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).
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?
–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.
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.
If you are on Facebook or on Twitter or don’t live under a rock then likely you have been either witness to or part of the ongoing cultural conversation around the ALS ice bucket challenge and the shooting of an unarmed Black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri and the resulting outcry in his community and beyond.
I was thinking about this juxtaposition today, in particular about the controversy of the juxtaposition. I’m not talking about either thing itself — people drenching themselves in ice water or a young man’s death at the hands of police — but about these two things happening at the same time and how people are managing the presence of two wildly different cultural events happening at the same time.
I’m not the only one talking about this. Orlando Jones is. And Digiday.com is. But I’m thinking more about our response to each other and what it has to say about what we need.
I have read (I’m sure you have read) racist arguments, tearful essays, hopeful blog posts. I’ve watched (and I’m sure you have watched) moving challenges, funny challenges (and of course failed challenges) and challenges starring celebrities calling other celebrities out. I’ve also watched (and I’m sure you have watched) videos of mothers testifying to the loss of their Black sons, video of people rioting, and video of people marching peacefully only to be met with violence.
I have read these things and watched these things because people have shared them on their Facebook feed.
For the most part the divide is person to person; the person who posts a challenge doesn’t post much about Ferguson and vice-versa. Sure there’s cross over but not a whole lot. (You might be seeing something different; I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.)
This is what I’ve come away with.
Life is hard, deeply deeply hard and painful and we all cope with it in the best way we can.
- Some of us really need to see the funny ice bucket videos and laugh knowing that it’s bringing attention to a good cause.
- Some of us really need to see people willing to engage in hard topics on fluffy social media sites, to witness their friends speaking out and risking censure.
- Some of us go to Facebook to escape.
- Some of us go to Facebook to be inspired.
- Some of us go to Facebook because we’re bored during an office meeting or during a toddler’s nap and we’re just killing time.
- Some of us do best with lots of information and discussion.
- Some of us do best when we can ignore bad news in the places where we play.
- Some of us do our donating anonymously and would never make a show of our donations.
- Some of us want to feel like part of a movement, to feel something exciting happening.
- Some of us do our political work off-line where we won’t risk relationships.
- Some of us speak loudly, passionately and use a status update as a rallying cry.
- And yes, some of us do things on social media to make ourselves look good without any real interest in changing the world. (Sometimes the world gets changed anyway, even if some of the people who are part of the movement are just phoning it in.)
I think mostly about how much we (each of us, individually) need each other (each of us, individually) and this is why it is so inspiring and so painful when our social media is not reflecting what we want to see in the world.
I get compassion fatigue. Sometimes when I’m having a hard week or I’m working with a client (or two or three) who’s having a hard week I just want to take Buzzfeed quizzes (by the way, I’m Fanny Price!) and read LaineyGossip.com. Other times I really need to see the passion in people whose values resonate with mine, to see their hard work and anger. I have definitely been the person posting controversial articles on Facebook and I’ve definitely been the person temporarily hiding a friend posting controversial articles on Facebook.
I personally think that the ice bucket challenge has gone viral in part because of Ferguson and because of Gaza and because of Robin Williams. I think that when we collectively get sad we desperately want to get happy and so in hard times our Facebook fills up with pictures of cute kittens and calls to action that are easy and that are part of being hopeful.
But I also get why the juxtaposition is so jarring and makes some of us angry and/or disheartened.
I see a clear divide on my own Facebook feed with very little crossover right now. I don’t pretend to know why that is individually (I have friends who are generally right in front of anti-racist rallying who have stayed mum on Ferguson; I have friends who generally decry public displays of social charity who are tossing ice water over their heads) but I think it’s because these are hard times and we are all doing the very best we can.
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.
Parents 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.