Reader Question – What To Do About Explosive Anger

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Dear Kate, My 6 year is experiencing extreme impulsive anger and will hit himself or hit out usually over things that seem minor recently, usually it seems quite OCD like his socks aren’t on right etc I try to be calm, I.e blame the socks not him or comment on his behaviour not him, but it’s exhausting and rarely works,any suggestions? I’m worried he’s showing OCD tendencies as things have to be just right? From N

Dear N, It’s quite common for children to have strong emotional reactions to things that are small. In fact the psychologist Aletha Solter even coined a term, ‘the broken cookie phenomenon,’ to explain why children have big emotional outbursts about something as small as a broken cookie.

What happens is that when children experience a build up of stress,and upset, they will use a small moment as a trigger for letting those feelings out. If they were feeling, relaxed and happy, the position of their socks probably wouldn’t bother them that much. But when they are dealing with upset feelings, those feelings tend to get projected onto their everyday circumstances, and nothing seems right.

In her booklet ‘Reaching For Your Angry Child,’ the founder of Hand in Hand parenting, Patty Wipfler, explains how anger usually masks deeper feelings that a child is struggling to express like fear and sadness. It could be struggles in the present like challenges in school or with friendships. It can also be that experiences from infancy, when our child was most vulnerable. A difficult birth, or medical intervention can often leave a child feeling fearful.

It’s great that you are able to remain calm when your son gets angry. One thing you could also do is to set a limit, to stop your son from hitting himself or others. You could give him eye contact, take his hands, and gently tell him, ”I’m sorry I can’t let you hit yourself.” Sometimes this kind of intervention, will give the child the connection they need to access the feelings underneath. They might cry or tantrum, and then they can release whatever upset was behind wanting the socks on right.

One of the things we often do as parents is try to stop crying, and help our child by fixing the situation and making things better as quickly as possible. But if it’s a ‘broken cookie’ scenario, this means those upset feelings tend to get stored up for a later date.

Instead if we allow our child to cry freely, without us trying to fix the situation, but simply being there to offer warmth and connection, they can naturally restore their emotional equilibrium. Tears contain stress hormones, and mood-balancing hormones, so it is nature’s way of restoring emotional wellbeing. This is the Hand in Hand parenting tool of staylistening, which literally means simply staying and listening to our child when they are upset.

When your son gets upset about these small incidences, you could try setting a limit, and listening to the feelings of upset, rather than trying to make everything right. Often what happens is that after a big cry or tantrum a child can be much more flexible and are able to deal with life’s imperfections.

Hand in Hand parenting consists of 4 other tools, (special time, playlistening, setting limits, and listening time) Each of these tools can help build the safety a child needs to release their feelings through crying. As they do so angry outbursts are reduced because a child can access their deeper feelings. One of the simplest to start with is to do regular special time with your child (1-1 time spent with them doing whatever they choose).

You can read more about the Hand in Hand parenting tools in Patty Wipfler’s Listening To Children Booklets.

I hope this helps,

Kate

Would you like a solution to your family challenge? Leave me a comment or send me a message via facebook, and you could be the subject of my next blog post.

7 thoughts on “Reader Question – What To Do About Explosive Anger

  1. Isn’t it interesting that in these situations it is often our thoughts about what other people think of the outburst that influences our stress levels and reactions more than what is actually happening to our child? It can be hard to re-orientate to the needs of our child when we start to believe these thoughts!
    I love how, as you said, when we focus on our child and look beyond the tears we can connect with them, rather than brushing their feelings away.

  2. The other day my almost 8yo son “solved” a situation like this with his best friend, same age who was hiding behind the couch, sulking after an outburst.
    He told me “you know, I’ll just let him alone. He usually calms down after 15 minutes, then we get back to playing.”
    I asked his friend “is that OK, should we just leave you alone?” He nodded.
    I set my timer. By the time the countdown was done, they were happily playing again.

    1. What a smart boy your son is Tamara. Sometimes it’s hard for even adults to stay calm around angry outbursts!

  3. I like your advice about “special time” because that seems to be so key in my life. If I spend a lot of time doing something not with my son I notice he is more prone to act out! Now do you have any post about parents anger? I am having a struggle with being quick to yell!

  4. So true about looking beyond the tears. It’s hard not to try to quiet our children when they have an outburst of emotion. And it’s even harder to get to the bottom of why it’s happening in the first place. So much builds up and it’s just the straw that breaks the camels back that usually does it.

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