All children get angry. It’s a part of life. In fact, anger can be good. For instance, our children’s anger can help us identify what they find important. After all, a person rarely gets angry about something they don’t care about. Anger also gives us the energy to address that priority. The trick is to not let the anger overwhelm us but to learn how to use the energy of our anger to address the priority in a positive and productive manner. With that in mind, we can address our children’s anger by exploring what priority lies underneath their anger. Here are a few to look for:
- Feeling unheard. Children get angry when they feel “no one listens to me.” We may inadvertently contribute to this feeling if we have not learned to be observant of our children. For instance, if we do not observe the subtle cues of boredom, tiredness, hunger, or nervousness our children may escalate to anger. We did not “hear” their subtle behaviors telling us they needed a break so they broke out in anger to be heard. Learn to listen well. Listen to their words but also to their body language and actions. Listen with your ears and your eyes.
- Being emotionally hurt. Hurt often lies underneath our children’s angry outbursts. Remember our children do not think like adults so what you may think of as a minor infraction might be perceived as a major betrayal in their eyes. For instance, I told my daughter we could get ice cream one night; but then I got called in to work for an emergency. She felt as though I had broken a promise, betrayed a trust. She was hurt. We needed to repair our relationship. Broken promises, teasing names, strained friendships, a teacher’s comment, and similar experiences can lead to hurt…which can be expressed in anger. Observe your children’s anger carefully to discover if there is a hurt underneath that anger.
- Fear. Children often respond to fear with anger. Fear might arise in response to the unknown or the unpredictable. Perhaps you have experienced your children’s anger on the first day of school, as they prepare for the new and “unknown” of a new school and new teachers. Or, you may have noticed the increase in your children’s anger when routines get changed and life becomes unpredictable. Our children thrive in structure. They excel when they have a predictable routine letting them know what comes next. If that routine gets changed, be sure to keep your children informed. Doing so can cut back on angry outbursts. (For more on the benefits of routines, read The Discipline Tool You Can’t Live Without.)
- Attention. Everyone likes to be noticed. Children especially need to know their parents notice them and delight in them. Sometimes, however, parents give their children all kinds of energetic attention when they misbehave and very little attention when they are behaving. We think, “Don’t upset the apple cart” when they behave and avoid interrupting as a result…which they interpret as receiving no attention. When they misbehave, we jump on the misbehavior to nip it in the bud. Unfortunately, we have given attention to the angry misbehavior and ignored the positive behavior. We have reinforced the angry misbehavior with attention and taught them the best way to get attention is with angry misbehavior. Once again, we must remain observant of our children. Verbally acknowledge their positive behaviors and address negative behavior in a calm, neutral voice. (Read Catch the Little Rascals Red-Handed for more on the impact of attention in discipline.)
I’m sure there are more reasons lying beneath our children’s anger; but these four give us a start. You can learn the specifics of what lies under your children’s anger through careful observation and loving interaction. As you observe your children, tell us what you find…it might help all of us deal better with our children’s anger!
My family and I enjoyed a wonderful trip to visit family in Illinois. While there, we visited the Lincoln Museum and Lincoln’s home in Springfield. As we toured a home in Lincoln’s community, I read a quote by Mary Todd Lincoln: “He [Lincoln] always said, ‘It is my pleasure that my children are free, happy and unrestrained by parental tyranny. Love is the chain whereby to bind a child to its parents.'”
Lincoln was apparently rather permissive with his children; but, he shows wisdom in this statement. We do want our children to grow up “unrestrained by parental tyranny.” Instead, we want them to grow up under the “loving parental authority” that will “bind a child to its parents.” Compare the two with me and see if you don’t agree.
- Parental tyranny would place unreasonable demands on children. Loving parental authority places reasonable and age appropriate expectations on children. Children still have chores and behavioral expectations, but they are age appropriate.
- Parental tyranny makes harsh demands. If those demands are not met, children receive cruel punishments that might include demeaning and belittling comments. Unfortunately, under parental tyranny, the parent is never satisfied with any job children complete. It never meets the unreasonable standard of a parental tyrant. Loving parental authority, on the other hand, encourages children, praises effort invested in a task, and acknowledges a job well-done. As noted above, reasonable and age appropriate expectations remain in place. If these expectations are not met, children receive age appropriate consequences designed to teach desired behavior.
