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What’s Under the Anger?

What's under the anger?This is a nifty exercise to do with kids and I’ve had occasion to think about it lately so I thought I’d also write it up here.

Many of the kids I see are struggling with angry behaviors and getting to what lies under the anger is part of our process together. Depending on the child’s age and understanding, we do a modified version of this exercise.

First we talk about how angry is made up of lots of different emotions but figuring out which ones is tricky. So I tell them that we’re going to play detective and look at some different scenarios to figure out what’s going on under the anger.

I use index cards or slips of paper with the following emotions listed on them (these are taken from this Managing Your Anger poster).

  • Anxiety
  • Disappointment
  • Embarrassment
  • Fear
  • Frustration
  • Guilt
  • Hurt
  • Jealousy
  • Sadness
  • Shame
  • Worry

We go through the list and I make sure they have a basic understanding of what each one means. I also have blank cards available for children to add an emotion if they feel like there’s something missing. Sometimes they’ll want to add something that seems redundant to me, like Unhappiness. I’ll check in, does Sadness cover that or do they want to add it? Sometimes they won’t realize sadness is there or sometimes they’ll explain to me why Unhappiness is different and I get to learn something new about their experiences. Likewise if they say that Anxiety and Worry seem the same to them I tell them to just use whichever one they feel is the best fit.

To keep kids interested, we usually use figures or puppets to set the scenarios up. This might be acting out the scenario or it might just be placing the figures as a kind of panorama of what’s happening. This can be a lot of fun for them. I’ll say, “Ok, for this one we’ll need a sister or brother and a mom” and they giggle to pick out the people or animals who fit.

I try to choose stories that the children can relate to and I try to choose ones that come from real life. Something like:

–Amy wakes up super excited about going to the park but when she comes down for breakfast her mom tells her that it’s going to rain so they have to cancel the park date. What do you think is under Amy’s anger?

or

–Sebastian is supposed to play four square with his friend at recess but when he comes out after lunch is friend is already playing with someone else. What do you think is under Sebastian’s anger?

For older kids I might use more complicated scenarios:

–Cleo has been thinking about the slumber party for weeks and can’t wait to go. When she gets there she finds out that the other girls have been texting each other plans for the night but Cleo doesn’t have a phone yet so she wasn’t included. Now all the girls are giggling about something and they won’t tell Cleo what. What do you think is under Cleo’s anger?

–Dane studied super hard for the math test and thinks he did well. The next day the teacher calls him over and tells him that his answers were exactly the same as the student sitting next to him. Dane realizes that his friend must have copied the answers. What do you think is under Dane’s anger?

We do several of these with the child picking out the emotion cards that fit the situation. After they’ve done this we take a minute to contemplate what they’ve chosen. I always praise the child’s insight and we discuss those underlying emotions.

I don’t ask why they made their choices as in “Tell me why you chose Worried” because that can put some kids on the defensive. First I agree with them and then I might ask for more: “Yeah, frustration, I bet Sebastian was really frustrated! I’m curious about Fear, can you tell me more about that?”

I do not ask them what they’re missing or if they can think of one more because this exercise is to help them start feeling more confident about their ability to identify emotions (and sometimes it’s also a good assessment tool for me if I’m not sure where they are). If I do think there’s a glaring omission I might say, “This is really excellent. You’ve caught the Sadness and Frustration that might be under Amy’s anger. I wonder if she might feel Disappointed, too. What do you think?”

And we talk about it.

I usually do five or six of these generic scenes (with one specifically picked because the child will probably relate to it — for example, using a sibling scenario if the child struggles with anger towards a sibling). Using a generic but familiar scenario opens up the idea that we can come up with a scene from their own lives. Most of the time they’re willing to do this but if not, that’s fine.

Sometimes we invite a parent to come in and play the game to see if they can guess what feelings are under their child’s anger during a particular incident that’s come up in therapy and then the child gets to tell their parent what they got right and what they got wrong.

We can also talk about how Worried Anger might need a different response than Embarrassed Anger and we can come up with a game plan that the child can share with loved ones to help them deal with the next meltdown. If they’re not willing or able to talk about an incident from their own life or relate the exercise to their own experience we stay focused on other stories and I heap on the praise. If a child is having a hard time with emotional literacy than my goal is to build their confidence as we build their skills. Heck, if a child can identify one emotion — or can understand why I chose an emotion and help me talk about it — that’s a big accomplishment and sets the stage for more storytelling and emotional identification later on down the line.

Ask for what you want and need

AmyPoehlerQuoteSo many of us have internalized the idea that if we want something or if we need something it is, by definition, unnecessary. If we want it, it must be superfluous, right? Or maybe we are trying to win points (with who? our partner? our kids? the universe?) for denying ourselves so that we will be rewarded like some heroine in a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale.

