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Help, my child is angry

Help, my child is angry

For the sake of this writing, I am using the pronoun “he” to describe both male and female.

So many times I see concerning parents in therapy who do not know what to do or how to manage their angry child. In my experience boys tend to react outwards, so you see more of boys showing defiance, throwing things, breaking things, hitting people, shouting, swearing and getting into trouble at school. Obviously many girls display the same level of overt anger as well, but in my experience, girls tend to withdraw and keep the anger inside of them. When this happens it affects the whole family and everyone reacts in relation to the distress the angry child’s behavior creates. By the time I see families, their child have had many warnings at school or have been excluded because of behavior concerns such as not listening to teachers, being disruptive in class, talking back at teachers, getting angry, fighting, bullying other children or more. The child is being described as acting out. Paradoxically, the child who is subdued, passive, withdrawn in my opinion is also acting out. Oaklander (1978) is of the opinion that acting out is an inappropriate label for children because we are all in one way or another always acting out something. These labels can construct unhealthy identities within children and young people (Carr, 2005).

The child that shows anger or defiance in the classroom is sometimes labeled as acting out and he gets noticed first. He is often extremely restless, strikes out at other children for no apparent reason (but often for good reason), is disobedient (and therefore called rebellious), talks loudly, often interrupts, teases and provokes others and is at times domineering towards other children. Adults do not like this sort of behaviors in children because the child’s behaviour interrupts the social life of the adult. Interestingly enough, in my dialogues with children in therapy, children also do not like certain behaviours of adults, but adults are seldom chastised for interrupting a child. However, when a child is called “aggressive”, or “acting out” or “rebellious” or “rude” or “disobedient” the child is actually labeled with a judgment. The questions therapists that work from a social constructionist position are interested in are where do those judgments come from? How was this informed? I want to make the reader aware that these labels are someone’s labels, someone’s descriptions, someone’s judgments. Foucault refers to two powerful ways of investigating discourse. The first one is the historical rules that regulate particular discourses. The second is the forces and events that shape discursive practices, therefore institutionalised beliefs that regulate justification for judging certain behaviours (Foucault, 1976, 1980).

In my clinical experience I have observed that the child is sometimes aggressive because the child is purely expressing anger. He may punch another child; break a dish in an expression of anger. The expression of anger is not the true expression of anger, but sometimes a deflection of the real feelings the child has (Oaklander, 1978). I perceive the child who displays aggressive and hostile behavior as a child who has deep feelings of anger, rejection, insecurity, anxiety, and hurt and often a confused sense of self.

Parents and teachers assume that the angry child has something inside of him that makes him angry and many times they believe that the child may have Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD). Many other stereotypical diagnoses to label a child have seen the DSMIV or ICD10 Diagnostic manual such as Defiance Disorders or Emotional Regulation Disorders.

Organisations and mental health services that work from a more positivist or medical paradigm may resort to medication and diagnosis to treat uncontrollable and angry children. However, many times professionals and significant adults in the child’s life do not realise that the child is unhappy with his environment. The child may at times find his environment unfriendly and unkind and does not always feel unconditionally loved and respected. The child therefore can be provoked by his environment, and not necessarily the other way around. There is a relational dynamic in what the child seems to show to the world.

A disturbed child can also be described as a child that is motivated by undifferentiated and unfocussed feelings of anger and fear (Carr, 2005; Moustakas, 1959 in Oaklander, 1978). What the child lacks internally is how to cope with an environment that makes him angry and fearful. When the child strikes out with anger, he does not always know how to handle the feelings that were constructed within him through the perceived unfriendly environment.

Parents would many times tell me that their child is such a sweet natured child and then without any reason could become unpleasant, violent and unmanageable. A child is not a sweet natured child one moment and then for no reason react with such grave concerns that the police has to be called or the child is being excluded from school. The environment in my view sometimes provokes anti-social behavior in children. The child has surely expressed his needs in more subtle ways previously but unfortunately adults don’t always pay attention until he exaggerates his behavour in concerning ways. Children’s concerning behaviours mirrors the relational dynamics within the family. In my view, the child can not be separated from the family dynamics.

These behaviours that are being perceived as antisocial are many times the only ways the child has to reconnect with his world and his attempts to re-establish a social and relational connection Systemic therapists argue that emotions and experiences are driven by interpersonal events (what happens between people and groups of people). In therapy, I would therefore focus on what emotions and experiences are constructed within the relationships of people or groups of people as appose to dwelling on an investigation of the intra-psychic emotional states. Therefore, statements such as my child is angry reify emotions and language such as my child is angry implies that these states are strictly intra-psychic rather than transient states that ebb and flow as part of relationship dynamics. However, even though the expression of emotion was important in my work with children and families, I do not place emotions at the center of my work because:

  1. A complete focus on emotion can distract attention from the interactional dynamics and patterns in families;

  2. There had been assumptions that emotions are essentially private, personal, intra-psychic phenomena. Too much focus on discussing this in therapy can steer therapy away from looking at interpersonal dynamics;

  3. Discussions of feelings generate very little new information. Asking someone how they feel about their difficulties often produce little change and tends to keep the focus on the individual, and not the relational system;

  4. I tend to work in the here and now and focusing too much on emotion keeps people living in the past.

However, I never leave emotions unaddressed in therapy because emotions organise interactions between family members. Emotional expression is the main route by which family members define their relationships and influence each other’s behavior.