- Parental tyranny uses coercive control methods such as guilt, threats, and belittling. Loving parental authority uses consequences designed to teach rather than punish. Consequences “fit the crime” and either flow naturally or logically from the misbehavior. For instance, if children do not clean up after themselves, parental tyranny may yell at them, labels them as “lazy” and “disrespectful,” “a pig” with “no sense.” Loving parental authority tells them they must clean their room before watching their favorite TV show or going out with friends…and does not “give in” because they feel bad.
- Parental tyrants dish out arbitrary consequences. Sometimes misbehavior receives no consequence, sometimes a harsh consequence, and sometimes a simple consequence. Loving parental authority offers clear and consistent expectations with clear and consistent consequences.
- Parental tyranny results in in an oppressive environment filled with harsh competition, fear, and resentment. Loving parental authority creates an environment filled with honor, encouragement, kindness, and grace. The environment created by loving parental authority is filled with joyful celebration!
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to live in a house that practices parental tyranny. I think Old Honest Abe was right. We need a home “unrestrained by parental tyranny,” a home in which loving parental authority rules the roost. And when it does, love will “bind a child to his or her parent.”
Children develop and mature best with parents who practice benevolent authority in the home. Children gain a sense of security knowing their parents not only have power, but use that power to establish and enforce a loving structure in the home. Still, not just any authority will do. Children benefit most from a benevolent authority in their life, not a harsh or permissive authority. If we want to establish a benevolent authority in our home, we must include these six ingredients:
- Relationship is the first and foremost ingredient in building a strong parental authority. Authority flows from relationship. The knowledge that we love our children no matter what they do or say gives us a legitimate authority in their eyes. A strong loving relationship with our children gives our authority credibility. Build your relationships with your children and you strengthen your authority in their lives as well.
- Next, add a healthy dose of empathy and compassion to create a strong and healthy parental authority. When we love our children, we hurt when they hurt. We want to relieve their suffering and ease their struggle. At times, we will relive their suffering; at other times we will let them suffer the consequences of their actions because we love them. Even then we will empathize with their disappointments and discomfort. They will recognize our empathy, even if they never admit it to us. I have heard many people note that the worst part of being disciplined by a loving parent is seeing the hurt in their parent’s eyes. Our compassion and empathy for our children adds weight to our authority in their eyes.
- Parental authority also demands a generous dose of longsuffering. We do not use the term “longsuffering” very much today. However, longsuffering, in combination with compassion, is an important ingredient in parental authority. We hate to see our children suffer, even when that suffering results from their own choices and actions. We suffer long when we lovingly allow our children to experience the consequences of their choices and actions. But, that “longsuffering” pays great dividends over time. When we allow longsuffering to temper our compassion, we will witness our children maturing through the consequences of their actions and choices. The ability to not jump in to rescue our children, but to “suffer long” instead, strengthens our authority as wise and sacrificial parents.
- Brevity and an economy of words will add oomph to our parental authority as well. Yelling, lecturing, and nagging will minimize our authority. If our children learn we will say something over and over (lecturing, nagging), they quit listening. If they know we are not going to follow through until we yell, they will wait for us to yell before taking action. In other words, our children learn our words have no weight and carry no power when we yell, lecture, or nag. When we simply state an expectation without lecturing, nagging, or yelling, our words become authoritative. When we follow our words with simple consequences, our children learn we have authority, our words have meaning. And, they learn to listen. They learn to respect authority.
- A similar ingredient in parental authority is silence. Yes; silence is powerful. Silence allows our children time to think and process what was requested or expected. As our children think and process, they internalize the values and expectations we are teaching them in silence. Give them space to think.
- The final, but not the least, ingredient in parental authority is consistency. A parent with a strong authoritative presence will consistently relate to their children with compassion and longsuffering, making requests and stating expectation with an economy of words. Sure, we will make mistakes; but consistent effort will strengthen a healthy, loving authority our relationship with our children.
A healthy parental authority does not come easy. It flows from relationship and is strengthened by consistent compassion and longsuffering. Practice it wisely and you and your children will find great benefits.
