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How to help your angry child

This article is for parents that have a child that gets very angry.

Maybe your child also hits, or swears, or blames you when they are upset. Maybe they have wild, screaming meltdowns.

This article is for you if want to support your child to get past their angry outburst without it becoming a battle between you.

You know your child is suffering and you want to help them rather than just make them feel worse about themselves.

Warning: This article isn’t going to provide a quick fix. But it might change your life in unexpected ways.

You’ve probably tried everything you can think of, but it just keeps happening

I know. I’ve been there.

I have two sons and they both feel things deeply. They have both been through periods of their lives where they experienced explosive anger.

This has sometimes been abrupt outbursts of rage. There was intense screaming and crying. Often there was physical lashing out, hitting and blaming their upset on someone close; usually me.

These outbursts were triggered by something, but it was not always possible to work out what that was. Even if the trigger seemed clear, there may not have been a way to avoid it.

From the start, I was clear about what I didn’t want to do.

I didn’t want to get angry and lash out at my sons, either verbally or physically. I didn’t want to “fight fire with fire” and yell at them or smack them. I don’t understand why people think that getting angry and attacking and angry person is going to help them or bring peace. (I know this happens even when you don’t want it to – I found myself yelling many times and I lashed out sometimes too. More about this below.)

I didn’t want to punish them. Inflicting emotional pain to try and “teach them a lesson” was not the way I wanted to go. It’s another form of attack, even if it is disguised behind words like “consequences” or “gentle discipline”. The whole point of enforced isolation, or confiscating possessions or “privileges” is to cause pain or discomfort. I know you can shut down a child’s emotions this way, and sometimes even change behaviour, but at what cost? The effects can be devastating and it can really damage your relationship with your child. It also perpetuates a culture of inflicting pain as a method of trying to force change.

I didn’t want to shame my sons or to give them the message that they were bad, wrong or to blame for getting angry. That would just make them feel even worse. I could tell they were highly sensitive to judgement and criticism and they couldn’t control their outbursts.

So what was left to try?  

I did what I could.

I told them that I didn’t want them to hit me or yell at me. I was assertive and direct. I said NO. I told them to STOP. Repeatedly.

I expressed my feelings when I was hurt or upset. They knew there were consequences to their words and actions. They could see that others were affected. Sometimes I would cry openly in front of them. Not out of a desire to manipulate, but simply because I needed to.

When they were little I would physically restrain them from hurting me or put a cushion between us. When they fought each other I would often get between them as a barrier. When they got older I got out of the way of their anger by leaving the room if it got too physical or I felt myself getting upset.

I encouraged them to direct their anger at a cushion or other object. I tried to distract them, interrupt them or redirect them. Redirect. Redirect. Redirect.

If these methods work for you, by all means keep doing what you are doing. Even if they are not working, you might keep doing them anyway, just in case. I did.

But, no matter how many times I repeated these things or tried some other tactic, or different words, or to be more assertive, nothing I did stopped the angry outbursts or the hitting. Maybe I didn’t try hard enough, or wait long enough to see the results. Who knows? The fact is, I wasn’t seeing enough change to calm my state of high anxiety and overwhelm.

My shame

I was haunted by the belief that I should be able to stop these tantrums.

The hardest thing of all was to hear people say “I don’t let my child hit me or talk to me like that.”

The implication was that I let my children do this when I could have stopped it.

It was clearly possible for some parents to control or influence their children’s behaviour. They could decide that they didn’t want their child to hit them; they could take some action, or set their boundaries, or be clear enough, or say the right thing and it would stop. Their child would somehow learn not to hit them or yell at them.

This didn’t happen in my family. But it wasn’t for lack of trying.

For a while I blamed myself. I thought I simply wasn’t a good enough parent. I believed that I was failing in my responsibility to teach my children a more socially acceptable way of expressing their feelings. I didn’t talk about it. I just hid my shame.

On top of that, I blamed myself for all the times that I had reacted in anger and yelled at my children. There were also times when I hit them in a moment of knee-jerk reaction to being hit myself. This was so shameful to me that I’ve never spoken about it before.

There were very few people in my life who knew what anger could look like in our home.

My fears.

So many fearful thoughts came into my head during this time of my life. All of these fears were about an imagined future.

I feared that the anger would get worse and become more violent.

I feared that I would be “walked all over” and become a resentful doormat.

That some day I would get physically injured.

