This is the 11th part of a series we have titled “Concepts and Skills of Parenting.” It is adapted from the book Healing Parents: Helping Wounded Children Learn to Trust and Love. To read Part 1 — which provides a look at secure attachment at the start of life — click here. Part 2 explores the core concepts of child development. Part 3 examines the importance of trust and reciprocity in the formation of secure attachment. Part 4 provides an overview of the developing brain. Part 5 explains the importance of parenting with a mindset focused on opportunity, not crisis. Part 6 explains why it’s important to be a calm parent. Part 7 provides parents guidance about how much structure and freedom to give their children. Part 8 explains why children need chores — and accountability. Part 9 provides a look at a better way to discipline than timeouts. Part 10 recommends that parents become a “secure base” for their children. 

Anger is a normal emotion. We all experience it — and we all know how very destructive it can be when acted on against others or turned inward against oneself. Unchecked, anger can lead to violence, aggression and the destruction of relationships — parent-child, marital, family, friendships and work.

A primary goal is to learn to manage anger constructively — to achieve appropriate self-control and to be able to cope effectively. Before anger can be managed, however, it must be understood. Anger is an emotion that often results from your thinking; your attitude and beliefs about anger and conflict, early messages you received from role models, and your “self-talk” that determines your feelings and actions.

Anger is a secondary emotion; it covers up other emotions, such as fear, loss, rejection, and sadness. For example, anger often results from unresolved grief. Children who lost birth parents often act out in anger toward their foster and adoptive parents. This covers their pain about loss and grief and provides protection against future loss (“I’ll push you away before you reject me.”)

Anger often results from feeling threatened. Children with backgrounds of maltreatment and compromised attachment feel threatened when they perceive a loss of control. Early trauma and lack of secure attachment also results in changes in the developing brain that makes it difficult to handle impulses, arousal and anger. These children lack frustration tolerance and flexibility, and easily become distressed, agitated, and angry. A child’s physical condition is also important to understand. High levels of stress caused by lack of sleep, poor diet and lack of exercise can lead to anger. For example, a drop in blood sugar or too much sugar in the blood both can trigger stress and anger.

Anger management is a skill and can be learned by both children and parents. Learning involves practice. First, practice your skills in a safe setting via role-playing. Next, practice these same skills in real-life situations. We all need praise. Give your child plenty of positive feedback for trying new skills. Help your child (and yourself) to view setbacks as opportunities for learning and growth, not as failures.

Learning to manage anger is only the beginning. Once your child is handling his anger better, then the door is opened fo the mastery of other developmental tasks (for example, impulse control, frustration tolerance, and empathy) and for a healthier parent-child relationship. Anger management includes the following skills and steps: Identify and address underlying emotions, be aware of external and internal triggers, understand early messages received from role models, recognize self-talk, know your anger sequence, be aware of body signals signals and body language, and identify your conflict style. The following describes each step and skill and provides a task for you to complete.

Identify and address underlying emotions

Anger is often just the tip of the iceberg; there are other emotions beneath the surface.

Task: Practice identifying the emotions under your anger. Describe a situation in which you became angry, and name the underlying emotions.

Be aware of external and internal triggers

There are certain situations or actions that trigger anger feelings and behavior. When someone pushes your buttons, you always have a choice as to how you respond; you have control over, and are responsible for, your own behavior.

Task: Describe what triggered your anger in a specific situation.

Understand early messages received from role models

People often behave in the same ways they were taught. You have a choice: Which messages and values about anger do you want to keep or let go?

Examples of anger messages are:

  • “Violence is OK.”
  • “Don’t be angry.”
  • “Talk or don’t talk about your anger.”
  • “Men can be angry, but not women.”
  • “Anger leads to abuse and pain.”

Task: Identify the anger messages you received from important role models.

  • What did he or she teach you about anger and handling anger?
  • Describe a memory about this person’s anger?
  • What messages and values do you want to keep or reject?

Recognize Self-Talk

Self-talk is what you tell yourself about yourself, others and situations. These preconceived ideas and beliefs have major influence on how you deal with conflict and anger because feelings follow thoughts. Self-talk can be positive or negative. Increasing your “positive” scripts will lead to more positive attitude and behaviors.

Task: Describe a situation in which you got very angry. Now describe your self-talk before, during and after that situation. Include self-talk about yourself, the person you were angry with, and other self-talk.

Know your anger sequence

Anger often feels like a sudden explosion, but as you have realized there are specific thoughts and feelings that come before anger. Knowing your thoughts (self-talk) and emotions will allow you to de-escalate before you explode.

Task: List situations that involved anger.

Be aware of body signals and body language

Anger is usually a reaction to a perceived threat. All animals have physiological reactions for self-protection and to be able to respond — fight-flight-freeze.

Task: Identify physical cues so you can know when your anger is escalating:

  • Fast heart beat
  • Can’t catch your breath
  • Clenched jaws
  • Headache
  • Flushed face
  • Knots in your stomach
  • Clenched fists
  • Sweaty palms
  • Shaking arms or legs
  • Feet tapping
  • Crying

Photo by Petras Gagilas