Healing anger and aggression in children

From Nine To Noon, 11:30 am on 29 July 2021

All kids have angry reactions, and most parents can largely accept these when they can see the cause.

But some kids seem to explode for no apparent reason. What's going on? And how can parents and caregivers respond?

angry Asian boy

Photo: Xia Yang

Such kids are often feeling a painful ambivalence about love and attachment, says parenting coach and educator Joseph Driessen.

Parents of these kids need to upskill on how to help them heal, he tells Kathryn Ryan.

Children often can't process difficult events by themselves and get stuck with troubling feelings, Driessen says.

They demonstrate this ambivalence that to love and be loved is a safe and positive thing in the form of a sudden outburst.

"The child says "I am not certain about being loved wholeheartedly without also experiencing pain 'cause that's what happened to me.

"I'm putting on the table those unprocessed feelings, those unprocessed memories because I've got no other way of [expressing them]. I just act them out."

For parents, the first and most important step when presented with a suddenly and inexplicably angry child is don't fight fire with fire.

Anger is extremely counterproductive and when a parent returns it to their child, they prove the child's fears about love were founded.

"[By getting angry] you confirm to the child their feeling that love relationships are a mixture of nice and not nice."

Studio portrait of a little girl yelling.

Photo: 123RF

To help a child feel more safe about love and attachment, parents need to be skilful, Driessen says.

It can seem counterintuitive to respond with kindness when a child spits the dummy at you but that's what you have to learn to do.

Step one - diffuse and calm the situation and stay positive.

You could say something like: "I know you got a bit angry at me but there's no reason for that. Just give me a big hug."

"The child says 'our relationship is kindness and pain'. You say 'our relationship is kindness and no pain'."

"Keep on repaying the child, for that anger and aggression, with unconditional love."

Step two - proactively prevent a similar episode by being even more kind to the child.

"I love you wholeheartedly and there's no reason for this negativity in our relationship."

Step three - go deeper and articulate to the child what they're doing, which helps them process it.

"Sometimes you really get grumpy with me and I don't like it. I'm not doing that to you so why don't you stop that and just give me a big hug?"

Step four - once you feel yourself not reacting to your child's anger, you're ready to say to them: "This is not so nice. Can we talk about why you do that?"

Education consultant Joseph Driessen

Education consultant Joseph Driessen Photo: TED

Offering your child 'displacement behaviour' - a specific thing to do when they get angry - can also help teach them to manage their own anger.

"Coach them by saying 'if you get really angry with me why don't you just say 'im really angry with you and I'm going to go my room and slam the door'."

Psychotherapy, play therapy and art therapy can also help kids process their subconscious pain without anger.

Parents can offer play therapy at home, Driessen says.

"Allow the child to play with the parent sitting next to them while they play. I bet you bottom dollar that that child will start surfacing in their play some negativity about what happened to them."

Parents who struggle to control their anger towards their children need to hear the following advice, Driessen says.

"Your role as a parent is to provide positive leadership and if you are reacting to the child irrationally and ambivalently and aggressively you're really on the wrong pathway both morally and emotionally and you've got to try and heal yourself and grow out of that."

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