That my sons would grow up to be violent men who abused their partners.

I was absolutely terrified about what other people would think of me as a parent if they witnessed my child’s explosive anger being directed at me or someone else, or saw me screaming back at my child in a moment of reaction.

As you can imagine, all of these thoughts made me very, very stressed. I got to the point of desperation quite a few times. In this stressed out state I got even more likely to get angry at my sons.

My judgements.

When my children got angry I did what I had been trained to do as a child.

I judged them and labeled their anger as bad.

We all learn very young to label our emotions and to judge them as either good or bad. We are taught that bad ones, like anger, must be stopped, somehow. We learn to make anger wrong and we learn to blame others when we are feeling angry.

As a result of this early conditioning certain thoughts came into my mind when my child had an angry tantrum. Things like;

He shouldn’t be screaming and yelling like that. This is bad.

This shouldn’t be happening. He shouldn’t be behaving like this.

He’s doing this to manipulate me. He’s doing this on purpose

There must be something wrong with me if I can’t stop this happening. I’m just not good enough.

These thoughts made me even more stressed and fueled my attempts to control my children, which made them even more angry. The angry outbursts intensified.

Finding the solution.

It eventually became clear to me that the only way I could really help my child was to listen to their anger without reacting. I had to be the calm centre in the heart of the storm; the one that didn’t get angry, frustrated or fearful. I had to listen to my child without judgement and without making their words or actions wrong.

If my children wouldn’t change through gentle persuasion and being patiently guided to speak and act differently (which they didn’t – at least not that I could see) then this was the only way to respond that didn’t add more judgement, anger, fear or attack to an already explosive situation.

But how to get there?

Being the calm eye in the storm may sound like an impossible goal, but it isn’t.

Every single one of us has calm, peace and stillness inside.

Every single one of us has experienced this peace at some time in our lives. We experience it most clearly when we are not thinking; like when we are in awe of beauty, or relaxed and watching a movie or drifting off to sleep.

Let me ask you a question: If you stop thinking, if only for a few seconds, what is there? Take a “look” right now.

What you will find is pure awareness.

Some people call this presence or pure consciousness.

If “you” are still there when there are no thoughts, then you are not your thoughts. Your true self is calm, quiet awareness.

SO WHAT!” you may say. “I’ve still got all these judgmental, scary thoughts in my head and I can’t get rid of them.

The good news is, you’ve already done the hard part: you’ve shifted your attention off your child and onto whatever is happening inside your head. This shift in your attention, and a continuing curiosity about what is going on in there is the key to clearing away everything that is getting in the way of you being the calm, non-judgemental presence that can help your child.

The way to get calm.

I’m not going to tell you that you can get rid of your judgmental and fearful thoughts overnight. In fact, I’m not going to tell you that you can control them at all.

What I will do is share with you two practices that made a dramatic difference in my life with my children. As soon as I started using these practices I felt my stress levels start to drop. I no longer felt overwhelmed or desperate when my children were experiencing a lot of anger. As an added bonus, I noticed my children calm down faster and move smoothly back into chatting and playing.

1. FOCUS ON THE INNER BODY

Here’s a quote from my book Joyful Parenting that describes this practice:

Are you aware of your inner body, of the field of energy within and around your physical body? Connecting with this inner body is a wonderful gateway into presence. You might like to try this exercise: close your eyes and take a few deep. relaxing breaths. Begin to shake your hands vigorously. Stop shaking and bring your attention to the sensations in your hands. feel the energy and aliveness inside your hands. It might feel like a subtle tingling sensation. Now direct your attention to the whole of your inner body. Feel it from within. Can you feel this aliveness within your whole body? If you can, feel it in all parts of your body as a single field of energy. When you open your eyes can you can keep your attention on this aliveness?

I found that I could focus attention on my inner body at the same time that I was listening to one of my sons have an angry meltdown. In fact, the more intense their emotional outburst was, the quicker my attention shifted inwards. This immediately pulled attention away from my thoughts. Without thoughts getting in the way I was able to fully BE with my child. I could calmly respond to the situation rather than reacting to it.

What do I say and do while my child rages?

I treat the angry outburst like the weather. I wait for my child’s anger to pass. Just like I would wait for a thunderstorm to pass. If there is hail, I get out of the way.

All the while staying focused on my inner body.

Sometimes I say nothing and just listen.

