I had the opportunity to interview clinical psychologist, Dr. Melissa Vivino, about children and anger. She gave great insight and brought to my attention how anger is so commonly used as a mask. She also gave a lot of healthy ideas to get kids talking about their feelings. I hope you find this interview helpful- Estée Pouleris
Dr. Vivino: Anger is an important and natural reaction that is related to safety and control. But it’s often a mask for a lot of other emotions that we especially in this society, don’t like to talk about such as:
- disappointment to name a few.
These are all emotions that may actually be the root emotions dwelling beneath the overt displays of anger. In general, we need to understand where the angry
reaction is coming from. Perhaps a way to look at it with children is to see it as the first line of expression. We, as the adults, might need to understand anger in terms of being more than meets the eye. Children often express anger to protect themselves from the other more complex emotions they might be struggling with internally. The work adults need to do is in retooling ourselves to understand more deeply and ask ourselves:
- ‘what is happening here?’
- ‘why did my child just throw that toy across the room?’
- ‘why did that child hit me?’
We really need to look at the expressive behavior and not make a quick judgment – even though sometimes we have to react quickly.
For example if you’re in a store and your kid starts having a tantrum, that’s a different kind of situation than being at home when the child has one. But for any scenario eventually you need to process and help the child understand their own behaviors. This is the hardest work of all. We as adults must also be aware of our own relationship with anger and make sure we are not making decisions based upon our own issues related to overt displays of angry. This is about being mindful and in- the- moment during these situations..And frankly, that is not always possible. (think back to the child acting out in a restaurant or store.) Yet, we owe it to our children and ourselves to use these angry expressions to build a stronger foundation of understanding and compassion towards our children. Most importantly; they are moments to help your child develop a deeper understanding about who they are and how profoundly complex we are emotionally.
Estée Pouleris: Tantrums – what is the normal age kids grow out of these?
Dr. Vivino: With regards to tantrums the developmental stage of the child can be a loose guide which helps one understand where a child is emotionally. There are 4 or 5 year olds who still have temper tantrums; there are children that don’t get them at 2 years old and others first develop them at 3 years old. It’s really based around their individual emotional fluidity and their ability to express verbally. (even if it is rudimentary) It’s really situational as well as developmentally kid specific. On average, by the time a child is 4.5 – 5 years old and they have a fluidity of language and hopefully some understanding of emotions; there should be no more tantrums.
How you respond to a child is important. If a two year old hits you, you speak to them and tell them ‘no we don’t hit and let’s take a break and calm down’. If you
have an 8 year old who is hitting you’ve got a different situation and it needs to be dealt with differently. It’s a question of age when you see the behavior and how you handle it at that point.
Estée Pouleris: My 5 year old little girl is not a very angry child, most of our days are happy. However if she does get herself into an angry place – for example if I take her ipad away because she didn’t clean up a mess I asked her to clean – she will follow me around the house stomping with her arms folded and make angry faces. She’ll demonstrate how angry she is by following me around and repeating this behavior. When she does this I tell her it’s perfectly okay to be angry because I took her ipad away, but I tell her it is not okay to take her anger out on me so she needs to go into her room until she feels better. I have no idea if this is the right way to handle this. Sometimes she may scream into her pillow and come out 5 minutes later feeling better. Is this healthy, or am I isolating her from feeling anger?
Dr. Vivino: That’s a great question, and it’s a complicated question. I believe:
- repeating why you think she is angry
- validating why she’s feeling angry and
- helping her understand what this internal pressure she’s feeling is
is all on the right track. As parents we need to label that pressure. We need to give our children ways to understand what they are feeling and ask questions that help identify the myriad emotions we, as humans, have.
- Are you angry?
- Are you upset?
- Are you sad?
- Are you ashamed?
Because if we don’t help them learn how to label and identify emotions they lose opportunities to practice and figure out which emotional label really fits with how they are feeling. Think about what it feels like when someone is able to empathize and reflect back a feeling you are experiencing. This emotional harmony resonates on both the physical and psychological (mind/body)levels. One gets the experience of being understood and “seen”. Part of our responsibility as parents is to assist our children in understanding the complexities of their feelings and how to communicate these to others. Isn’t this the essence of healthy interpersonal connections , when you can express , relate and show compassion for each others’ feelings? I believe helping a child learn how to identify with their own feelings and how to relate these experiences to others is one of the most exhausting yet most profoundly rewarding aspects of raising another human!.
