Along with happiness and sadness, anger is perhaps one of the most common emotions we experience in everyday life. We all experience anger in different ways but it can often become an easy ‘go-to’ emotion for children and adolescents.
By understanding anger and, in particular, what lies beneath it, parents can better support children and teenagers to recognise and regulate this powerful emotion.
The positives and negatives of anger
Feeling moments of anger is a normal and natural part of life. Anger possesses many positive qualities that can be beneficial in certain circumstances. Anger can provide motivation to perform difficult tasks or keep us safe by highlighting that something is wrong.
However, anger also has numerous negative qualities that can become damaging to our mental health and wellbeing over time. When we are overwhelmed by anger it can prevent us from thinking rationally and making healthy decisions. Often this can lead to aggression and violence which may become default reactions to the emotion of anger (Liebmann, 2008).
Understanding anger by looking at what it is covering up
Anger is also known to cover other important feelings that are typically at the core of our reaction, like sadness or hurt (Liebmann, 2008). Failing to properly address these underlying emotions, long term, can lead to mental and physical health problems.
Frequently the difficulty for children and teenagers is that they lack the vocabulary or simply cannot process such powerful feelings in order to recognise and name the underlying emotions. In turn, their ability to regulate their anger is compromised, resulting in temper tantrums or becoming violent for example.
For parents and adults to help children recognise and regulate their emotions, they need to try and understand what a child is going through. Effectively peeling back the layers of emotion underneath the anger.
An example of anger masking hurt
An example might be as follows. Anger exhibited by a child might be masking a layer of hurt which is a common reaction:
“I felt hurt because nobody seemed to listen to me.”
Underneath the hurt is often a need that has not been met: “I need to be listened to by others.”
Below the need are certain fears specific to that child: “I have a fear that nobody will listen to me and I’ll be left on my own.”
Anger and hurt seem to go hand in hand, so if we can identify the hurt, needs and fears at the root of a child or young person’s anger it opens an avenue in addressing these instead of remaining angry.
The key to understanding children’s anger
The key to understanding anger in children and teens is not to take it at face value. All forms of behaviour – in children and adults – is a form of communication. In the case of anger, it is communicating a deeper difficulty or pain.
By understanding the underlying issues and emotions, parents can better support children and young people to recognise, understand and process them in healthier ways.
Liebmann, M. (2008). Anger Management
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Counsellor - Children and Young People at The Spark
Sinead is a member of the British Association of Art Therapists (BAAT) and is registered with the Health Care Professions Council (HCPC). A Children and Young People Counsellor with The Spark, Sinead works with children in Primary schools.