Have you ever thought about the ways that you regulate and manage your anger compared to the way a child regulates and manages theirs? Adults and children are similar in lots of ways, but the way children express themselves can be very different increasing the chance that they will be misunderstood.
Do you have a child in your life who appears to be angry often? If so, counseling may be an option that can help them work through whatever is behind their anger.
What is Anger?
Anger is defined by the American Psychological Association as being an emotion that is characterized by antagonism toward someone or something you feel has deliberately done you wrong. How do you think children make sense of their anger?
Do you think they fully understand their response when something happens to them and they feel wronged? When asking a child what they think anger is they might tell you that it is what they feel when they are mad. So, it is helpful to ask them what it means for them to be mad.
Children are still learning a lot about life and are trying to understand what they feel and how to express themselves. Adults often use their own definition of something and forget to ask the child about their own ideas. It is important that we allow children to give their definition of what something means to them so that we have insight into their thoughts.
Children may be labeled as being angry, when they would define their expression of emotion as being something else. Adults can be helpful by assisting the child to see that their behavior can be mistaken for anger and ask the child to explain what emotion they believe they are expressing.
When Does a Child Feel Angry?
Part of exploring what a child would define as anger is helping them navigate through the moments where people would see their behavior as being angry. Children may display one emotion, but actually be feeling another. By sitting with a child and asking them what they are feeling when they are doing something like hitting a peer or throwing a toy, it connects their feelings to their actions.
Adults can do this in the moment or a counselor can do this during a session with the child. Asking a child about their reality is necessary so that the adults in the child’s life are not left making inaccurate assumptions and responding in a way that is not helpful.
For example, if a child is in the classroom and they push a child away who is trying to play with them, they may be assumed to be aggressive and mean. When sitting with the child they may reveal to you that they have an older child in the neighborhood who takes their toys at home. You can then ask the child if they are afraid that the child in the classroom will take their toy. It is then that the child might say they are afraid of that happening.
You can in that moment help the child recognize that what they actually felt was fear, but without the words their actions expressed something else that looked like anger. In counseling sessions the counselor can help the child identify their feelings and healthy ways to express themselves, but also recognize when a child’s emotions are misplaced and being expressed as anger and be an advocate for them to the adults in their life, who may not understand why their child appears to be so angry.
Children may feel angry when they have lost something or think they will be losing something. They might feel angry when they are confused or sad. They can feel angry when they are lonely or abandoned. During counseling different therapeutic techniques are used to help children understand why they feel angry.
Counselors take time to hear the stories of children and listen closely for details in their experience that may point to reasons why they could be feeling angry. Through listening and reflecting on what the child says, the counselor can help the child gain awareness about what they are feeling and why.
It is easier to manage your anger when you understand why you feel it or are expressing it a certain way. Children may not always understand their actions at first or the outcomes, but by taking time to help them connect their experiences to their emotions they can begin to understand what drives them to be angry.
What Does Anger Look Like?
Children are like adults, and can experience angry feelings for various reasons, and also like adults they can express their anger in a way that makes no sense to anyone else but them. Anger may appear as yelling or outbursts, aggressive behavior or unwanted physical touch, like hitting or pushing others, starting arguments or disagreeing, destroying property; theirs or someone else’s, or having a change of facial expressions.
Sometimes a child may say “I am angry”, but they don’t appear to be angry to anyone around them. The same for a child who says “I am not angry”, but their behavior indicates that something is happening to them emotionally. Anger can look different for everyone.
Some children can be angry and silent if their anger has either been shut down by someone else or not accepted before, meaning they have been told they are not allowed to be angry. They will suffer through their anger and keep it inside and possibly display their anger in different ways, possibly through extreme sadness.
Some children may not know how to identify any other emotion so everything they do to is expressed through anger, because that is all they know. They may withdraw from people and be mean when approached by someone new to keep them away because they are afraid, but then be confused when they left alone all of the time and do not have friends.
Certain children may be defiant when challenged by authority figures because they are angry about being told what to do and feel like they do not have freedom to make their own choices.
There are several mental health disorders that are centered around children and their anger. A few are Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Intermittent Explosive Disorder and Conduct Disorder. Although, anger and angry behavior are part of the diagnostic criteria for these disorders, there are many disorders that also have symptoms that look like anger and can be confused with anger.
