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Helping an Angry Child

[1]Several emotions come over us following a traumatic experience, such as the death of a family member. We each find coping mechanisms to deal with these experiences – some healthy, some not. Working with parents and teens, one of the most frequent negative physical response to grief I have heard is the violent expression of anger.

Before diving into this topic, the one point I want to make clear is that if child is regularly expressing his or her emotions in physically or verbally violent ways, as a parent/guardian, you need to find support for him or her. In the form of a therapist (the right therapist, with whom the child can relate), or support group, or camp. Each child is different, but the end need is a support system to help your child get to the root of his or her anger and begin to address it, instead of letting it take over. With that in mind, I’d like to talk more about anger and aggression in grieving children and teens.

The reason I can connect with the issue, is I was once an aggressive teen.

There were years that I would terrorize the household, while behaving perfectly well in school setting. Generally, home is a safe environment. No matter what we do at home, no matter how far we push our boundaries, no matter how bad we treat the people around us, home will always be there. You can’t be expelled, like at school. You won’t be arrested, like in the real world. Family won’t stop talking to you, like friends can. Surrounded by this sense of safety, children and teens may demonstrate a more heightened sense of anger, frustration, and fear than they will outside the family environment.

While verbal or physical violent behavior is never acceptable, home is where children can be vulnerable and vent. As a parent, if you can understand that the behavior you see at the home is not necessarily because of negative feelings your child has toward you and the family, the better prepared you will be to work with, and understand your child.

Also know that while your child may seem to take the worst of his or her anger out on you, he or she most likely does not hate you. Most teens feel guilty and/or ashamed of their behaviors after an emotional outburst, but they do not yet have the coping skills to come back and apologize. As a parent, you won’t always get the apology you deserve. Your child does not know how to clean up the mess they’ve created. Rest assured these negative behaviors are likely stemming from something else. Unfortunately, the true cause can be under several layers of things… but there is a core to the anger. And your child can learn to cope with these feelings in more healthy ways.

All people, including grieving children and teens, are allowed to be sad, and even allowed to be angry. But no one is allowed to act out in violent or damaging ways. As a parent, you are allow to set those boundaries. It doesn’t make you a bad person. Every emotion is acceptable in grief. It’s the ways in which we express those emotions that are healthy or unhealthy.

Most teenagers do not like to consider themselves as needing “help.” They don’t want to be “rescued.” They don’t want to be different, and they don’t want to be told what to do. But, as the parent, it is your right, and your duty to say – this behavior is not acceptable, and because of this behavior, we are doing _____. The blank being counseling, support groups, therapy, whatever help your child and family may need.

As your child’s parent, you know him or her best. Take a moment to look at who your child was before and after the loss. Has his or her behavior changed, or are they acting out similarly, but in bigger ways? Are these all new behaviors, or are they heightened behaviors? What was the environment previously? How does that play into his or her reactions now? When is your child the happiest; when is your child most upset? What causes your child to lose his or her temper? Is it happening everywhere? Does it happen right when he or she comes home, or when you ask him or her to do things, or when siblings are around, etc? Explore these questions not for the purpose of avoiding the situation, and walking on eggshells around your child, but rather to become aware of the triggers so that you are not as caught off guard when an outburst happens.

While often difficult in a time of chaos, seek to recognize positive behaviors from your child. It is easier to catch someone doing something bad, and let the good pass by unnoticed. Pay more attention to the good things. Recognize those, but not in a patronizing manner. Don’t spend too much time on it that it seems fake. Instead, give a quick “thank you,” for helping around the house, or going out of his or her way to help you or a sibling. Be specific in your positive feedback.

By no means is it easy parenting a child who is coping by violent outbursts. Nor is parenting such a child cookie-cutter. These times are difficult, and trying. You and your child need an unbiased, trusted source, removed from each other, that you can each vent to. Explore what resources are near you. Seek out programs that engage your child’s natural form of communication (peer support, art, talking, writing, physical activity, etc).

If your child does not want to go, remember that you are the parent, and you make the rules. Initially, your child may be even more mad at you. But as the parent, you need to stay focused on your long-term goals. Learning to positively cope with emotion is the key to long-term peace for your child and your family. It may not be easy at first. But, you cannot continue to function in a home with violent outbursts. It’s not good for you, your child, or anyone else in the home.

Find the right counselor. Find the right format. Stay patient, and remember that behind the mask of anger, your teen is a vulnerable child in need of parental guidance and support. Even if he or she fights it in the beginning.