Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about anger, and how to respond when my kids are angry. I deeply appreciated Elizabeth Kroeger’s insights about children’s anger and blogged about it, in relation to toddler temper tantrums. Kroeger’s takes issue with the commonly held idea that there’s nothing a mother can do about a kid throwing a fit except ignore it, wait it out, or require him to do it elsewhere. In Raising Godly Tomatoes she writes:
“I see only evil in the uncurbed display of rage, selfishness, and wilfulness…. I am obligated to step in and curb temper tantrums and any other kind of wrong behavior… I do not allow temper tantrums in my home and so even if my children are frustrated, they do not have them (beyond the first few times they try, anyway). I teach them to ask me for help if they need it, and never to get angry and throw a fit just because they can’t do something. The bad habit of quickly losing their temper can be far more easily overcome (in a toddler) than in any proceeding year… The longer you pacify a child in this area (by comforting, ignoring, or distracting) the worse the situation will become. The longer you let it go on, the harder it will be to stop and the more tantrums you will have to deal with.”
Kroeger then goes on to describe her method for nipping tantrums in the bud, a strategy which has worked well for me on many occasions – including the one I described in my “What’s on the Other Side of that Temper Tantrum?” post.
Her assessment and conclusions on anger are compelling, and they convinced me that I should immediately and thoroughly quell any wrong-headed anger I saw in my children (and the wrong-headed kind, as most moms will likely tell you, constitutes the vast majority). I sought to train them that getting mad and throwing a fit because something didn’t go their way wasn’t acceptable – and to show them that they could harness self-control even when their instinct may be to tantrum. Fine.
Problem was, it didn’t work, at least not like Kroeger describes it. The methods she describes didn’t eradicate our children’s temper tantrums; my son in particular has lately begun throwing more fits (at age 5 – as described here) than perviously, despite my zero tolerance policy for this behavior. Still I continued in ambushing, outlasting, corner time, and the like. “Nothing good can come from his being allowed to hold onto that angry spirit,” I told myself. So I pressed on in the same way, and nothing improved.
But God’s been speaking to me about this lately, and some new thoughts have been occurring to me. Here are a few:
1. When my child is angry and unwilling to lay down his anger despite my telling him to, then a dynamic is created where I begin mirroring him. He wants to tantrum; I want him to stop. He won’t stop; I keep trying. I’m intent in prevailing over him with my way just like he’s intent on persisting with anger. We both want our way; we’re both intent on control. Even though my end goal is righteous and his is unrighteous, this loses importance if we’re both angry in our hearts in the midst of the standoff. And it’s very difficult to eschew an angry heart in an extended power struggle with an unrepentant kid who’s intent on showing you how long he can hold out with his tantrum.
2. There are different ways through which children let go of their anger and come to a place of calm and repentance. The ambush-style efforts that Kroeger advises can actually exacerbate and inflame the anger of some children, making the situation more intense and increasing the negative emotions and behavior the mother’s seeking to quell in her child. Requiring the child to leave the room, removal of privileges, or offering a choice that may motivate the child to let go of his anger are not intrinsically “wrong” ways to address a child’s anger, so long as he is not simply being pacified or placated.
3. Processing through anger and coming out the other side actually can be a useful and beneficial exercise for children in some cases (particularly true, it seems to me, for children past the toddler stage). Kroeger’s methods seek to extinguish the spark of temper before it alights and becomes a full fire – a worthy goal. However, sometimes there’s no chance – the fire’s already alight. What’s more, kids can actually learn from the process and emotions of anger, figure out how to manage it themselves (as opposed to their mom forcing them to), and come out the other side. Should they be allowed to rage and stew and hold a household hostage? Absolutely not. But neither should they always be told that they’re not permitted to have the feelings they are having.
In my recent reviewing of Boundaries with Kids, I came upon several passages that struck me (see bold).
“It takes trial and error and lots of effort to find what losses and consequences matter to the child. We change when the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the pain of changing…
Problems come from the tendency to avoid the pain of the momentary struggle, the pain of self-discipline and delaying gratification. If we learn to lose what we want in the moment, to feel sad about not getting our way, and then to adapt to the reality demands of difficult situations, joy and success will follow…
Teach your children that pain can be good. Model facing problems. Model being sad but continuing onward. Empathize with them about how hard it is to do the right thing, and then still require it… When children learn to value the pain of life instead of avoid it, they are ready to solve their problems. But what you want is for the child to be proactive in the process.“
In my son’s case, I realized that I’d set up a paradigm where my prohibiting and trying to eradicate his anger was making tantrums seem all the more appealing to him. The methods I was using to address his anger weren’t especially “painful” to him, and he wasn’t learning to actually exert self-control to curb his anger. He was reactive against me and my wishes, not proactive in learning to manage his impulsive emotions. And the notion of learning to “be sad but continue onward” was not penetrating in his psyche in any way.
So my husband and I have begun experimenting with other methods of addressing our son’s anger, and we’re seeing fruit. I’ve abandoned the notion that “nothing good can come from his exercising anger” – because I think it can, and because God is the one ultimately responsible to confront his heart and convict him of his sin. I’ve also abandoned the notion that his becoming angry and tantrum-y is somehow a huge red flag, something that I need to drop everything and address with my whole attention and focus, something scary and wildly concerning. I believe in him, that he can learn to address this tendency in himself – with our help and God’s leading – and come out the other side. It may take time – it likely will – but that’s ok.
This isn’t to say that I let his anger slide – that I overlook it or let him prevail in sin. I just address it in different ways, and I don’t strive to shrink or reverse his anger the way I once did. Instead I work with my son to own it and to learn to overcome it, with God’s help. And most of all, I let it go and entrust it to God, praying that his tendencies to be”quickly provoked in his spirit” will be overcome while he’s still young.