As children grow up they will use anger to express themselves. In this article we will evaluate what anger is and how and why it becomes such a powerful and difficult thing to deal with in the older child.
There are three emotions that are related. They are sadness, frustration, and anger. Emotions are part of being human. They seem to be nature’s way of letting us know that something that we are experiencing needs to be attended to. An interesting bit of information is that all three of these emotions have the same biochemical signature. In other words, the internal chemistry of the body is identical in the expression of each of these emotions. This means that it is the brain, analyzing the circumstance, that determines whether one is angry, sad, or frustrated not just the emotional sensation. It is how we interpret what is happing to us rather than the circumstances that exist outside and inside our body that determines how we decide to behave.
Yet, body chemistry and the feelings that are created are important. It is these feelings and emotions that make us human. Without them we would think and act like a robot, analyzing everything and making logical rather than heartfelt decisions.
Given this information, it is natural for children to experience and express emotions such as anger, sadness, and/or frustration. If you are a caring human being, it is impossible to avoiding such feelings. Therefore, helping your children learn how to deal with emotions is much more productive then trying to teach them to deny or suppress them.
When children are small we expect them to do what comes naturally. We do not expect them to be born already potty-trained. We recognize that even though bladder control is lacking that, with time and experience, children can learn how to master the process of emptying the bladder in the appropriate place at the appropriate time.
The same is true with anger control. We now know that anger control is learned. This also means that aggression and use of anger to get ones way is also learned. Not only is aggression learned, it is such a powerful way to control others and for getting your way that it is difficult to address when a child is older and experienced in using this seemingly powerful way of behaving.
When your children are small and the world is new and confusing it is important for them to be able find order and predictability in the world. They work hard at controlling their world and the people and things in their world. They will experiment, imitate, categorize, and look for rules or meaning to obtain that order. This is how they learn that aggression or the use of anger is a valuable tool to control their world.
Children experiment, almost like a scientist, with different behaviors and if aggression and temper tantrums get them what they want or cause those powerful adults in their world to listen and serve them, then they refine and develop this powerful and effective behavior.
Children also observe those around them. When they observe what seems like an interesting and possibly effective behavior such as anger they mimic this tactic and if it works they put it in their toolbox of behaviors.
Children are very good at categorizing. Even small children can tell you the difference between a tyrannosaurs and a triceratops. They categorize behaviors into useful and not useful categories. They categorize behaviors into those that get attention and those that don’t. They categorize behaviors into those that work and those that don’t. They categorize behaviors into those that get others to take care of them and those that don’t. They categorize behaviors into those that get them what they want and those that don’t. They do not seem to be too concerned, at first, with behaviors that make them liked and those that cause disapproval. This categorization comes later as they learn to understand that others have feelings just like they do.
As they grow, children look for rules or meaning. At an early age they develop a sense of fair play. Even though they do not always follow the rules, they can tell you the rules they should live by. “You shouldn’t hit others.” is a rule they can verbalize but it is only a rule that they have discovered or been told when they are little. It does not become something they practice until they make the rule their own and it has meaning and purpose for them. This means that exposure to morals and values are important for the child to develop a sense of inner identity and find purpose and meaning in their life. Moral development does not naturally evolve. It must be taught to children so they can integrate these teachings into their own meaning of life and existence. If they are not taught, children will remain amoral or self-centered. Aggression is a logical choice if children are only concerned about themselves.
In the next articles I write I will give suggestions on how anger that is learned can be unlearned by teaching children what to do instead, teaching children anger control, and providing children with a moral foundation for choices.