By Lara Pickford-Gordon
“Do not teach your children never to be angry; teach them how to be angry” – Lyman Abbott, US Theologian.
Toddlers having tantrums and teens raging evoke anger in parents and sometimes there are two clashing raised voices. When the outbursts happen in public, there is judgement on how the parent/s or guardian should respond some favouring ‘a hot slap’ to quell the emotion.
Counselling psychologist Anna Maria Mora shared research from Dr Raymond DiGuiseppe of the Anger Research Project. He co-authored two psychological tests: The Anger Disorders Scale (for Adults) and the Anger Regulation and Expression Scale (for children and adolescents) and several other books. Dr DiGuiseppe has lectured on ‘Rational and Emotive Cognitive Behaviour Therapy’.
He stated that anger is the first negative emotion a child experiences, and “is involved in a high physiological arousal in response to a threat to one’s resources or violation of social norms”.
Mora cited Dr Harry Mills’ article ‘Physiology of Anger’ which highlighted these reactions: rapid heart rate, high blood pressure and crucial bodily systems getting ready to act or strike out i.e. the body’s muscles tense up. The neurotransmitter chemicals inside the brain (catecholamines) are released causing a burst of energy lasting several minutes. This burst of energy is behind the common angry desire to take immediate protective action.
Dr DiGuiseppe found angry children are unable to identify the source of their rage. They are not stronger and more resourceful than adults. They do feel and react when a perceived norm is violated.
For example, Mora said, “Mummy has been with daughter for three years, and now she is being dropped off to pre-school or ‘big school’ and going away, leaving her with some stranger.” What was normal is shattered so “the neurotransmitter chemical in the brain is activated”.
Another example is a mother telling the child that he cannot have a lollipop before breakfast, she prefers him to have fruit or telling a child that she/he cannot have the toy in the store.
Dr DiGuiseppe assured that what followed was predictable and harmless. Most children do not have any idea on what they are raging against. “They are not aware of the thoughts that come with anger. They may be aware of the unfairness of the issue that they are angry about. But they are less able to put it into words.”
She said the “good news” about childhood anger, developmentally speaking, is that children also haven’t yet developed the higher-levelanger management skills. Dr DiGuiseppe called these skills “executive functions”. These are the parts of the brain that provide for self-regulation through planning, remembering, focusing, and time management.
In other words, angry children can’t really seek revenge–at least not in a way that’s likely to get results. Quoting Dr DiGuiseppe, she stated, “anger differs from other emotions in that it activates behaviour”. She continued, “If you have immature executive function skills, you’re going to be more impulsive and act on your anger, much more than older people”.
Mora dared to ask: “Are all those older people who are exhibiting impulsive anger all over our country, stuck in their childhood? Could this be the answer to the question about why are there so many angry people in our country?”
Mora said from the research she would like parents to understand children are not as resourceful as adults and react “from their internal chemical reaction”.
She disagreed with corporal punishment. “No amount of ‘licks’ will stop what that bodily system’s operation has activated. Parents must be patient, remember it lasts for a few minutes”.
For the child having a tantrum for a lollipop, the parent should patiently look at the child or continue whatever activity they were doing. Mora said, “just observe that child is not harming self, move all things from table around child or put plastic plates etc., make sure nothing the child uses is breakable”.
The child’s tantrum may cause a mess requiring clean-up but Mora said the parent’s calm response will show the child they are not raging as she/he is. She said the child will learn something from parent’s calm and demonstrated behaviour.
Mora sent the article, ‘How Inuit Parents Teach Kids To Control Their Anger’ (www.npr.org) on the parenting practices passed on by this group of indigenous people for hundreds of years. Parenting classes to inculcate the lessons learned to the younger generations.
Shouting at small children is viewed as “demeaning”. Storytelling and drama are used to show the child their behaviour and the real consequences; children also learn how to respond if they are provoked.
The parent dealing with a child having a tantrum in a store should hold the child’s hand and be take them outside. The emotive response could be to slap the child to stop them acting up but Mora cautions, “for the lifetime it can create a burden to your home and to the society”.