Back to the example with your daughter. First, I would say that her anger was covering up feelings of disappointment and frustration over her ipad being taken away. It would be important to acknowledge these feelings and help her work them through. You could say: “ Do you think you are also frustrated or disappointed that you cant use your ipad? Mommy would be feeling the same way so how can you help yourself feel better about what happened.? Can you go read a book or draw a picture or play with your toys to help yourself feel better?” By offering options we are paving the way for her to develop ways to get back to a calm state after an emotionally trying moment. After all, who has that down pat anyway: and I mean that for adults as well as for children! In this way she becomes practiced at developing coping mechanism that can work for her in the future.
Estée Pouleris: The act of mirroring things like mirroring how children can and should respond gets tricky for me. How do I mirror anger to my child?
Dr. Vivino: Mirroring is usually something that happens on a less conscious level. We begin to non-verbally identify and relate to feelings from another person. But when it comes to our children lets talk about it as a way we can help them identify emotions and teaching them emotional fluency. When we suspect there is more than meets the eye and we are picking up on deeper emotions like shame, disappointment or fear it is critical to identify and label these for your child. This way they begin to learn how to differentiate one feeling from another. And ultimately develop an emotional fluency that is rich and complex. It’s hard to apply these methods if you’re not aware of your own feelings. If you are upset and entangled in your own reaction to your child’s behavior it’s hard to calmly and carefully be able to say ‘I think what’s going on with you is you’re more ashamed of your behavior than angry, can we talk about the difference? It’s like someone saw you do something and you were embarrassed by it and you didn’t want them to see that, are you more ashamed or angry?’ You really have to have these conversations that are not easy and they’re not always going to be complete.
You’re not going to have all the answers. When you don’t have the answer you can say:, “You know what,? we should go figure that out because I don’t know the answer to that;! ”We can figure it out together.!” I have found that allowing your children to see you with flaws and not having all the answers helps them to be more at ease with their own flaws and mistakes. Basically, So the idea is,
- what makes your child less angry,
- what makes them angry,
- and is it anger they are demonstrating to you
- or is it fear? Fear is often the number one emotion hiding anger!
- or is it another feeling you need to parcel out and talk about.
We use anger as the first defense to protect ourselves, anger can be very misunderstood. It’s a healthy emotion but people forget it’s often a “first defense” reaction; it’s fight or flight. Therefore, it’s not the only thing that’s going on, it’s the tip of the iceberg. If somebody is angry it doesn’t necessarily mean that is all they are feeling. Anger and its actions often act as a first defense to other deeper more important emotions that are going on that protects you from feeling vulnerable. Kids need to be assured in many ways and as often as possible feelings of:
not just anger are extremely important to learn how to acknowledge and learn how to express.
Estée Pouleris: Can you give me examples of how to suggest a child express their anger in healthy ways?
Dr. Vivino: There are several ways and one must keep the emotional and developmental levels in mind when employing these or any method.:
- Ask them to use their words – if they have the vocabulary and ability try to get them to describe it with words.
- Ask them where they feel their anger right now, they may touch their chest, head or belly. Ask what’s going on and how they feel in their head or where they touch.
- Ask them to be an adventurer and try to understand the internal tension they are experiencing in their bodies. If they don’t talk it out they’re going to act it out so try to get them talking. When you actually give words to our emotions and learn how to label and express them you actually can minimize tension within. You have more calm and balanced space inside of you. Emotional tension creates all kinds of physiological responses. Calmness has a whole different sent of physiological responses. So when you can use words to release the energy created by unexpressed pent up emotions you allow for the opportunity to feel this inner calm.
- With younger children you can encourage expression of inner emotional states by the use of drawing, coloring or physical body movements. Any of these methods may release tension and promotes inner balance and calm.
Estée Pouleris: My daughter is not one who likes to talk about her feelings. So if I ask her to describe her emotions or talk about it, even when I give some time and circle around she says she doesn’t want to talk about it. Also, she just lost her grandfather and getting her to talk about her sadness is a real struggle. Iguess I just don’t give up I keep asking?
