Anger vs. Anxiety It isn’t always what you see.
by, Lisa Herman, PsyD, LP
Have you ever wondered why your child seems so angry… all. the. [email protected] You are pretty calm (for a parent) and your child hasn’t had too many adverse events in their short life…so what gives?
For many parents and educators, angry children can be frustrating to handle. They act out by yelling, slamming doors, they are irritable to their siblings or peers and especially to their parent(s). You try to reason, that doesn’t work. You try to punish, that just makes it worse.
Much of the time, anger is an external expression of something else happening on the inside. Anger is a behavior that we see, an emotion that helps others know that something isn’t feeling good. Think about the times when you are angry. What is actually underneath the angry presentation?
Are you tired, overwhelmed, jealous, sad, hurt?
Much of the time, adults will seek out strategies to try to control negative externalized behaviors in kids by using consequences/punishments, time outs, or even spanking (much research shows spanking is highly ineffective and causes more damage than good – source to review: APA, 2012). A child’s anger can surely raise our own level of anger.
When you feel like you’ve tried everything to control the behavior, it might be time to look at anger differently. What if it isn’t anger that we need to tame.
“…anger is an external expression of something else happening on the inside.”
Here is a case example of what this might look like:
Samantha is a 9 year old, healthy young girl. She lives with her parents, 2 younger siblings and a dog she got to name, Fuzzy. Samantha likes to sleep with Fuzzy at night, but she has to share getting to have the dog in her bed with her two siblings. The night before her turn is over, she starts to get irritable. She doesn’t like her mashed potatoes at dinner (and threw some on the floor), she gets easily frustrated with her homework (more so than on other nights), and she even took a toy away from her sister’s hand in a very angry manner. Her parents try to redirect her, give her warnings, and even yelled at her for her behavior. Nothing seems to help. Her anger worsens and she is now in a full blown tantrum. The parents can’t seem to find what triggers her anger. They send her to her room until she calms down. This will start over again in a few days.
This is a unique story about a fictitious child, but the situation is all too common. Seemingly random things can trigger a child, and parents are left to guess what happened?
With some guidance, and possibly counseling, what we might find is that having the dog in her room at night is comforting and allows her to fall asleep faster. She gets worried before bedtime and thinks about all the things that went wrong in the day. The gentle dog, Fuzzy, gives her security. The anticipation of sleep and nighttime anxiety causes a series of negative events to occur that lead up to bedtime. Samantha is trying to “tell” her parents that something is wrong.
It’s not the parent’s fault. They are doing everything they can to manage behaviors. How are they to know that she feels these things? If we all only knew right when emotions were happening what they were about, we’d all be better off as our insight and communication would be spot on. Most adults have trouble with this let alone children whose brains are growing and learning every second of every day! Insight, communication, and coping are learned skills just like riding a bike and learning math.
The point of this is, sometimes Anger isn’t just Anger. It rarely is. If we only address the anger that we see, we are missing the root of the problem, and Samantha’s anxiety continues.
Let’s think about how ANGER might actually be severe unrecognized ANXIETY, and then we can focus on the root of the problem in a more productive and helpful manner.
If this sounds like something you and your family are struggling with, please reach out and ask for help addressing your child’s anger. Synergy eTherapists are here to help whether it’s only a few sessions or ongoing sessions, we can help both parent(s) and children learn new ways to understand strong feelings and find ways to cope.
For more resources on Anxiety in Kids, please check these links out: