings of desperation, being misunderstood, frustration, fear, loss, grief and betrayal. The child cannot express his anger because he fears that his parent might reject him further.
The child who has been heavily criticized and abused by a parent often grows up believing “damned if I do and damned if I don’t.” This type of child feels that he is not worthy of getting his needs met and feels shame for not measuring up to what his parent expects of him even though it may be irrational. The child who suffers from verbal and physical abuse is angry about this injustice. His hostility towards others is displaced anger. Acting out can be an unconscious attempt to make his parents give him what he wants. If aggression and violence are modeled in the home, the child learns that coercion is associated with power and getting one’s own way.
Life’s Injustices Set the Stage for Perception of Threat and Aggressive Behavior
Children can learn aggression through watching someone else engage in it. Gerald Patterson’s Coercion Model of aggression suggests that parents who lack parenting skills unwittingly train their children to be noncompliant and act in antisocial ways. Poor parental discipline skills and coercive management practices cause escalation of child-parent conflict and increase children’s aggression. The child and parents elicit negative behavior from each other. There is lack of choice in the coercive family–there is one message “Do what the most powerful member of the family dictates.” Children feel helpless and sense the lack of justice and live under conditions of threat.
The angry child perceives threat in situations that are unclear. He retaliates with impulsive anger thus distancing his classmates. He distorts what he sees and perceives injustice in small things which others would overlook. Peers’ hostile comments only convince him that his beliefs of threat are valid. He ends up being rejected and isolated from his peers. Cut off from friends who can provide positive models of behavior, he feels lonely and discouraged. He feels the world is against him. Again his choices become limited. His cycle of perceptual distortions and aggressive behavior continues.
The aggressive child may have experienced a childhood where his early dependency needs were not met. The child whose needs were not met by his parents feels the lack inside. He feels “owed” on an unconscious level. He focuses on issues of “It’s not fair” because unconsciously he felt what happened to him was not fair. And, in a sense, he was “owed” because he missed out on basic nurturing and love. In later years the child goes through life trying to get others to make up for what his parents did not provide. He has limited skills and tools to interact with people. Since he cannot gain acceptance and friendships from others, he learns to substitute irrational anger, cruelty to others, addictive substances, workaholic behavior or material objects to fill his neediness.
The habitually angry child reacts continuously to perceived small injustices in daily life. In effect, he is saying to other people, “You owe me. Pay up!” He can’t get what he wants from his parents so he tries to get it from other people. Symbolically, continual anger can be a covert statement to his parents, “It is not fair. Give me my basic needs. Pay attention to me or I will hurt someone.” People who are revengeful generally have a belief of entitlement of “I have a right to be angry and get back at the person. I have a right to hold on to my anger even though it hurts me.” As the old proverb says, angry children seem to cut off their nose to spite their face. Grudges seem to run in families with some individuals feeling pride about staying angry and being hard-headed.
Children’s Violence and the Unwillingness to Feel Vulnerable
Authorities believe that violence and abuse within a family takes place because the dominant person in the family abuses his or her power. Typically this abuse of power is by a male who has to prove himself by acting in macho ways and rationalizing this behavior as his “right.” The use of alcohol aggravates this pattern.
Children observe the parental interactions and identify with both the victim and the aggressor. They internalize these actions of both parents and carry them out in other settings. By identifying with the victim in the family, they learn fear and weakness. That is why aggressive children are often a pushover for someone tougher than themselves. They go to any length to hide these feelings of weakness from others and from themselves.
Macho Behavior: Children who adopt a macho style to foster a false self-identity are usually highly judgmental. They judge others according to standards of toughness and macho behavior. They cannot tolerate differences in other people according to narrow views of life. They act tough to avoid the feelings of shame inside for being weak. They avoid being seen as helpless and keep an illusion that they are in control by acting tough. They fear being called a wimp and try to measure up in the manly category so they will not be rejected by tough people they seek to emulate. Their identity becomes caught up in the old kid’s game of King of the Mountain. They keep the illusion of being in charge by the self message of “Be big and tough and ready to take anyone on to show how tough you are.” They often have a chip-on-the-shoulder attitude and dare others to push them into aggression. They learn that intimidation of others can be reinforcing because it gives them a feeling of power. Rigidity of thinking, judgmental beliefs and the need to feel superior are the basis for prejudice and bigotry.
Cruelty to others and the need to act hard and tough are defense mechanisms against feeling vulnerable. Children who harm others fear being hurt and exposed for their weakness. They go to any lengths to avoid letting others see how frightened they are and feel unsafe if they let their guard down so that others can see their vulnerability. The child who acts tough begins to feel superior as a defense against feeling the bad feelings. He rationalizes hurting others in his need to feel superior. At times the angry child may elicit a violent response from a punishing adult as a way of keeping the punishment under his control. His ability to evoke a negative reaction from an authority figure keeps him believing that he is in control even though there may be serious consequences to himself.
Pride in being tougher than others can keep the child caught in a cycle of shame, egotism and misbehavior. Acting out becomes an unconscious way to escape the terrible feelings of shame inside. Other shame-based defenses of angry children include denial, silence, intellectualization and distancing from the problem by placing the blame on someone else.
Impulse Control Problems: Children with attention deficit disorder with hyperactivity often have difficulty inhibiting their teasing behavior that later develops into aggressive behavior. Some of these children have problems of anger. Unable to control their actions, they become the target for negative attention from others and their self-esteem plummets. They often have deficits in thinking such as interpreting the social cues of a situation and cause-effect reasoning. Other children learn to avoid children with impulse control problems and they often end up being rejected.
