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42 JULY 2002
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Angry children: Do we limit a child's emotional range?

Are children allowed to be angry? Patrick Wakeling, a consultant child psychiatrist to a children's home 25 years ago, argues that there is a tendency to repress an emotion which can be a valuable guide to a child's mental well-being.

Anger is the emotion of righteousness, of power. The very word suggests self-justification. Demogogues know that a display of anger will impress more powerfully than any parade of statistics, or mere argument. On another plane it can be seen that the wronged are entitled to be angry, but their entitlement is judged in the last resort by the powerful.

Anger, therefore, may be considered in two ways:

  1. Anger by right of authority or “position.”
  2. Anger by virtue of special circumstances.

This article is about the rights of children with regard to anger, for it is obvious as we look around us that children are likely to be denied that right except occasionally, or when very young indeed. Not that children often see themselves as angry, though it can be of the greatest help to them to be enabled to understand not only the true nature of the emotion experienced but their entitlement to that feeling (of anger).

We would all allow a child to be angry as a response to obvious injustice, providing that the nature of the injustice did not reflect the shortcomings of the adult world. But generally the child's “immaturity” invalidates its claim to be angry. Very young children (under three years) are allowed to throw tantrums but usually only by those who are either very easygoing or who possess a knowledge of child development. Most other adults are shamed by their children's rage and often become very angry themselves. Even the tolerant ones take the attitude which they would towards a crazy person: they can see the diminished. responsibility, and they put up with it knowing the child will “grow out of it,” and is, in any case, too small to be dangerous.

Anger is the ultimate assertion of individuality at a moment when the “existence” of that person is threatened. Anger is said to be destructive, but the alternative is, in a sense, the destruction of the angry person when for an instant the acute panic of feeling to count for nothing, is too strong to yield to logic; too fleeting and too deadly to be overcome. Anger is a statement of social awareness, based upon a realisation of oneself in the total scheme of things that has been jeopardised by someone or something. It is therefore a commentary upon existence.

In requiring children to mirror a flattering image of ourselves we expect too much. The child may become trapped within a narrow, false emotional range – placating, and straining after “goodness,” but unable to express the “badness” they struggle to hide yet which finds an outlet in devious ways. If children are actors they are often bad ones with a limited range. Apprentice actors perhaps, painfully learning the skills of social deception. A hard apprenticeship requiring them to master both collusion and elusion, and to express all feelings save one – anger – which is kept from them like the knowledge of good and evil. The adults prefer other feelings (if feelings there must be): sadness, pathos, gratitude, and they respond too to unambiguous social injustices that cause the child to be battered or underfed. But more subtle wrongs are done to children and in responding to them with anger the child is no less a radical demanding that something be done.

Unfortunately for them, children cannot always express anger (even when they know they are angry) in a way recognisable to adults. More often than not they conceal it, and if they do this habitually – from fear of the adults' anger or withdrawal of love, they come, in time, to dread and therefore avoid any situation that provokes anger, Repressed anger causes reserves of energy to be wasted. The child's learning is impaired, he develops few interests. He grows more alienated from others and the adults, in turn, become less loving and more punitive. The child tries to regain his position by being “good” but the tragic paradox ensures that in doing so he sets himself standards harder and harder to maintain. His situation becomes untenable as he creates an ever narrower path to tread until his life is a balancing act of increasing difficulty and danger. Not surprisingly he becomes depressed. The adults respond at first with sympathy. Their attitude softens but their understanding remains the same. They soon grow exasperated by his failure to respond gratifyingly to their kindnesses. Thus a new injustice is added to the other ills, and the child grows still angrier but unable to know that he is. Such children need an advocate of a special kind – one who can say “Yes, I know what’s the trouble with you. you’re angry. But don’t worry. You've a right to be angry. It’s perfectly understandable if you think of all that has happened to you.” Psychotherapists are advocates who argue a case for the child's feelings which is based upon a sympathetic yet objective understanding of all that the child has had to endure.

Two Cases

Both children received ordinary kindnesses (material things) from their parents, but got no understanding. Such kindness, to an angry child is a mockery of justice. Further it makes matters worse by intensifying the child's guilt.

When children are fostered or put into care it is vital to understand the angry child. Remember to recognise not only sadness, unhappiness and the like, but anger which can be very strong and to which the child is entitled because of the deepest social and psychological injustices created by the personal decisions of disturbed, thoughtless and often selfish adults. The child may not be able to recognise his anger for what it is. Very probably he won’t. Help him to see it, and help him not to be afraid or ashamed of angry feelings. When his anger is testing you to your limits remember the utter lack of sense in life the child has had to bear. Remember that the anger will die like a fire slowly, and that it is your responsibility to provide meaning for the child. Without meaning a child is confused, frightened, angry. And why should he thank anyone for withholding the most precious thing there is; a sense of oneself, of living to some purpose?

This feature: Wakeling, P. (1977) Angry Children. Trans-Care, Vol.2 (1) pp 16-18