3 Ways that Kids' Anger Bites Back
How many of you were told as a child, “Don’t be mad at your friend. She was just kidding,” or even “It’s not nice to be angry with your parents?” How many of you–gulp–have even uttered messages like these to your own children? Don’t worry; my hand is raised also. Despite the fact that I just wrote a book about helping kids accept and manage angry feelings, sometimes these knee-jerk responses just fly out of my mouth–as they do everyone else’s.
Are they the worst things to say to a child? Well, having worked for several years with abused children, I can definitively say that these dismissive words won’t put you on the Worst Parents Ever list, but at the same time, it is certain that when kids are encouraged to swallow their anger, that anger always bites back.
1. Mama, I have a headache.
When kids are made to feel “bad” or guilty for having angry feelings, they often learn to un-express their feelings by withdrawing from it. The normal, natural, physiological experience of anger does not just go away, however–no matter how much a child tries to hide from it. Remember the old phrase, “When you swallow anger, your stomach keeps count.” Kids who deny and withdraw from their feelings commonly experience psychosomatic symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, stomachaches, and even ulcers.
2. Those boys are mean to me. They must be really bad.
When kids feel uncomfortable about the existence of their own anger, they often attribute it to other people. They project their own emotional state onto others and may convince themselves:
“Those kids are really angry and mean. They’re just jealous of me.”
Socially, kids who engage in this type of denial and projection often behave in ways that encourage peers to be aggressive toward them, thus fulﬁlling their prophecy that the world is full of angry, bad people.
3. I’ll get you back and you won’t even know I’m angry.
Still other kids who are socialized to believe that “anger = bad” develop passive aggressive behaviors. They kids mask their angry feelings and act them out in deliberate, but masked ways. The child who is angry at his mother but fears expressing himself directly may pretend not to hear her when she calls him for dinner or complete his chores in an intentionally incorrect way that he knows will infuriate his mother. In this way, he gets her to act out the feelings that he had been holding inside.
The goal of healthy socialization is to teach children to say “yes” to the existence of their anger and to say “no” to the expression of those angry feelings in hurtful and destructive ways (Long, Long & Whitson, 2009). When parents teach their children how to be angry effectively, they lay a foundation for a lifetime of honest communication and healthy relationships.
Long, N., Long J., & Whitson, S. (2009). The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools, and Workplaces, 2nd ed. Austin, TX: Pro-ED, Inc.
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