Sometimes I say something simple like “I understand” or “I’m sorry you’re feeling so upset.”

If necessary, I move away to avoid getting hit, or take action to protect another child, or (if they are little) move my angry child into a safe and quiet space.

If I notice myself getting triggered by stressful thoughts and intense feelings I don’t try and stuff it down. I take some time out for myself or I simply let the energy of my emotions flow – this usually means some tears.

If things “blow up” and you loose your temper, please don’t judge yourself. This just adds another layer of hurt to the situation. If you have already judged yourself, just notice that and move on. If necessary, just back right off for a while.

Once the energy of my child’s anger has subsided I offer a hug. Then we get on with our day.

2. QUESTION YOUR STRESSFUL THOUGHTS

I have used this practice so many times and to such amazing effect that it has become part of every day of my life. It became a path to consistently experiencing a state of calm presence no matter what is happening with my sons or my life. It is truly a key to enlightenment.

It is the practice of self-inquiry taught by a woman called Byron Katie. She calls it “The Work”. It is based on this understanding:

Our beliefs cause us stress and discomfort when they do not align with our true nature. Our feelings are like an inbuilt alarm system. If we feel distressed, angry, sad, frustrated or worries it is usually a sign that we are believing something that does not resonate with our deepest truth.” (from “Joyful Parenting”)

You start by identifying what you are thinking about a situation. If your child has been getting very angry, you may have been thinking one of the thoughts that I mention above. Like:

“He shouldn’t be screaming and yelling like that.”

The process of self-inquiry consists of asking yourself four questions about that thought.

  1. Is it true?
  2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
  3. How do you react when you think that thought?
  4. Who would you be without that thought?

There are no right or wrong answers. It’s like a guided mediation; you sit with yourself and test this thought against these four questions. You wait until your deepest truth emerges.

There is a bit more you can add to this basic form of self-inquiry, but these four questions get to the heart of it. I give worked examples of how I have used these questions in Joyful Parenting.

These questions have a powerful ability to change your perspective on an issue. It’s not so much the situation that is causing your stress, but the thoughts you are thinking about it.

For example, I came to realize that when my sons got angry what was causing my stress, fear and anger was my own thoughts. It was my judgements of them, my imagined future, and my self criticism. It wasn’t what my child was doing or saying at all.

When I used self-inquiry to question my stressful thoughts I found that my buttons were no longer being pushed. My child could yell and scream and lash out and I could be the calm centre of the storm.

Even better; as my judgements of my sons dissolved, I found that unconditional love shone through. There was a quiet confidence that everything was as it should be and that they were fine.

I was fine too.

I can handle the most challenging moments and fully accept them as part of the adventure that is raising my sons.

I’ve come to see the longer view; This will pass, this will change. And it has. Life changes all the time.

There were other practical things that I did to support my sons through these changes. I gave them more autonomy and freedom, I spoke to them more respectfully and I taught them a process for problem solving. I also supported their health with supplements, homeopathic medicine and Reiki. Mostly, I just spent more time playing with them.

The inner work on myself created the space for me to be more available for my sons. and to enjoy being with them. And best of all, it brought me to a place of relaxed, calm confidence inside myself, no matter what was happening “out there”.

My greatest wish is that you find this calm presence within yourself too.

I know it’s there, waiting to be recognized.

With Love,

Comments

  1. Thanks you for sharinging, Freya. If I didn’t know who had wrote this, I would have said it was my own. Our life sounds similar. There has been and still is fear , shame and guilt. I am working on my self everyday.

    Faye

    • Hi Faye,
      I want to remind you that you don’t actually need to work on yourself, even though I recommend people doing “The Work”!! If it feels like work or is motivated by self-judgemental thoughts then it may not get you very far.

      I know how much I used to judge myself for having those stressful thoughts and getting angry and lashing out. So much judgment that it triggered more shame and self-hatred. Which only added more harm to an already painful situation.

      So notice those self-judgements and recognise them as another old mind-story that you don’t need to take seriously. If they still hang on – use “The Work” and/or ask for help. But approach the whole exercise with gentle curiosity. The more you observe and understand how the mind works, the less you are inclined to believe it.

      Who would you be without the story that you have to work on yourself every day?

      Love
      Freya

  2. Fantastic article, so useful and personally relevant to me and my son. Saving it to read as I feel it’s going to be so helpful as a reminder not to get caught up in fearful thoughts when he’s angry. Thank you!

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