Living With an Angry Child
by Nancy Jennings
In August, 1998 the MARE staff attended the North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC) conference in Cincinnati, Ohio. One of the sessions was "Living With an Angry Child," presented by Holly van Gulden of the Adoptive Family Counseling Center in Minnesota. Here is a synopsis of that session.
van Gulden says that most of the techniques she has developed come from being the adoptive mother of a very abused and angry child. Today, that child is 28, and while they still struggle with anger from time to time, she hopes that he has learned something, as well.
Who's In Charge Here?
In families with angry children there are always angry, stressed-out, irritated and overburdened parents, as well. The point of this approach is to teach children and adults how to appropriately express their anger, rather than try to teach a child how not to be angry.
One problem is that the very people who are modeling for the child how to feel, label and express their anger appropriately, are losing it themselves. Parents must first learn how to control their own anger, frustration and annoyance. The child needs a parent - a mature individual who can show him proper expression - the most, instead of an out-of-control parent.
First, one must realize that no one - especially a child - is responsible for your anger. Anger is a choice. We choose how angry to feel, and we choose when to feel angry. We often think, "People make us angry." If you can't learn to take responsibility for, and control of, your anger and reactions, then you can't expect the child to.
Sometimes, it's the little things a child does that sets us off. Angry, out-of-control parents teach their child how to escalate the rage and pain and anger, and how to justify it as a reaction, instead of expressing it properly, and getting over it and moving on. There is no justification for blowing up and being out of control because the child provoked you.
If we model for our children that, "Others make us angry. YOU make me angry," the child is immediately "in charge" of the family. That's one of the problems very angry children face - the adults in their lives aren't in control of themselves, and the children have to find ways to be in control.
Why would someone choose anger?
Fuel + Spark = Explosion
If you have fuel and you don't put a spark to it, nothing happens. If you have a spark and no fuel, the spark goes out. You need both fuel and a spark to have an explosion.
Stress is the fuel. The stress of, "I'm not being an effective parent to this child," the stress of, "the community doesn't understand, " the stress of, "Why isn't the therapy working?" Even normal, everyday stress can become fuel.
As long as there is no spark, the fuel will keep building. In that regard, it's important to work on stress reduction.
When your tank's about to top off, you need lower it with momentary stress reduction. Do 25 jumping jacks, shoot some baskets, vacuum the carpet - anything to quickly lower stress. Momentary stress reduction also means you're focusing on yourself, and not on the child's behavior. And right there, you've begun to change the pattern - it used to be screaming and hollering; now it's, "Excuse me, gotta do my jumping jacks!" Your child may think you're nuts, but they're going to be a lot more respectful of a nutty parent than of one who does nothing but yell at them.
Anger-triggering behaviors are what drive most episodes, but they're not
the spark. These behaviors simply allow the trigger to move from safety to
fire. For instance, when you're talking to your child and they start rolling
their eyes - that can be an anger-triggering behavior.
Take time to discover what triggers your anger. Some triggers may be obvious - the child who calls you a name, who ignores you, who refuses to do his or her chores. They may, however, be more subtle, such as passive-aggressive behaviors.
But remember, these behaviors are not the spark. If you allow these behaviors to get to you, they're you're taking that safety catch off the trigger so the gun can fire. It's still your choice to get angry, but you can't really make the choice if you don't pay attention to what those triggers are.
Stress is the fuel; your triggering thoughts are the spark - what you think about what the other person does, says, is thinking. That realization can be frightening because it puts you in charge, and yet relieving because it puts you in charge - of how often and to what degree you get angry.
Shoulds and Blamers
Our triggering thoughts are shoulds (You should have; You should not have; That should have happened; That should not have happened) and blamers (You harmed me; You deliberately harmed me).
It is important to practice intervention strategies when you start thinking about shoulds and blamers. You need to reduce your stress and change the way you're thinking about what that angry child is or is not doing.
Blamers assume someone else is responsible for your pain; they give that person control over your emotions.
There are four critical blamers:
There are five critical shoulds.
Anger is very energizing. You need a great deal of energy to tune everything out and argue and be angry. Anger turned inward is depression, and that is very de-energizing - the energy of anger sucks the energy out of a person's life and their soul.
