Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Making Friends with Anger: A Role-Modeling Challenge for Parents




I have no shame.  Yesterday, I brought my new book along to a neighbor child’s bowling party.  The saving grace: my plan was not to show it to all of the moms and dads at the alley—just to the few who had shared my excitement, exhaustion, and general anticipation throughout the process of getting a contract, writing, and waiting for publication.  I really did think I was being subtle about it all, showing the book to only two close friends, then placing it on an out-of-the-way table, under my daughter’s discarded shoes. 

The reaction I got from my friends was warm and congratulatory.  The interest I got from parents I had never met before was unexpected and overwhelming.  Although my book is called How to Be Angry: An Assertive Anger Expression Group Guide for Kids and Teens, six different moms at the party saw it and individually approached me asking if I had a book to help parents understand how to express angry feelings effectively.  

I totally get it.  It’s summer; our kids are with us 24/7.  Even getting little ones out the door to do something fun—like go to a birthday party—can be a struggle.  As I watched parents soothe fits over assigned bowling ball colors, coax little ones to wait their turn to play, cope with multiple interruptions to their conversations, and tolerate more back-talk than was probably usual, given the public party atmosphere, I can easily understand (and certainly empathize) with the day-to-day situations that cause anger to bubble up inside of parents.

As I write in How to Be Angry, anger is a basic human emotion, experienced universally across all ages.  The way it can overwhelm human sensibilities is not limited to the childhood years; grown adults and little kids alike benefit from learning—and consistently practicing!—skills for managing expectable, but often overwhelming feelings of frustration and anger.  For parents, this skill is especially important, since our kids are watching everything we do and modeling their behavior after ours.  

So, as one bowling-party-Mom asked me, “What are the Cliff’s Notes on your book?”

Make Friends with Your Anger
The title of my book was inspired by a quote from Lyman Abbott, a 19th century theologian, editor, and author who said, “Do not teach your children never to be angry; teach them how to be angry.”  In the 21st century, his message is still spot on; neither parent nor child need fret or feel guilty over experiencing anger.  Rather, both benefit from accepting this emotion as a normal, natural part of their world.   When parents make friends with anger, they show their kids first-hand that the emotion is not something to hide (and become passive aggressive) nor is it something to act out onto others (through aggression), but rather it is something we can “own” and learn to express effectively.

“Use Your Words” Carefully
Now there’s a three-word phrase I heard a lot at the birthday party.   I use it too.  It’s a great way to remind kids that when they are feeling angry, the best way to cope with those feelings is to verbalize them.  The sad thing was, the reason I kept hearing the phrase was because one particular parent kept yelling it at her five-year old son.  I cringed a bit at the irony of her demands for her son to keep his temper while she was clearly losing hers.  Don’t get me wrong; I felt for her frustration and I’m sure all of the parents in the room have walked in her shoes.  Does the phrase “Do as I say, not as I do” ring a bell?  It should ring a gong—meaning that as parents, we have to use our words—and our volume and our tone—carefully, because our children, who we think aren’t listening—are copying everything we do!

Find the Balance
Assertiveness is that fine middle ground between the extremes of aggression, passivity, and passive aggression.  Assertiveness occurs when a person expresses wants, needs, and feelings directly and honestly, without hurting or violating the rights of others.  For many adults who have been raised to avoid confrontation, assertiveness is a difficult skill to master.  Yet, as parents, developing skills for disagreeing without arguing, refusing requests without guilt, and responding to a child’s frustration without mirroring their anger is the single most important way to teach your own child the skill of effective anger management. 

The bad news is, there are no Cliff’s Notes to anger management.  It is a long-process for us all and one that needs consistent practice well into adulthood.  The good news is that assertive anger expression is within all of our reach—moms, dads, and birthday-party-going kids alike—as long as we are willing to accept and own angry feelings and practice how to verbalize them directly as necessary.


Signe Whitson, LSW is a mother of two daughters, national educator on bullying, and author of three books related to helping kids gain skills to manage anger, cope with bullying, and change passive aggressive behavior.  Visit her online at www.signewhitson.com or Follow her on Twitter @SigneWhitson.

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