Last week, a parent walked down the street to visit a neighbor, her children following in a child-sized, motorized vehicle. The driver was about age 4 with a not yet 2-year-old passenger. While the adults chatted, the youngster drove haphazardly around the court, over lawns and curbs. Eventually the parent noticed and screamed at the preschool-aged driver to be more careful, at which point he struck the curb head on nearly ejecting his sister into the street.
Finally, moved to action, the parent ran to the miniature car yelling at the miniature driver who was pulled from behind the wheel and loudly scolded for his irresponsibility. I think you could safely say she was angry. But with whom? And why?
Anger is a natural human emotion, a signal that something is awry. Anger is a seductive, deceptive emotion creating the illusion of being in control when we are actually losing control. Like wild animals with features that enhance their size when threatened, we feel bigger and tougher when we are angry. However, anger is a secondary emotion, meaning that another feeling was experienced first, sometimes for only an instant. Feelings that typically precede anger are fear, disappointment, embarrassment, guilt, inadequacy, even fatigue or hunger. The common factor is the vulnerability these emotions produce. Vulnerability makes us uncomfortable, so we revert to anger because we feel more powerful. Therefore, anger arises from a sense of deficiency, surfacing when we are operating from a real or perceived deficit. The deficit may exist in any number of areas from time, knowledge, ability, or confidence, to appreciation or love. Anger is the mask of certainty we put on in the midst of a crisis of doubt.
As a defense mechanism, anger protects us from feelings we would rather deny. It prevents us from taking responsibility for and dealing with our true feelings, allowing us to direct the energy from those uncomfortable feelings outward, against others. We transfer the responsibility for our anger to the other person, justifying our actions using the logic that since it’s their fault we feel this way, they deserve whatever we dish out. Some of us become so comfortable with anger, it appears to be instantaneous, bypassing the original emotion altogether. Like any habit, it becomes an unconscious choice, but a choice nevertheless.
The goal is not to eliminate anger from the emotional repertoire, but to express it in ways that are not destructive to our relationships. We can manage our anger more effectively, and teach our children to do the same, by:
Many of us grew up with misguided notions about anger — you shouldn’t get angry with people you love, anger leads to abandonment or violence, anger should be kept inside, anger is bad and so are people who become angry. But, feelings are neither right nor wrong. How we choose to express them makes the difference.
Developing realistic expectations
Accept anger as a natural human emotion that everyone is going to experience. Identify your anger triggers and help your children identify theirs. When we recognize situations that ignite our anger, we are better prepared to manage them.
Increasing feeling word vocabulary
We tend to limit our feeling descriptions to sad, mad, happy, glad, when there is a whole range of human emotions. Search for age-appropriate lists of feeling words to share with your family. The more accurately we label our feelings, the more likely we are to express them appropriately.
Providing outlets for anger
Intense feelings create physical tension. Establish rules for acceptable ways to channel this energy. When angry, hitting, swearing, and name calling are not allowed, but kicking a ball, screaming into a pillow, or going for a walk are. While releasing the tension is important, returning to resolve the conflict is essential.
Identify that initial feeling you experienced. Carefully select your words to convey the message you need the other person to hear, in a way they can hear it. Remember honesty is not cruel, disrespectful, or snotty. Honesty invites cooperation and seeks resolution.
Using focused listening
Give the other party a chance to respond. Listening is a total body experience requiring your eyes, mind, and feelings, as well as your ears. Notice physical, as well as verbal cues, such as eye contact, facial expression, tone of voice, and body posture.
Saying “I’m sorry” for repeated transgressions gets old. An apology should include what you are sorry for, why you were wrong, what you plan to do to correct the situation,
Grant forgiveness readily and completely when offered a genuine apology. The parent of the errant preschool driver probably experienced a mixture of fear, embarrassment, and guilt. Her disappointment with herself was directed toward the child. Rather than learn that being unsafe is scary, he learned that anger is scary.
Remember, love is not the absence of anger. Love is the desire to address the source of the anger and prevent its destructive force in the relationship. Be slow to anger and quick to forgive.