Anger is a primary emotion, but oftentimes it may be a reaction to a person feeling threatened or frightened. That’s when they become aggressive and express it through anger and violence. Initially, it could be a means of self-preservation. It’s not uncommon for children to feel angry but it settles down over time, especially when they have good role models who can help them become self-aware and regulate their emotions. On the other hand, if aggression is commonly witnessed by children, in a family, amongst peers or in the larger community, those are the ways they learn to give vent to their feelings when they are upset.
Why this anger?
Firstly, it’s important to understand where such anger comes from, that it can be triggered by our perception of threat or frustration in our current world or could emanate from generations of bottled-up oppression. Quite often it is associated with a lack of emotional awareness, a paucity of language to understand the inner world and its subtler experiences of sensitivity or compassion. Violence can then become a common mode of communication, a way of establishing power and position, which can be dangerous. In its extreme form, aggression and violence can become the norm in a society, where it is not only legitimized but even glorified. Deep rooted patriarchal systems often operate in this fashion, where aggression and intimidation are routinely used to create and maintain hierarchical structures.
Do props play a role?
Toys like guns and swords are often part of growing up. It valorises the aggressor, and has stories of courage and nationalism in the backdrop. It raises questions about the kind of messages we are giving our children in a world that is already fraught with conflict, war and killings of innocents in the most disturbing ways. Perhaps there’s nothing wrong in playing with toy weapons as long as we are able to complement them with parallel stories of cooperation, caring and camaraderie.
The need of the hour
The growing violence on our streets, in schools and colleges, in the very institutions that are supposed to protect us, can be terribly confusing and frightening for our children and young people. There needs to be a revolution in our education system to address this dissonance and upheaval, so that the focus is not just on academics but also about building a culture of compassion and collaboration, where children become self-aware and are able to understand the effects of their actions on others.
How to help a child process anger and aggression
This can happen in homes and schools, in playgrounds and parks. It can happen through stories, play acting and group discussions, through music, theatre and art, maybe celebrating festivals of all religions – these things can actually help in increasing self-awareness, positive emotional expressions and sensitivity towards others.
Needless to say, parents, teachers and other stakeholders have to see the value in this, for their own selves and their children’s future. As a collective, we need to think about what might be protective and safe for our children, so that we can make a concerted effort, invest ample time and resources to make this a reality.
Five tips to take your child through episodes of anger
Lay down clear boundaries – Define behaviours that are likely to hurt someone else, be it physical violence or abusive language. Communicate what is not acceptable with firmness but without anger.
Step back – During the episode of anger, back off and then return to the conversation. Learn to disengage when things are likely to go out of hand.
Reflection – After the anger subsides, try to create a non-judgmental space for dialogue and curious questioning like ‘what made you so angry?’, ‘why did you do that?’, without being critical or sermonising.
There are consequences – Help your child understand the effects of their emotions and actions on others. You could ask them: ‘What do you think mum felt when you used those words?’ or ‘How do you think your actions would affect your relationship with your sister?’ or ‘what do you think you need to do to make things better?’
Alternatives – Reflect on what can be done differently, could there be alternative routes to express anger? Maybe there could be other avenues your child would want to use, such as to play a sport or go running to cool off, or even write a poem or do a drawing. There are, indeed, various ways to channelize one’s anger.
(Dr Amit Sen is a child and adolescent psychiatrist working in Delhi. He has served in the Army Medical Corps from December 1982 to January 1988)
(This column by different experts will appear every fortnight)