For the therapist it is not unusual to meet children who are angry. In fact, it is not unusual to meet children who want to hurt others. They use words like; “I want to kill”, “I hate him”, “I want him dead.” On one level it is shocking to hear tiny children speak with such force and conviction toward malfeasance. On the other hand I take to heart my job, which is to understand what this is really about.Is the new normal that of angry kids? Or, is it that kids have had their anger for a very long time?
I have worked in the field of mental health for over thirty years. I have always known children who were angry. I have met children possessing well-developed verbal skills with profanity and those that hurled chairs at me in the play therapy room. I have been hit, kicked, sworn at, ridiculed, and children have left the therapy room, the office building, and the office complex en route to the highway or the woods.
I have learned a lot about children and their anger over the years. I have also watched the evolution of the news media, contemporary events such as 9-11, many dozens of school shootings, and horrific crimes have been committed by those young people who carried their anger like explosive devices. Times have changed, stress has changed, and parenting has also changed.
Today it is common to send angry children away to residential treatment centers, therapeutic boarding facilities, therapeutic schools, camps and outdoor programs for at-risk youth, or to Aunt Em and Uncle Henry back in the Mid West.
As a clinical therapist I have noted a change in the types of referrals. For example, I now receive referrals for kindergarten aged children who have been expelled from school pending a psychological assessment from a counselor. The reasons children this age and throughout elementary school are being expelled can be anything that involves aggression, hitting, fighting, kicking, inappropriate language, speaking out of turn in the classroom, insulting teachers or peers, or grabbing their crotch somewhat like lead rock singers do when performing on stage.
What is the anger and wanting to hurt others all about? Are teaching professionals afraid they will have the next school shooter and they need to document any behavioral challenges? How does this influence our children, their families, and our culture as a whole?
There are several reasons for why children turn their collective emotions into anger and a desire to strike out at others. It has been said that suicide and homicide are flip sides of the same coin. Sometimes people harm themselves and other times they strike out at others.
It has also been said that the flip side of depression is anger.
When I think about anger I think of it as one of our most potent primary emotions. I like to think of emotions like colors. We have primary colors such as red, yellow, green, and blue. When mixed we create secondary colors such as brown, mauve, rose, and avocado green. Emotions are the same. The primary emotions are anger, fear, joy, happiness, and sadness. Anger is a sentinel emotion often sent out to do the work of any number of secondary emotions belonging to anger such as frustration or confusion or for other primary emotions such as fear or sadness.
So, when children are angry they have seen anger used as a powerful remedy to emotional release at home, in school, by teachers, by friends, on television, at the movies, in books, and in video gaming. They also see anger on the news, in news reporting, at the grocery store, and on the cover of tabloid and other magazines while checking out of the grocery store with mom or dad.
Anger is everywhere and so is violence. Children are confused.
Mixed messages about anger and violence are everywhere and children are, by their developmental abilities, limited to literally translating what they see. Angry parents translates to anger as acceptable. Angry television and media coverage suggests the same. Anger by teachers, doctors, nurses, or other adults is teaching that anger is acceptable. Anger is acceptable, but not understandable to small children. They have to learn to work with big emotions and find ways to move the frustrations and disappointments through without striking out as a first resort. Children need lots of time, lots of patience, and parents as well as schools need to focus in on relationship skill building early on.
Most often I find that angry children who want to hurt others are themselves sad, confused, frustrated, and lonely. They often are experiencing loss and they are grieving, but no one knows. Often there is no one to talk to on a deep level. Often parents are too busy and distracted. Often parents feel things like sports, camps, Karate, or gymnastics is a way to expose a child to social and emotional growth. These are good things, but they are not a substitute for hanging out with your child and having lengthy discussions about life.
Parents tell me they don’t have time.
I say you need to find the time. It’s not that I don’t care about how hard it is to be a parent or a single parent. I do care. However, I care that children are growing up without a proper sounding board for all their feelings and it is too easy to run off to the television, video gaming console, a friend’s house, or the Internet. These are all poor substitutes for parenting. Both parents and children run away from one another. What is everyone afraid of?
More than ever before children are saying they want to kill. Children don’t want to feel this way. I think it is time to step up and get more intimate with children on an emotional level. Our culture is sending some scary mixed messages about violence. Will we sit around and see what happens next or will we be proactive and get involved?
You already know the right answer.
Take care and be well.
Nanette Burton Mongelluzzo, PhD
Understanding Loss and Grief https://rowman.com/ISBN/978-1-4422-2274-8 Promo Code for Book Discount: 4M14UNLG through Rowman & Littlefield Publishers