“I wish my parents would remember that when I get mad at them, it’s almost always because I’m stressed about something else,” a middle-schooler recently told me. In that one sentence, she distilled a lesson I keep relearning after 20 years of teaching and 10 years of parenting: When kids get mad — when they hit, scream, swear, glare, crumple up homework, or slam doors — they are sending up a flare. Something doesn’t feel good, they are telling us, and I don’t know what to do with how I feel.
Few adults are comfortable in the presence of a child’s anger. We see it as disrespectful, embarrassing, or threatening. That’s a problem because these outbursts are often nested in worry, confusion, loneliness, anxiety, jealousy, or insecurity. What would happen if we trained ourselves to see children’s anger as an invitation to get curious? What if we practiced stepping toward our kids rather than sending them away until they’ve pulled themselves together? What if, to use the phrase of Marc Brackett, director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, we became “emotions scientists,” willing to explore the inside story behind an outside behavior?
Sometimes the inside story is as simple as, “I’m hungry, tired, or overstimulated.” Sometimes it’s more complex. Like that June afternoon when I sent my tantruming 6-year-old to his room and sent myself to mine. After taking a few deep breaths, I went and found him hiding under his stuffed animals. “You’ve got a lot of mad inside you today,” I said.
“I’m mad because I am sad! Duh!” he responded, his voice muffled.
“You know — because something is dead that should be alive!”
The day before, we had rescued a caterpillar from the window ledge. My creature-loving kid then collected and carefully placed leaves in a mason jar and spent the evening gazing at his pet. But the next morning, his sister noticed the caterpillar was dead. Now here we were, six hours later, his anger melting into sobs.
As I rubbed his back, I realized that I had been agitated all week and that my outsized reaction to my son’s outburst also had roots in grief. Father’s Day was approaching, and I was missing my dad. Someone was dead who should be alive. Once I paused long enough to name the sadness, something like relief flooded in.
Neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett, a University Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University and author of How Emotions Are Made, uses the term “emotional granularity” to describe the ability to name emotions with specificity. Am I mad at the world, or am I irritated by that insurance phone call? Worried about an upcoming appointment, overwhelmed by my to-do list, distressed about a story in the news, or aggravated by the cacophony of the TV, kids, and dog? Pinpointing the specific dimensions of my anger can help me choose what action to take next.
Sometimes we forget that kids are still developing their basic emotional vocabulary, so behavior is often the most direct way they communicate their discomfort. Katie Hurley, a child psychotherapist and author of The Happy Kid Handbook, says that a lot of kids and teens these days are telling her, “I don’t know why I’m so angry all the time. I don’t mean to yell at everyone. I don’t want to feel this way.” When kids act this way, she told me, they need more support, not more reprimands. “People are conditioned to see external displays of negative emotion and think, That’s disrespectful! What we should think is, What is my child trying to tell me right now? What does my child need?”
I want my kids and students to learn that there is no such thing as a good or bad emotion — that there is no shame in anger or fear. But that can only happen if I’m willing to make room for their distress. And in doing so, I have to fight the instinct to “fix the feeling” for them by jumping in with advice or distractions.
Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, childhood trauma expert and California surgeon general, says that stressful events often cause young children to regress or act out — what they need is for us to sit with them and lend them our calm. I’m working on just listening, first to their behavior and then to their words. When the root source of the distress is something difficult and I’m not sure what to say, I lean on a brilliant phrase from psychologist Lisa Damour: “That stinks. How do you want to handle it?”
As kids build emotional literacy, I also want them to know that humans are capable of beautiful complexity. In one moment, we can feel excited and scared, lonely and loved, angry and hopeful. After the death of that caterpillar, we bought a butterfly kit. When the chrysalises hatched, one butterfly emerged with one wing and three legs. It could not stand. I suggested keeping it inside, but my son refused: “No, it needs to be outside. That’s where butterflies belong.” So his sister built a nest of maple leaves and laid the fragile creature in this shelter. When it was clear the butterfly was dead, my kids detached its single wing and set it on our mantel. “It’s so sad and it’s so beautiful,” my son said. Both.
Susan David, a Harvard Medical School psychologist and the author of Emotional Agility, reminds us that “life’s beauty is inseparable from its fragility.” Sometimes we are mad because we are sad, we are sad because we care, and we care because we are human. And to be human is to make space to feel it all.
Deborah Farmer Kris is an educator, parenting journalist, and founder of Parenthood365. Follow her on Twitter @dfkris. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.