When I see parent who bring their “aggressive” child to me, I tend to listen to the list of unpleasantness whilst observing the child, who at times sullenly sits in a corner pretending he doesn’t hear or doesn’t care, sometimes venturing to add an “I do not!” or That’s not true!” I am also mindful of something we call “triangulation” in systemic psychotherapy. Triangulation in this context is when a child and parent could draw the therapist in to avoid dealing with issues. In other situations triangulation could be seen as a process whereby emotional tension and conflicts occurring between a pair in a family result in a third person being drawn in to ameliorate the level of tension.

I usually try to explain to parents that family therapy (systemic therapy) may be the best way of addressing the perceived anger in the child. However, most times, parents feel the problem is within the child and want the child to be “fixed” In situations like this I suggest Gestalt Play Therapy with children.

Anger is an honest, normal feeling. Everyone gets angry. I get angry. You get angry. It is how we accept these feelings and how we express it that cause problems. It is also when there was an unawareness of the relational dynamics and social construction of emotions within families that people feel responsible for making other people unhappy. It is important to create a context where the child and parent could see how emotion is being constructed within the family and how everyone was affected by each other. It is also important to look at how meaning is created and how we sometimes assume something from another in the family that can create an emotional reaction.

When I work with children individually to express anger in unhelpful ways, I recognise the following:

  1. I give children practical methods of expressing their feelings. This could be through playing out an upsetting event at home or school, through clay, drawing feelings or monsters and ripping up paper. I always try to go into dialogue with a child when such an expression takes place because I do not want to reconstruct socially acceptable aggressive behavior as okay.

  2. I try to help children to move to the actual feeling of anger because what we usually see is a deflection of their real feeling. I encourage children to give emotional expression to this anger, right there with me in my office;

  3. I aim to give children the experience of being verbally direct with their angry feeling, saying what they need to say to the person they need to say it to;

  4. I talk to children about anger; what it is, what makes them angry, how they show it, what they do when they feel it.

Children have much trouble expressing emotion, especially emotion relating to behaviours that are irritating to our established social order. Antisocial behaviours are not direct expressions of angry feelings but rather the avoidance of true feelings. It is very difficult for children and adults to allow full expressions of feelings because it is easier to dissipate the feeling through hitting out, engaging in rebellious acts, or by being sarcastic and indirect. All our feelings involve the use of physical energy that is expressed though our bodies. If we don’t express our anger in some direct way, it will manifest itself in ways expressed through harm to ourselves or others (Freud, 1984).

I help children express their feelings in ways that are acceptable to the adult world through many different ways in Gestalt Play Therapy.

I make use of whatever the child brings into therapy. The child who I see because of anger has learned not to trust his world, especially adults, so it is important for me to build a relationship with him. I gently follow the child as the child plays out his experiences.

James a 9-year-old boy was going to be excluded from school because he was too boisterous with other children. He seemed sad because prior to his mother leaving us for our session together she told me how disappointed she was in him. She said he does not listen to her and that he does not respect what she does for him. She also said the gets into trouble at school and laughs in her face when she tells him off. James gave a few emotional laughs as she was talking and then lowered his head and avoided eye contact when she left my office. He started playing with the clay and I gently started asking him about what his mother meant with what she had told me just before our session today. James said he did not have friends as no one wanted to play with him at school and that the teachers always accuse him when something happened at school. He began to attack the clay whilst he was talking about the teachers and the children that did not want to play with him. I took a pillow and said we have to imagine this was one of the teachers he believed did not like him and to tell the teacher what really happens when he was being told off. At first he was hesitant and I demonstrated by talking to the teacher (the pillow), saying that I was James’ therapist and wanted to understand what James had done wrong and why he kept telling him off and make him so unhappy. James soon followed and started talking to the teacher until an easy flow of narrative ensued. James told the teacher that he did not like him and he expressed all sorts of feelings and strong words that he probably would have been told off for talking to a teacher like that. I asked James if we could play a game and pretend that he was the teacher of James and to talk back to James on what he had just told the teacher. James blushed a few times and imitated a male voice, telling James off. After James moved to and from being James and being the teacher he blushed and suddenly stopped what he was doing. He looked at me and said “André, do you think that maybe the teacher takes it out on me because I keep on talking back at him”. I said, “I’m wondering if the teacher did not hear what you had to say to him because when you spoke back at him you looked guilty. Would it be possible to talk to the teacher after class and tell him how it made you feel when he told you off when you felt it was not your fault? James said he does not know if the teacher would listen to him, but that he now knows that it was maybe difficult for the teacher to understand every child in his class. This was a process of integration and assimilation in the Gestalt Psychology. It was important for the child to own up, or to become those parts of himself that he tried to avoid, or tried to defend. In order to do this, the child plays out the whole of his field, that is how he sees the world phenomenologically until there was a finished issue, or gestalt.

James and I continued our conversation around his difficult attachment with his mother for a few more sessions and we worked on issues around friendships and how to be a friend. His mother reported back a few weeks later that James received a golden star for good behavior in class and that she found James to be much calmer at home. I also saw James’ mother for a few sessions to work on her own issues of insecure attachments and anger outbursts in front of James.

André Swanepoel

Systemic Psychotherapist

BA.Hon; MA Gestalt Play Therapy; MSc Systemic Psychotherapy; Prof.Doct (PhD)-in progress

André runs a private practice in Pinner Middlesex as well as Harley Street at times. André offers face-to-face private therapy as well as Skype therapy. If you want an appointment, please contact André via his web page.

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