One year ago I was divorced, and while it affected all three of the kids, my 12-year-old daughter has been on an emotional roller coaster. She is a wonderful student, gets great grades, her teachers love her, and she has several friends that call her frequently. It is only at home that she is defiant, argumentative, and rebellious. She is angry most of the time. I love her and want to help her, but I find myself getting angry in response to her anger and think that I may be doing more harm than good. Please help me!
In our parenting workshops, the number one emotion parents ask for help in dealing with is the emotion of anger. Their first question relates to dealing with their own anger experienced in response to their child’s anger and their second question relates to how to help their child deal with their anger. Before we can teach our kids about healthy anger, the essential first step is that we allow God to teach us how to make this God-given emotion work for us rather than against us.
There are many ways to measure spiritual maturity. One of them is the degree to which we are able to bring our emotions under the lordship of Christ and express them in constructive ways. One of the most significant challenges of parenting is to help our children understand the important role of emotions and help them develop healthy ways to express those emotions. Of all the God-given emotions, anger is the most challenging one and the challenge is made even greater when there has been a divorce.
Anger can be one of the major bumps in the road to modeling a Christ-centered life for our children. Many Christian parents feel discouraged or defeated by the ways in which they deal with conflict and anger. The fact is that most parents see situations involving conflict and anger as something to be avoided. However, we’ve discovered that these kinds of situations present us with a unique opportunity to model for our kids the difference that Jesus Christ can make in a person’s life and in a family.
The starting place is learning how you can deal with your own anger. What are your anger patterns? When are you most likely to experience anger? Is it a certain time of the day or week? Is it primarily with one child or your same-sex child or are you an equal opportunity parent who gets angry with all of your children?
One of the most important things to remember is that anger is almost always a secondary emotion. That means that whenever you (or your daughter) is experiencing anger, you are also experiencing one or more of the primary emotions of hurt, frustration, and fear. Because anger is one of the most energizing and powerful of all the emotions, it’s easy for us to focus on the secondary emotion of anger and not be aware of the primary emotion.
There’s not much you can do about anger, but there is a lot you can do about hurt, frustration, and fear. When we react to the secondary emotion of anger, we tend to only make it worse. When we prayerfully seek God’s help and the wise counsel of friends or professional counselors, we discover that there are healthy ways to express and process the hurt-anger, frustration-anger, or the fear-anger.
When we allow God to teach us how to respond to the primary emotion rather that react to the secondary emotion, we have turned a corner in making our anger work for us rather than against us. One tool we’ve found helpful in our home is to talk to our children about our anger. Whenever possible, admit you are angry and link it to the primary emotion you are experiencing. My wife might turn to me , and say, “What you just said really hurt and I’m angry about it.” In that one sentence my wife has admitted and acknowledged her anger and she has let me know that the real issue isn’t her anger but the hurt that she is feeling.
When you are angry with your children, identify your emotion simply by saying “I’m angry.” If you are angry with one of your children and are concerned that the emotion is controlling you rather than you controlling it, tell them that you need to take time-out to process your anger. On several occasions we’ve told one of our kids, “I’m experiencing a lot of anger right now but I need to take a few minutes to cool down and think about it. I’m concerned that I might express it in ways that wouldn’t be helpful. I’ll be back in a few minutes and we’ll talk about the consequences for what you’ve done.”
Talk about their emotions with them and then, with them, thank God for the gift of our emotions including the gift of healthy anger. When you share some of your own challenging emotions with your kids, you’ll find them more likely to talk about what they are feeling. Invite them to pray for you in regards to some of your emotions and ask if you can pray for them.
As you become a “living epistle” by sharing what God is doing in your own emotional life, your home will become a place where it is “safe” for all of your children to experience and express a wide range of emotions. Let them know that in your family it is O.K. to be angry. At the same time, let them know that there are acceptable and unacceptable ways to express that anger. Make sure they know what the unacceptable expressions are and what the consequences will be when they choose to respond in those kinds of ways. With a lot of prayer and some patience, you’ll find that God will help you to become “more than a conqueror” in this important area of life.