It’s this weird circular logic: I want it therefore I don’t deserve it. I need it, which means I should do without.

For women particularly there is such a strong message that we must be self-sacrificing. And for mothers, oh golly, it’s all about how much we give away without complaining.

This hit home for me when I was a kid and there was this Family Circus comic strip (I tried to find it to link to but I can’t find it). One of the big kids is holding an ice cream and standing by one of the younger kids. The youngest one is crying because his ice cream is upside down on the ground next to him. In the background the mom is standing with her ice cream. The big kid says to the little kid, “Don’t cry. Mommy will give you hers.”

I was probably eight or nine when I read this and I realized the joke was that the mom wanted her ice cream and the kids didn’t even realize it. And I was a kid and I didn’t realize it, which led to, “Hey, maybe my mom wants her ice cream cones!”

I see so many women and so many moms in my office who don’t know how to ask for what they want and need and they’re getting sadder and sadder or madder and madder and they don’t even know why. They don’t know that they’ve hit their limit in lost ice cream cones and sometimes that sad and mad is coming out sideways, making their relationships with loved ones harder. Or maybe it’s eating them up inside, making their relationships with themselves harder.

It’s easy to become passive-aggressive, communicating what we want by being angry at the people with the ice cream. Picture Thelma (the mom in Family Circus) handing her cone over and then as Jeffy settles in with it saying, “Isn’t that good? Yes, pralines and cream is my favorite. No, no, you enjoy it. It’s almost as satisfying watching you eat it and I’m sure we’ll go out for ice cream again eventually although this was mommy’s only afternoon off but really, no, I’m happy you have it.”

Would you want your loved ones to do without? Do you want your children to grow up and give everybody everything? Of course the answer is  no, so why do we force ourselves into this self-sacrificing box?

It’s scary to ask for what you need because what if you don’t get it? What if your loved ones refuse to give it to you? Sometimes it feels easier to live in denial, to pretend we can do without. To pretend that the problem is not in the not-having but in the wanting.

We lie to ourselves, saying, “The issue is not that they won’t treat me with kindness; the issue is that kindness is something I need because I’m over-sensitive.”

Or, “The problem is not that the baby is getting up 67 times a night and no one will help me with the nighttime parenting, the problem is that I can’t seem to get used to functioning on 20 minutes of uninterrupted sleep.”

“It’s not you,” we say, “It’s me! I’m too needy! I’m overreacting! I am the problem, not this life full of denial and demands and way too little fun!”

Listen, you have got to take care of yourself for your sake and for the sake of your loved ones. They need our full, present, fulfilled selves more than they need our ice cream.

(By the way, the quote is from this video.)

The thing about forgiveness

The thing about forgiveness...We hear a lot about forgiveness and how good it is for you spiritually and emotionally and that’s all true but forgiveness is a thing that can’t be rushed. Selling people on the merits of forgiveness when they’re right in the middle of their struggle is a little like telling someone who has just had surgery on her knees that she needs to run a marathon. First she has to heal, then she has to begin stretching and moving and who’s to say that being a marathoner is the only way or the best way to be alive anyway?

In my twenties I worked at a women’s shelter where many of our clients were escaping domestic violence. I realized then that it’s possible to forgive too early and I’m not just talking about the women who forgave and returned to their abusers. I’m also talking about the women who looked like they were taking positive steps in their personal growth. I’m talking about the ones who wanted to understand their abusers so they could forgive them. I’m talking about the ones who took personal responsibility for entering into an abusive relationship in the first place.

That sounds really great and empowering in some ways, right? Taking responsibility, working towards understanding — those sound like terrific things but sometimes it’s a detour away from real healing and wholeness. Because here’s the thing — before we can take responsibility and before we can forgive, we have to confront the depth and breadth of the harm done to us.

Imagine that Snow White comes to therapy. She says, “My stepmom had problems with jealousy. I get it now, I get that it must have been hard to marry into a new family and to be confronting your mortality just as your stepdaughter is kinda coming into her own. I mean, I get that she had her own struggles.”

The therapist nods, wondering where this is going.

“Probably,” Snow White continues thoughtfully. “Probably she was reacting to her own troubled upbringing. It can’t have been easy, being raised to catch a man because your only value as a woman is the guy that you marry. It must have been threatening to her to have me growing up there.”

This is where her therapist might respond by saying, “Wait a second, she tried to poison you. She paid a hit man to take you out.”

“I know, I know,” says Snow White. “I’m not excusing her behavior or anything, I’m just saying I can kind of understand, you know, how it was hard for her, too.”

“Poison,” says the therapist. “Murder for hire.”

“Right,” says Snow White. “But she did the best she could…”

“POISON!” says the therapist. “MURDER!”