If you think a triggering thought and begin to get angry you need to think to yourself, "What am I going to do with this energy? What are my thoughts? What am I thinking about this episode that may be increasing my anger? And what am I going to do with the energy?" It is important to come up with unique, individual stress-reducing techniques.
van Gulden relates the story of one of her clients, a mother who was a trained opera singer. The mother said, "One of the things that triggers a fear response in my child is a loud voice. But I can't be quiet - I've tried! I always start out softly, but in the end I'm yelling and screaming!" van Gulden suggested the mother try singing instead of yelling - as the volume and pitch of her voice began to escalate, she should break out into song.
van Gulden says that three weeks later a friend mentioned a scene she had witnessed in a department store. Standing at the top of the escalator, a mother was obviously very angry with her child but instead of yelling, she singing, "I'm so angry. Not because you should behave," she sang out, "It would be so much more pleasant if you would." Not only had this mother learned to control the tone and pitch of her voice so as not to escalate the anger with her child, but she had also changed an unhealthy should into a healthy would.
So I'll Always Be Happy?
van Gulden says it's impossible to never be angry. Parents must learn not to take their child's behavior personally. Anger is a healthy human emotion.
In fact, she says, parents should be aware of the struggle they're dealing with: not that you won't get angry, but rather pausing to think about what appropriate measures you're going to take when you find your anger rising.
When a parent loses it, it helps to go back to the child afterwards and say, "I would have preferred to have acted differently when you hit your brother yesterday." It's a wonderful way to model for your child that you're working on and learning to manage your anger.
van Gulden also points out that the longer you work on this, the more effective
Sixty-nine percent of communication is nonverbal, so it's important to realize your body language can contribute to the escalation. The best position to be in - to calm yourself and appear non-threatening to the child - is to sit down, put your butt against the back of the seat, with both feet parallel and on the floor, and with your hands on your knees or in your lap where the child can see them.
"My Mom's Enraged!"
It took years, but van Gulden has learned to whisper when she's angry, instead of yelling. She relates a story about how she - and in turn, her family - deals with her anger. "We had some friends coming for Thanksgiving. At the last minute they called and said they had some unexpected company from out of town, people they had gone to college with. I said to bring them along, that we'd set two more places at the dinner table
"The gentleman sat down and proceeded to talk about drunk drivers, saying he thought Mothers Against Drunk Drivers were going too far. I said, 'Excuse me, I really need you not to have this conversation right now. We just lost a very dear friend who was killed by a man driving drunk, with five prior arrests for drunk driving. So this is not an appropriate discussion at our table, in our home, at this time.'
"About five minutes later this gentleman - whom we'd never met before - got on his soapbox and started again. I said, 'Excuse me, I asked you to stop.' He said, 'But it's an important subject, and you're wrong about this. I know you've had a loss, but you're wrong about this." And I said, very quietly, in a whisper, 'I need you to stop.' At which point, my 28-year-old son - the one I had to learn most of this for - stood up and said, 'Excuse me, you need to leave our house.' The gentleman just looked at him, and I'm thinking, 'He's kicking guests out of our house! I can't allow this!' Then I thought, 'Yes I can. This man has not respected me, so I don't need to be a good host.'
This couple looked very confused that they were being kicked out in the middle of turkey dinner. My son said, 'My mother's whispering - she is enraged.' I looked at our friends, whose out-of-town guests these were, and they said, 'Yes she is. You need to leave. We'll see you back at the house.' And they left.
Now, as a hostess, I'm thinking, 'Huh? What just happened here?' But as a mom, I'm thinking, 'They got it! My kids learned it! We can do this as a family!' Under the old system, we would have had an angry scene at the table - we would have blown up, or kept our anger in and stewed about it, and it would have ruined the day for everyone."
But because her son knew that van Gulden whispered when she got angry, he was able to stand up for her and help her appropriately express that anger.
For more information you can contact Holly van Gulden at (612) 722-5362.