Children are not our puppets. We cannot control them. (Learn more in Children Are Not Our Puppets.) In fact, if we hold our children on puppet strings, we do them a disservice. We interfere with their healthy self-image, intimate relationships, and ability to assertively take a stand for what they believe. What can you do as a parent to cut the puppet strings and let go? What can you do to keep your children safe while not controlling them? These five actions can help you let go of over-control while encouraging your children to mature.
- Get curious. Encourage conversation with your children. Learn about their interests and opinions by asking open-ended questions. Learn about their friends, their dreams, their fears, their hobbies. Our children are fascinating! Get curious and learn about them by talking with them often.
- Get your own life. Don’t live your life through your children. Don’t encourage your children to fulfill your dreams. Get your own life and let your children have their life. That will mean allowing them to become involved in activities without you. It will mean allowing them to meet other adults they can look up to and go to for advice. Let your children have their own life may mean allowing them to have no interest at all in something you find exciting. Let your children have a life that is separate from your life.
- Be consistent and flexible. Children need us to be consistent in our love for them and our expectations of them. They need to know the rules and the consequences of breaking those rules. As they grow, they benefit from knowing the reasoning behind the rules as well. Our children also need us to be flexible. They need to have the opportunity to talk about the rules and give their explanation for why they believe an exception or a change is called for as they mature. They need to know we will listen and consider their opinion. They need to know we are willing to make changes in the rules or expectations when they make sense and show maturity. We grow as they grow. The rules changes as we all mature.
- Accept their choices. Children and adolescents need to make choices. Let them make age appropriate choices. You may not let your preschooler choose where to go for vacation, but let them choose between two outfits to wear for the day. As your children grow, let them have more choice and responsibility. They might make choices you disagree with. Sometimes these choices are merely opinion, like whether to wear a pullover shirt or a button up shirt. Other times their choices will just be wrong. When these wrong choices are not dangerous or life threatening, accept them. They will suffer the consequences. Let them. We learn when we make wrong choices and experience the results.
- Lean in. No matter what your children do, lean in to your relationship with them. Our children really need to know we want a relationship with them when they do suffer consequences for bad choices. They need to know our love is unconditional. When they do something that makes you proud, lean in to the relationship. When they make a mistake or fail, lean in to the relationship. When they disobey and you have to discipline them, lean in to the relationship. For love covers a multitude of sins.
These five practices can help you cut the puppet strings and train your children to become real boys and girls. No, they will become even more than that. They will become mature and responsible young men and women.
A young parent asked me to describe ways to help her 12-year-old daughter become less self-centered, more giving, and more compassionate. She asked, “What if we feed the homeless one day so she can see how good she has it?” and “Maybe she should give some of her toys to more needy children…would that help?” This mother had good intentions. She wanted her daughter to grow in happiness, humility, and generosity. However, she needed to think about a couple things. First, she needed to remember the less fortunate are not a tool for our goals. People who have needs are, first and foremost, people like you and me. Of course, when I mentioned this, she agreed. She had not intended to make it sound like she was using the needy to help her daughter. She truly had a desire to help others and share her love, time, and wealth. Still, she was missing one other important ingredient.
She was missing one of the most important ingredients of effective parenting. Without this one ingredient, anything a parent does will prove ineffective. Parents need this ingredient for a child to learn and grow. What is this ingredient? Consistency! That’s right. Effective parenting demands consistency over time. Reaching out one time to those who are less fortunately will only be an event. It will have little to no lasting impact. The sights and smells, feelings and sounds of that day will fade away and become a distant memory. However, if you and your children consistently engage in volunteer work, your children will come to understand the benefit of helping others. They will begin to experience the joy of sacrificial giving and humbly accept their own fortune along with the responsibility to help others.
Consistency is important in other areas of parenting as well. For instance, discipline must be consistent over time in order to prove effective in helping children internalize values and move toward becoming self-disciplined adults. For children to grow into confident young adults, they need to have experienced consistent love over the years of their childhood and adolescence. Consistent teaching allows children to learn how to care for themselves and keep their home. The areas in which consistency are essential goes on, but you get the idea. We teach our children nothing when we do any parenting tasks only one time. Model these skills over time, teach them consistently throughout childhood, and your children will grow into mature young adults. Yes indeed, consistency is an essential ingredient for successful parenting…and it begins today!