“Yeah, I know but I want to acknowledge that I never said directly to her, ‘Do not poison me.’ And I did take an apple from a stranger.”

Ok, you get what I’m saying here.

Snow White isn’t going to get to the core of her struggles if she keeps making excuses for The Evil Queen. She thinks she’s being loving and forgiving but really what she’s doing is joining with The Evil Queen against herself. She is unintentionally helping to perpetuate the abuse by excusing it.

I’m not arguing that Snow White needs to spend the rest of her life bitterly denouncing her stepmom but she might need to spend part of her life doing exactly that. She needs to acknowledge that however The Evil Queen was raised, whatever societal expectations she was up against, The Evil Queen did harm to Snow White. It doesn’t really matter what The Evil Queen meant to do — if she meant to just poison her a little bit, say, just long enough to win The Fairest of Them All contest or whatever — or why she did it. What matters is that Snow White was harmed by her actions and Snow White needs to give space to her grief, pain and anger. She needs lots and lots of space and understanding and then and only then will she be ready to think about forgiveness and taking responsibility (if there’s any to be taken).

The women at the shelter, yes, eventually they would need to look at their participation in the abusive relationship in order to recognize the beliefs, values and behaviors that created that perfect storm but they couldn’t really do that until they could acknowledge that whatever they did or did not do, they didn’t deserve the abuse and that abuse is always, always wrong.

Only when we give attention and validation to the very real harm that other people may have caused us, only then can we forgive. Snow White needs to be able to say, “You did me wrong, Evil Queen, through no fault of my own” without people telling her to “stop being so bitter, just let it go, life is too short to hold grudges” because it’s not petty to grieve your losses or to be angry when you have been harmed.

I’ve been thinking about this because I’ve been thinking about how often we beat ourselves up — colluding with the people who harm us — for holding on to things. Sometimes we need to hold on to things for awhile or our healing will be incomplete. And without healing there can be no true forgiveness.

Feelings are not behaviors

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Sometimes people get afraid of feelings so we deny them or try to ignore them or explicitly tell our kids to shut those feelings away. But how children feel and how they behave are too different things.

There’s being angry and then there’s yelling or hitting. It’s ok to be angry with your little sister but it’s not ok to hit her. It’s ok to feel frustrated with the Legos that won’t work right but it’s not ok to kick them across the floor.

When we correct or redirect our children to express their negative emotions (anger, frustration, sadness, guilt) appropriately, we need to make clear that we accept their feelings even when their behavior is unacceptable.

For kids, feelings may be so overwhelming and painful that they have to act them out in their bodies. We can give them appropriate ways to show their anger in their bodies. They can punch pillows instead of punching brothers. They can go outside and yell instead of screaming inside. They can stomp their feet instead of knocking down blocks.

Help give kids words to describe their feelings.

“You are so angry!”

“This puzzle is so frustrating!”

Sometimes sad or worried or scared look like angry so if you see that, say it.

“I think you are sad that we have to leave the bouncy castle and that’s why you don’t have the patience to tie those shoes. Leaving can be so hard!”

“I wonder if you’re feeling worried about the big swimming pool and that’s why you’re snapping at me.”

However we feel, it’s fine because feelings are morally neutral. How we manage our feelings — how we treat others, how we treat ourselves — is what matters. The more we find acceptance for all or our feelings, even the yucky uncomfortable ones, the easier it is to manage them.

 

 

Love and Anger Aren’t Mutually Exclusive

lovingandangryParents often feel guilty for getting mad at their kids or for not always liking their kids. But there are really great reasons to get mad at kids. For one, parenting is hard and children aren’t always easy. For two, it’s really important for children to see us get angry, see us manage our anger appropriately (and that can mean blowing up, calming down, then making amends), and to love them anyway.

We want our children to grow up being in touch with their feelings and able to express them appropriately but we don’t always allow ourselves the same opportunity.

I remember a friend of mine telling me about a group of moms who met each month for support and encouragement. Her cousin attended the group and told her about one meeting when the topic was anger. The women took turns sharing how they worked hard to control their anger.

“I hold my hands in fists,” said one. “I hold them tight to remind myself to stay in control.”

“I bite my lip,” said another. “So that I won’t say something I’ll regret.”

When they got to my friend’s cousin she laughed.

“What do I do when I get angry?” she asked. “I yell. I yell and I yell and I yell and then I feel better and we all make up.”

I’m not advocating that you go screaming at your kids but if you’re a loud family, loud voices are OK. (Some families tolerate yelling more than others so your mileage may vary.) Certainly being angry is OK.

Parents are human, too. Humans are imperfect. Learning to be an imperfect human (versus trying to be a perfect one) is a lifelong process. Being imperfect is a gift we can give our kids, especially when we are honest (and loving) about our imperfections.

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