Type T Individuals: Another kind of child who is attracted to aggression is the Type T child. Type T stands for thrill. Individuals who have a central nervous system that enjoys being revved up and feeds on dangerous activities are Type Ts. Type T children have under-aroused heart rates, sweat glands, and skin temperatures. Their physiological systems are slower to respond to external stimulation and they require high excitement and risk to feel stimulated. They look for novelty, uncertainty, high risk, variety, complexity, high intensity and conflict. Type T children seek activities that increase their adrenaline such as going fast on bicycles over ramps, jumping off of high places and engaging in dangerous sports. They seem to have no fear of physical harm and are unaware of the danger in which they place themselves. They spend more time on the street and tend to get in trouble. Properly channeled, Type T individuals have a lot to contribute to society because they are risk takers who enjoy challenges. Indiana Jones is a prime example of a good guy, Type T action-seeking individual.
When Type T individuals carry a large amount of anger, they tend to engage in activities that are harmful to others but are exciting and reinforcing to themselves. Bonnie and Clyde are examples of antisocial Type T individuals who lacked the skill of respecting others and their property. Gang members are often angry individuals who seek novel, dangerous activities through law breaking and intimidation of others. Children who start early in life to hurt others and then are rejected by their peers are most likely to seek out gangs
Gang Behavior: Gangs are groups of people who collectively engage in bully behavior. Children who have poor self esteem seek to find an identity in being a gang member. Members of gangs are taught new ways of intimidation and extortion in the gang by the older leaders. The aggressive behavior is highly reinforced by peers’ submissiveness. The sense of exaggerated pride, injustice, and feeling entitled to use and hurt others becomes set. Violent behavior is rationalized as a “right.”
Here are the words of Pablo, a gang member from El Paso, discussing ways to reduce drug use and gang violence as reported in the El Paso Times:
There is too much orgullo (pride) among gang members. That orgullo gets in the way of young people trying to go straight. Orgullo makes you want to be tougher than the next guy. Orgullo can be a very positive thing, but it can also help destroy young people. Negative orgullo creates problems….The best way to improve the situation is for those who care to get completely involved in a gang member’s life. That means hanging out with them and getting into the heart of them. A gang member may be abused by his dad or he may have a single-parent mother. He may be hurting, but he’ll never tell what’s hurting him. He’ll never say what’s truly in his heart. Instead, he’ll pretend that everything’s cool and all he wants is to do is party with his homies.
Aggression is a human trait; it has been necessary for our survival as a species. We live in a country where violence is becoming a way of life. Our media glorifies violence and children are presented with countless acts of simulated and actual aggression each day. If our society condones violent behavior it will be present. The effects of speaking out and standing up to abuse can help change the social conditions that support it. By teaching children skills to deal with aggression early on, we will have a society that has less tolerance for bullying and aggressive behavior. We need to develop ways of honoring the innate quality of aggression and finding safe outlets for it.
Teaching Social Skills–Breaking Into the Cycle of Shame and Aggression
Teachers and therapists can help the antisocial child express the vulnerable part that has been hurt by others to break through the outer mask of toughness and defiance. The child who bullies really wants to be loved and understood but he does not know how to ask for it. He only knows that his intimidation affects others and he gets what he wants. The submissiveness of others give him power that substitutes for the love he craves. His rage helps him momentarily ventilate the unresolved hurt and shame inside.
Shame or the internal global belief of “I am bad” is thought to be the mechanism that keeps the child caught in acting out behavior. Shame blocks positive information from coming in. The child feels bad about his explosive outbursts that give him the attention that he cannot get from achievement and friendships. The aggressive child desires affection, but is afraid of being swallowed up and depleted by others. He has the mistaken belief that intimacy represents being controlled by others. He learns to substitute enjoyment of hurting others for friendship. It is paradoxical that his anger keeps intimacy away and denies that one thing that the person desires the most–to be loved. The ability to accept kindness and love from someone is a skill that the child has missed out on. The basic skill deficit of the antisocial child is trust of others.
Children Do Not Have to Remain Angry
Children need to learn effective techniques to deal with threat and their resulting anger. They need to learn the difference between actual and perceived threat. If anger is pushed down or denied, it builds up until there is an explosion over something insignificant. Mastery of the emotion of anger by expressing it in a socially appropriate way is necessary for independence and self-reliance. Staying centered in the present during other people’s outbursts of anger is a skill that can be learned. Deep breathing and focusing on choices will allow more clarity and the time to move into logical problem solving.
We can give children a bigger bag of tricks from which to choose. We can teach them alternatives to aggressive behavior so that they can get their needs met. We can teach them to surround themselves with people who are supportive, caring and nurturing. Antisocial children can be taught to take care of themselves through relaxation, stress management techniques and self soothing. They can learn that self-angering thoughts can be challenged and interrupted and to inhibit impulsive behavior. With adult encouragement, negative feelings of anger and shame can be released.
We can help children achieve more of their potential by teaching them positive social skills. Like the one trick pony who was shown love and skill training, the angry child can learn new tricks to help him deal with the stress and threat he will inevitably meet in these times of chaos and violence. Given loving kindness, the angry child can change his perceptual distortions of seeing hostility and threat when there is none. Trust of others and of one’s own ability to make good choices in response to threat can be acquired. When we accept the child with all his scars and defensive stances and insist on him acting in healthy ways, we challenge his growth and send him better equipped to deal with the world.