CYC-Online 3 APRIL 1999 / BACK
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Let them express anger?

Brian Gannon

There are many popular ideas about children and child care which are really not very good ideas. Here we take a deeper look at myths about aggressive acting out.

Sally flopped down into a chair in the staff room and gratefully accepted a cup of tea from Paul. “That Alfie!" she sighed. “I don't know who feels worse at the end of one of his temper outbursts, him or me! This is the third time this week he's let loose his anger on the rest of us, and frankly, I'm getting tired of it. After all, he is twelve years old now!"

"How is your team working at the problem?" asked Paul.

"Well, it seems to be the modern idea that you should let children express their anger. So we stand by and let Alfie yell it all out. He swears at everyone in sight throws a few things and goes red in the face – and then he does calm down and he comes back to earth after a quarter of an hour or so – so maybe 'letting him express it' does work."

Not so!

Perhaps Sally has misunderstood something she has heard or read about. Yes, we do say that it's OK for people to feel angry – but it is never OK for people to simply explode their negative feelings at other people. It is also true that after a temper outburst Alfie will, in fact, feel “better" because he has opened a steam valve and let some pressure out. He will huff and puff for a while, but then he will be tired and the feelings of anger will seem to be released.

What is happening?
But there are two important things that are happening here:

  1. He is learning the false lesson that a temper outburst makes him better – and next time he feels angry he will use this method to relieve his uncomfortable feelings;
  2. Secondly, he is not dealing at all with the things that made him angry in the first place.

When you think of it, angry outbursts are primitive and infantile ways of dealing with feelings. We might expect a young baby to hurl a spoon of porridge across the room when frustrated “but the whole process of socialising goes on to teach a child to understand himself and his world, and to manage feelings in a more mature and verbal way. We would be very surprised, for example, if father expressed his frustration by hurling a spoon of porridge across the room! So, then, Sally and her team, should not be satisfied with Alfie dealing with his anger by “letting it all hang out". They should be helping him to grow up and to manage his feelings better.

It is a crude theory which suggests that aggression is reduced simply by 'blowing off steam'. Studies on aggression suggest, rather, a number of other factors which reduce aggression, including understanding and dealing with what caused the anger in the first place, better frustration tolerance, and good self-control (or 'ego control') in managing our own feelings. These are all things which child care workers can teach and help with.

Teaching better ways
Instead of letting Alfie express 'raw' anger, we can help him to express his anger 'thematically', that is by relating it to what probably made him angry – so that he can understand his feelings and the sequences which make him feel angry. It is not enough to say “I can see that you are angry." That is obvious to everyone. The skill comes in trying to build cognitive bridges for Alfie to understand himself: “You got angry because Peter wouldn't let you play?" or “You are cross because your aeroplane got broken." Alfie can understand this.

Later on, when Alfie gets better at this, we can even start to head things like anger off at the pass. It is not necessary for someone to get angry whenever something goes wrong. We can give him some new labels for his feelings: “You must be very frustrated at not getting that jigsaw puzzle right." “Yes, we get disappointed when people let us down." “It hurts when they don't let you play with them."

When we help children not to express themselves in angry outbursts, they feel more in control and they get to feel better about themselves – and there is less shrapnel flying around amongst the rest of us.

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