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Children's Anger as Failed Communication
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In the last section, we discussed Omnipotent Powerless Child Syndrome. This included Real Power vs. Button-Pushing, Children Want Adults in Charge, and Disempowering Button-Pushers.
Do you have a client whose child is actually hitting them? Does the child say he or she hates the parent?
In this section, we will discuss Children’s Anger as Failed Communication. This will include Stopping Opportunities for Empty Communication, Listening for Children’s Self-Put-Downs and Recognizing Sadness. As you listen, think about how you respond to your client.
Elaine, age 28, was the mother of Lacey, age 7. Elaine stated, "My husband was playing with Lacy recently. He was tickling her and she was laughing, when all of a sudden she got angry. When Lacy gets angry, she gets violent. I tried to intervene, and she kicked and screamed at me…she told us that she hated us. My little 7-year-old told me she hated me. What do you say to that? It’s so hard not to feel like you’ve been the worst parent in the world! My husband, of course, was especially confused and upset. I don’t know what to do…what does this mean?"
3 Areas Regarding Children's Anger as Failed Communication
♦ #1 Stopping Opportunities for Empty Communication
I stated, "Children often use hurting, physically or verbally, instead of communicating to tell parents that they’re mad at them. It’s very common for fathers in particular to be hesitant to give up ‘fake wrestling’ and horseplay because it allows them to get very close to their children without any significant emotional risk. It’s easy for someone to get squeezed just a little too hard or tickled too long or feel trapped and powerless, and then hurting back flares up. As I’m sure you’ve gathered, you will want to find out the real reasons that Lacy is upset. Every bit of empty, non-communicative anger that is expressed by her makes it that much less likely that she will actually tell you what she’s thinking or feeling."
Of course, my next question was to ask, "Do you feel there’s any reason to believe that your child has ever been sexually abused?" After I explored this topic with Elaine, and felt certain Lacey had not been sexually abused, I felt perhaps a discussion of empty communication was appropriate.
Elaine asked, "Does this, as you put it, empty communication, apply also to our 10-year-old, Timmy? He’ll often play very rough with Lacy and then Timmy will say, ‘We were just playing!’" I replied, "If you find the actual level of anger or aggression in your children’s play to be too intense, don’t accept explanations like, ‘We were just playing’ or ‘We were just pretending.’ When one person is angry enough to hurt another, more often than not, there is a reason.. The reason may not relate directly to that particular person, but there is likely a reason nonetheless. The same applies to the ‘Just kidding!’ insolent or aggressive behaviors of children or adolescents. This, too, can mask unexpressed communication. It is common for parents to react to the emotion and lack of respect but not look deeper for the communicative meaning. Any such behavior is a red flag that can alert you to the likelihood that communication has broken down somewhere."
Do you have a client whose children are involved in violent roughhousing, only to state later, "I was just playing"? A strategy I like to propose here is to physically separate the children, and in a calmer atmosphere, ask "You seem to be really angry at your sister. Is there something else you’re angry about?" Or regarding Lacy, kicking and screaming when her father tickled her, I suggested when she had calmed down, her father ask and open ended question like, "I noticed you really got upset. What else is going on?"
♦ #2 Listening for Children’s Self-Put-Downs
Elaine stated, "Well, there’s something else that bothers me about Lacy besides her angry outbursts. Sometimes, Lacy seems so sad at time, and will put herself down...she’ll hit herself in the head and say, ‘I’m so stupid!’ Of course, that usually worries me a lot! I’ll stop her and reassure her that she’s not stupid. What does this mean?"
I stated, "Self-hurtful behaviors tend to be a signal that something is wrong and needs to be addressed. Stopping the behavior, as you do, is the first step. Sometimes, all that is needed is parental understanding, a shift from anger to sadness, and the sort of reorganization that then will allow Lacy to move on productively. At other times, such behavior may be a sign that something really is wrong in Lacy’s life and that you may need to pay closer attention. How would you feel about scheduling a session when Lacy could come in?" Elaine said she would think about it, and talk to her husband.
♦ #3 Recognizing Sadness
"So you are saying there are times when Lacy seems genuinely sad?" Elaine replied, "That’s right." I stated, "Perhaps because sadness does evoke a sense of vulnerability, parents have a natural tendency to try and fix a problem or make it go away when their child actually does share sad feelings with them. If Lacy, for example, played little league baseball, and was really sad that her team lost, maybe you would try to make her feel better by saying that she played well herself. Maybe your husband would explain the mechanics involved, and say that the other team was ‘just too good.’ In either case, neither of you would really be verbalizing an acceptance of Lacy’s sadness. That might discourage a genuinely healthy response to disappointment. Lacy might interpret those messages as being wrong to feel the way she does."
I suggested to Elaine, rather than trying to make it better, when she stated "I’m so stupid! I made an F on my spelling test!" to reply, "I can tell you feel really terrible about the low grade." And then, just wait in silence for a response, and use Lacy’s reply regarding what to say next. If she says, "I need to study harder," offer to help her make a study schedule. If she says, "I’m just stupid at everything!" you might reply, "I know it feels that way now, and you’re feeling really awful."
Do you have an Elaine? Might he or she benefit from hearing this section? In this section, we have discussed Children’s Anger as Failed Communication. This included Stopping Opportunities for Empty Communication, and Listening for Children’s Self-Put-Downs.
In the next section, we will discuss The Five Minutes Technique. Characteristics of this technique will include being Private and Uninterrupted, a Daily Occurrence, Not Competing with Any Other Activity and No Touching.
Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Asher, S. R., & Oden, S. L. (1976). Children's failure to communicate: An assessment of comparison and egocentrism explanations. Developmental Psychology, 12(2), 132–139.
Robinson, E. J., & Robinson, W. P. (1977). Children's explanations of communication failure and the inadequacy of the misunderstood message. Developmental Psychology, 13(2), 156–161.
What are 3 ways to prevent children’s anger from being failed communication?
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