Parenting With Love and Logic:
Teaching Children Responsibility
by Foster Cline, M.D., and Jim Fay
Over the next year, we will be exploring Cline and Fay's book, "Parenting With Love and Logic: Teaching Children Responsibility." We hope the insights presented here, and in their book, will help all parents to better understand their children -- and themselves.
Encouraging Our Children to Fail?!
"Sometimes kids can be a bigger hassle that a house with one shower. When we think of the enormous love we pump into our children's lives and then receive in return too much sassy, disobedient, unappreciative behavior, we can get pretty burned out on the whole process. Besides riddling our lives with day-to-day hassles, kids present us with perhaps the big-time challenge of our adulthood: How do we raise our children to be responsible adults?"
Cline and Fay talk about different kinds of ineffective parenting styles: the Helicopter Parents, and the Drill Sergeant Parents.
Helicopter Parents tend to make their children the center of their world. They will rescue their children whenever a problem arises, instead of allowing the child to learn to problem-solve on his/her own. These kinds of parents are forever running forgotten lunches and permission slips and homework to school; they are at the beck and call of their child to intercede when the going gets tough.
Helicopter Parents feel they are protecting their children from harm's way, as any good, loving parent would do. However, children of Helicopter Parents are unequipped to deal with the challenges life will throw at them.
Drill Sergeant Parents love their children, too. They feel that controlling their children is the best way in which to discipline -- and thereby teach -- their children about "how the world works." Drill Sergeant Parents often engage in control battles with their children -- and the children usually win!
Because Drill Sergeant Parents have controlled so much of their lives, children don't learn to think for themselves. They become dependent on their parents when they enter the real world -- and often find themselves stumbling into situations they don't know how to handle.
While Cline and Fay admit that nothing in parenting is sure, they agree that raising responsible kids happen when we allow our children to take risks and -- gasp! -- FAIL. How else can they experience Significant Learning Opportunities (SLOs) -- and what better time for that to happen, when they're still at home and in our care?
Fay talks about a time when his son was young: "I used to insist that my son Charlie dress for the weather on chilly Colorado mornings. 'Charlie," I'd say, 'it's cold out this morning. You'd better wear your heavy coat.' Sure enough, he'd grab his little slicker -- the lightest coat he owned -- and waltz out the door.
"Unwittingly, I was taking away his best choice. I thought I was ensuring that he would be warm waiting for the bus, but he chose to be cold instead. He was exerting his free will.
"But I wised up. When I said, 'Charlie, it's twenty degrees out. You might want to wear a coat,' this offered him a range of choices from worst to best (kids always seem to discount the first option we give them), he decided to exert his will with a warm coat."
Cline and Fay offer a number of Love-and-Logic Tips in their book, including examples of what they have experienced as parents in their own lives.
Cline and Fay say many parents confuse love, protection and caring. "These concepts are not synonymous," they say. "Parents may refuse to allow their children to fail because they see such a response as uncaring. Thus, they overcompensate with worry and hyper-concern. What these parents are doing, in reality, is meeting their own selfish needs. They make more work for themselves and will, in the long run, raise children who make their own lives more work. Protection is not synonymous with caring, but both are a part of love."
Caring for and loving our children does not mean we must protect them from every possible harm or danger they may encounter. Children cannot grow with having an opportunity to make choices -- and deal with the consequences.
Or, they gradually gain the ability to make choices for themselves. As a toddler, they may chose which color socks to wear; in second grade it may be what kind of sandwich to have for lunch. By the time they're reached adolescence, they should be able to make more important decisions -- decisions that can (and often do) affect their futures.
Responsible Children Feel Good About Themselves
Cline and Fay point out that children with poor self-esteem often appear to be irresponsible -- they forget their homework, bully other children, refuse to do their chores. Children with high opinions of themselves, however, are often most responsible, and can be counted on to complete required tasks.
"Although this may seem simplistic," write Cline and Fay, "there is a direct correlation between self-concept and performance in school, at home, on the playground, or wherever children may be. Kids learn best and are responsible when they feel good about themselves.
"When parenting with love and logic, we strive to offer our children a chance to develop that needed positive self-concept. With love enough to allow the children to fail, with love enough to allow the consequences of their actions to teach them about responsibility, and with love enough to help them celebrate the triumphs, our children's self-concept will grow each time they survive on their own."
