Anger is a common emotion felt by most children during their parents’ divorce transition. Kids seldom want their family and their familiar home to disintegrate beneath them. They often feel powerless, afraid and furious that parents who are supposed to protect them from pain, seem to be the source of it. Some children express their anger as rage, while others withdraw or become depressed. Often the anger is never openly directed at the parents themselves, at least not about the separation or divorce. Instead, there are more frequent and intense fights between siblings or playmates. There may be more oppositional behavior around ordinary and reasonable expectations by authority figures at home, school or both. Frequently heard is the classic parent-wounding epithet: “I hate you!” Or the child may spend all his or her time hiding in the bedroom with music or TV, phone, computer or electronic games.
Many parents fail to recognize the underlying source of the outrageous behavior and clamp down with groundings and assorted punishments “to get the kid to shape up.” Parents are even sometimes inclined to take the anger personally and feel unloved and unappreciated. Neither of these choices will help the child through this difficult time Children (and adults) need to learn to express their feelings, including anger, in a constructive way. Using words will do nicely. Reflect back what is seen and heard through sentences such as, “You seem to be pretty angry at me lately.” Or “You sound furious right now.” It is always best to keep one’s voice even and in an understanding tone, rather accusatory. Listen for as long as s/he is willing to talk. Children need to know that someone cares enough to hear them out.
|Hints for Managing Children's Anger in Divorce or Separation|
|Teach children to talk about feelings rather than act them out in unacceptable ways. Listen. Listen. Listen Help the child think of possible solutions for the immediate probem. Offer ways to express feelings without words, such as art and physical activity. Talk to the othe parent about handling the child's anger in coordinated ways.|
Encourage Feeling Expression in Words
Empathize by letting her know most kids would feel as she does, and, in fact, if you were the kid in this situation, you might feel the same way, too. You may hear only about the unfairness of your TV watching rules, but discharging this anger by talking about it calmly will prepare the way for other discussions about the separation, and will lighten her anger load to make the rest just a little more bearable. Helping children identify the feelings, and then come up with their own workable solutions to the problems, gives them a sense of power. A sense of power and control is often lost when children are in the midst of a divorce. Children can become proactive and find solutions they can implement themselves. Allowing solutions to be voiced, brings a sense of control back to the children.
Children often do not know the words to attach to the feelings they are experiencing. Use words that help them identify feelings are: sad, frustrated, upset, scared, mad. Sometimes, using drawings or illustrations of facial expressions of feelings will help. Make sure they have lots of opportunities for physical activity. This can release tension and help them better able to handle stressful situations. Art activities that do not require a specific product are very effective ways to express emotion. This means that coloring books or a craft project that is supposed to look a certain way, while they may be fun, will not produce expression. Using clay or glue with small, odd pieces of wood, paint and drawing with markers on blank paper will do a better job. Finger painting, with special paints or with pudding on a cookie sheet is fun and releases feelings as well. While parents may be tempted to ask the child what the object they have created is, it is better to discuss the feelings that when into the project or what the project may represent. Many children will simply make something up in order to have an answer for you. You might comment, “Tell me about your drawing. It looks like you worked hard on it.” Some of these methods can be used to handle angry, unacceptable behavior.
None of this is meant to excuse behavior that is out of bounds. Swearing, biting, hitting, breaking things, screaming are not acceptable. Parents can say, “I understand you’re angry, but this is not behavior I will tolerate. I want to talk to you about how you’re feeling, but you need to go to your room to cool off until you can talk more calmly.” Then make sure to seek him out to ask if he wants to talk about the problem afterwards. Even if he doesn’t, the door is open for future discussions and validated that his feelings are important.
It is commonplace for the child to act up for the parent with whom he feels most secure. Usually, this translates into good behavior with the parent who is gone, since he may not be sure it is safe to show negative feelings to someone who could leave him so easily. The sense of blame that may result only serves to distract the parent from the real problem of helping the child cope with change. In talking with the other parent about the child’s anger problems, develop a plan that both will follow to help the child express and manage the feelings in appropriate ways.
Reprinted with the permission of the National Association of Social Workers.