It is important to remember that when a child is expressing themselves in a way that is explosive, there is something deeper behind their anger that needs to be addressed. Anger management is great because it helps the child manage their behavior, but part of reducing and stopping the anger requires knowing what the cause is.
A counselor will be able to do assessments throughout the time a child is engaging in counseling to see if they are dealing with symptoms of a disorder that could be causing their anger or assess for a diagnosis that is secondary to their anger. Either way, counseling will help the family and the child understand some of the cause and effects of their anger and angry behavior.
How Do Children Express Their Anger?
Children have a hard time expressing themselves verbally if they do not have the words to say what they feel yet, so anger may be expressed through crying, biting, pushing, or hitting. Again, without fully knowing why the child is expressing themselves through though behaviors, it is important to gain insight about what is going on with them.
Getting a clear picture of what is happening can be difficult at times, so a counselor may use toys or art to assist a child with expressing their anger in a different way. A counselor may assist a child with their expression of emotions by providing the toys and watching them interact in a way that makes sense.
Through play, the child is able to communicate in a way that is meaningful to them and the counselor can help the child and the people in the child’s life understand what they are feeling when words are not available. Expression through art works the same way, as it gives the child another way to express themselves without words.
Sometimes children do have the words to express what they feel but do not feel comfortable saying the words aloud, so a counselor may encourage them to write a letter to someone or even journal their feelings so that they are not keeping their feelings inside.
The goal would be to help the child express their feelings through words on paper so they can process their emotions without the worry of someone responding to them in a way that can cause more hurt or anger. Teaching children to go to more healthy expressions of anger is a great way for them to learn how to manage their anger.
Anger Management in Children: How Counseling Benefits the Whole Family
Through family counseling, families can learn how to recognize the anger their child is expressing and help them manage it. The counselor can assist the child with understanding their behavior and determine what is behind it so they can work on ways to eliminate the stressor or learn cope it because it is something that cannot be changed.
Parents are able to provide guidance through this process by putting into action a plan with the counselor and child that will be effective for the many systems they may be a part of and struggle to manage their anger. Counseling sessions provide a safe place for children and families to talk about some of the situations at home that may be part of the problem.
The counselor will likely provide tools that help the family navigate through their own responses, since everyone in the family may be in need of managing their anger, not just the child.
Several ways that a counselor can help with the management of anger are centered around communication and response. Some families are disrupted by the angry behavior displayed by a child in the family, but they are not aware of their response to the child. Parents may try to take toys away or punish their child without any success at changing the behavior.
They become frustrated and angry themselves, which leads to more conflict in the home. A counselor can help the parents and other family members find new ways to help the child to recognize their behavior and control their response so that the child experiences their family as a support system rather than as the source of more anger.
It is important to call out the behavior that is seen, as mentioned earlier, but there is a way to do that without making the situation worse. A counselor can coach the family members on how to do this in session when a child displays some of the behavior. A counselor can teach the family to be curious about the child’s reality by saying things like “You just hit your sister. It seems like you may be upset. Are you upset?”
When families are curious about their child’s behavior they allow the child to tell their own story about what is prompting the behavior after becoming aware of what someone else saw or experienced it as. Once families learn how to do this, they can share the technique with other adults who interact with their child. It is a wonderful way to teach children how to be aware of the ways that they present when they display certain behavior.
There may be moments where families would like to have consequences for their child’s behavior because it was dangerous or harmful to them or someone else. In this case, a counselor can help the family find appropriate consequences that will promote change. The consequence should make sense to the child and be relevant to the behavior for which the child is suffering the consequence.
If a child continues to throw things in the house when they get angry, a parent may be directed by the counselor to remind the child of the safety reasons why they should not through items, check in with the child’s reality, and then take only the toy that the child threw. The child cannot learn to manage their anger without having clarity around the events that take place afterward.
The consequence of losing the toy they threw can be part of the way that they manage their anger in the future because they do not want to lost their toy again. The counselor may also encourage the family to come up with some consequences so that the child feels like they have some ownership in their care.
If your child is struggling with some tough behaviors, trying to manage their anger, could use a little help and would benefit from counseling, there are counselors here at Seattle Christian Counseling who would love to support them and you too, as you manage your own response to their behaviors.
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