Dr. Vivino: I think you might try talking aloud about your own experience when it comes to topics they don’t want to talk about at first. This verbal modeling is actually a good way to help build emotional fluency. You can also say ‘I know you don’t want to talk about it but is it okay if mommy talks about her feelings?’ If she says she doesn’t want to hear it, keep trying and ask if she’ll just listen. For a while you might be the only one talking. But eventually she’s going to understand that talking about emotions is an important skill set to learn and when she eventually joins in she will obviously benefit from becoming emotionally expressive with others.
Estée Pouleris: The loss of her grandfather was a very tangible event with strong feeling. So I made a memory box for her and put photos of her with her grandfather in the box. About a week later she came up to me and told me she looked at her memory box. She said she really liked the pictures and even later she shared the photos with her friends. It was a success. We were later able to talk about how we missed him and felt sad. But in terms of anger or her having a bad afternoon, these are harder situations. I can’t build something for her to come back to when she’s ready.
Dr. Vivino: A starting point could be to print out hand drawn faces you can find online. Underneath each is the definition of a particular emotion. You could begin by asking your child if one of these faces describes how she is feeling. You can also try asking “where in your body are you feeling these feelings and point to that area?” Remind yourself when a child says they don’t want to talk about it, it may be because they don’t know where or how to start.
Estée Pouleris: I really like this. She’s such a physical child having something physical to work with may really help the dialogue happen. If I can bring something to her and have her do a physical action like pointing, it may really be what I need to do with her.
Dr. Vivino: You can also use colors. Colors can help many children learn how to differentiate and identify their feeling. Ask your child if she could choose a color to show how she is feeling which would it be? This is another way to get a conversation about feelings going. I would not try all at the same time. Start by choosing one that you believe is best suited for your child . Also factor in time and patience. Make sure you have the time and are in a good place yourself before delving into this type of process. Also if you sense something is building up in your child you can say ‘I feel like something is bothering you, can we do something to make it a little better for you right now?.’ Diversions can also be helpful. Try to quell the emotional build-up by looking for the physical and non verbal cues that become your child’s red flags and work with them to avoid or minimize a blow up.
Estée Pouleris: What are some red flags for elementary aged kids that could indicate they may have an anger management problem and should get some professional help?
Dr. Vivino: I do not believe what will work for your child will necessarily work for mine. In my approach each child’s anger issues are uniquely their own. They must be dissected and looked at with as many knowledgeable eyes as possible. First and foremost;
- Take stock of action, statements and mood states you are observing.
- Make a list of things that are troubling to you and how often you observe them.
- Ask others you trust to look over to confirm or dispute what you are seeing.
- Ask school personnel you believe know your child to see if they are seeing anything at school as well.
- And if you do think a professional would be helpful…be sure to do your homework. Research the differences between psychiatric, psychological and counseling services. Each will offer something different. Be vocal and clear about what is troubling you and find the support and help of others.
Sometimes children going through a family crises will show no signs of distress at school. The opposite is also possible. It may be that one of the environments is serving as a sanctuary where they can forget all their troubles . Checking in and comparing notes will help identify the depth and breadth of the issue.
Estée Pouleris: If a child expresses that they want to hurt another child because they’re angry, does this fall within normal behavior?
Dr. Vivino: Speaking about it is better than acting on it. Children can often say things they don’t actually want to put into action. Ask them what they mean by “wanting to hurt someone”? Many times they are just looking for a way to quell the emotions they are experiencing in any way possible. I work from the perspective that what is needed in those instances are ways to express themselves as clearly and genuinely as possible with another person or persons they trust.
Dr. Melissa Vivino is a New York state licensed clinical psychology. She also has a Masters in school psychology and a Masters in applied behavioral psychology. Over the past 15 years, she has worked as a consultant in several private schools on Long Island and has two well-established private practices on the upper west side in Manhattan and Great Neck, Long Island. She and her husband are the proud parents of an 8 year old daughter. Melissa has practiced yoga for over 10 years. She is a vocalist in a band, loves cooking and traveling.