At one time or another, most parents have said, "No, no, you're doing it wrong; here, let me do that!" Sometimes, it just seems easier to do it ourselves. Little Bradley is trying to sweep the kitchen floor; instead of putting the dust and dirt into a small, neat little pile (as we would), it's ending up all over the place -- and the floor is probably far dirtier than it was to begin with!
However, we must remember -- the only way Bradley is going to learn to sweep the floor properly is if we show him -- and once we show him, we allow him to do it himself. Of course, the floor probably won't be swept as well as if we had done it ourselves. Cline and Fay note that, "the quality of learning improves with practice, encouragement and modeling." Tell Bradley, "Wow, you're doing a great job! This can be fun, can't it? See how I use the broom and get all of the dirt into the pan?" Just like his parents, Bradley wants to do a good job, too -- and with practice and encouragement, he will do as well (if not better!) a job than we do ourselves.
"As parents, we play an integral part in the building of a positive self-concept in our children. In our words and in our actions, in how we encourage and how we model -- the messages we give kids shape the way they feel about themselves."
"Parenting With Love and Logic: Teaching Children Responsibility" by Foster Cline, M.D. and Jim Fay, is published by Pinon Press, P.O. Box 35007, Colorado Springs, CO, 80935. ISBN08910-93117. It is available at local bookstores.
Michigan Special Education Mediation Program
Conflicts between parents of students with disabilities and school personnel are often challenging. Although all parties want the best education program for the student, they cannot always agree on what is best.
In the past, parents and school staff have mainly used formal and adversarial tools for resolving disputes. These processes not only position parents and schools against each other, but they can take months or even years to complete, and little is gained for the child in the meantime. Hearings, and especially court cases, tend to increase tension and are seldom satisfying for both parties. Mediation is an alternative.
Mediation of disputes involving special education issues is available through the Community Dispute Resolution Program (CDRP). The State Court Administrative Office of the Michigan Supreme Court administers CDRP, including its special education mediation program. This office, and the neutral mediation services available, are completely independent of the state's Department of Education, which provides some funding to the program.
The CDRP, through its network of local mediation centers, currently assists over 10,000 Michigan citizens per year in resolving many kinds of disputes. Mediators helping to resolve special education disputes have substantial mediation experience, and have completed advanced training to mediate in this area. While not every case brought to mediation results in agreement, the chances that parties who participate in a mediation session will reach an agreement are about 80%.
What is Mediation?
Mediation is a process in which two or more people involved in a dispute meet in an informal, confidential setting and with the help of trained neutral persons (mediators), work out a solution to their problem. Mediation offers the opportunity for the parties to participate in resolving their dispute rather than having it resolved for them, which is the outcome of a hearing or court process. Instead of assessing blame for the dispute, the mediation process focuses on reaching productive solutions while improving communication between the disputing parties.
Who are the Mediators?
CDRP mediators are volunteers who have completed 40 hours of mediation training and a 10-hour supervised internship. Special education mediators must also have substantial mediation experience and have completed at least 16 hours of advanced mediation training in special education issues. This training includes relevant special education law, terminology, services, the IEPC process, etc.
A mediator is not a judge or a hearing officer. He or she does not determine who is right or wrong or who wins or loses. Mediators will not evaluate a case, and they are not advocates. Instead, as neutrals, they help parties identify solutions to problems which everyone can accept.
What kinds of special education disputes can be resolved through mediation?
Some issues that can be resolved through mediation include:
What happens during mediation?
During the mediation session, all parties describe the dispute from their point of view. The mediator helps the parties focus on issues and generate settlement options. Once an agreement is reached, the terms are put in writing, signed by all parties, and when appropriate, submitted to an Individualized Educational Planning Committee for incorporation into the student's IEP.
Staff at the local mediation centers, as well as the MSEMP/CDRP staff at the State Court Administrators Office, are available to answer your questions.
Interested persons can learn more by calling 1-800-8-RESOLVE (1-800-873-7658). Your call will be automatically routed to your local mediation center.