Anger in Childhood

Anger is often the most “unsafe” emotion that we feel. We don’t feel entitled to it. We suppress it immediately. We explain it away or even berate ourselves for feeling it. We may have seen others react in anger and have been hurt as a result. Much of our ability to feel and express emotions comes from how we were treated as a child when expressing them.

“Less knowledgeable parents interfere with their children’s anger by ridiculing them, ignoring them, isolating them, goading them on to greater violence, punishing them, distracting them, hitting them, or trying to make them laugh (“ I see a smile coming on …”). When a parent interferes with a child’s anger response in these heavy-handed ways, the anger increases and is redirected at the parent: now the parent is the one who’s violating the child’s sense of well-being by interfering with a natural and necessary outlet of emotion.

Most parents stifle this secondary outburst of anger, too, only this time with more force. “Don’t make a face at your mother! What a naughty girl. You’ll get a licking for that! Shame on you!” Instead of allowing the anger to flow through the child’s system the first time it’s expressed, the parent unwittingly fans the anger, then dams it up. The anger becomes trapped in the little girl’s stomach, muscles, and jaw, and becomes an enduring wound.

If the parent represses the girl’s anger not just once but over and over again, a deeper injury occurs: the girl will eventually dismantle her anger response. Ultimately, it’s safer for her to cut off a part of her being than to battle the person on whom her life depends. When her brother abuses her, she will no longer respond with a surge of anger. She’ll find some other route. She might run to her mother for help, or pretend she’s not mad, or find a more devious way to get back at him. The clean, instant, automatic response will be gone.”

We take away our children’s natural ways of handling emotions when we don’t allow them to be expressed in the moment. Of course, we must protect our children from hurting themselves and others, but by allowing them to verbally express how they feel, we help prevent years of further emotional trauma.

We have a joke in our family. Whenever one of us is in the middle of a crisis, our standard line is: “Uh, oh. I’m getting a feeling. Where are the brownies?” It’s pretty common for people to be afraid of-or at least uncomfortable with-feelings in general. We often have difficulty understanding, deal…
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