Have you ever sat back and wondered what anger really looks like? Is it yelling, cursing, screaming or crying? Or is it more than that and we just can’t see the whole picture of what lies beneath the surface.
Have you seen the movie Titanic? If so, you will remember watching as the ship crashed into an iceberg hidden in the cold ocean. The fact is, the Titanic ran it’s bow over the submerged ice causing the ill fated damage. It’s considered only around 10% of an iceberg is actually visible, with 90% submerged under water. With the majority of the iceberg hidden, no one realised how much damage it could do until it was too late.
Anger is like an iceberg. We only ever see the tip and underestimate what is lying below. Underneath the surface is a myriad of emotions that rise up, resulting in the outburst of anger that we see. Think of the anger iceberg like this. The tip of the iceberg is the physical signs that we can see – the crying, the angry outburst, the yelling etc. The underneath of the iceberg is where the emotions that draw out the anger lie such as frustration, fear, embarrassment, helplessness and grief. By choosing to focus on the underlying emotions, we can better understand the cause of the anger in order to help rather than hinder. Anger always has an emotional trigger and treating the trigger will help in curing the anger.
Tips for treating anger in the moment are counting to ten (redirecting) or taking deep BELLY breaths (to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system). These can help treat the anger in the short term, but it will not cure it as it does not address the emotional underlying cause. Helping the person find the reason for the anger will help them to identify with the problem and fix it, therefore removing the anger from their life. In the case of anger caused by sensory overload, it’s helpful to name this for the child and work through sensory strategies that can help calm them such as taking sips of water or squishing in cushions (deep calming pressure).
Phrases such as “calm down” or don’t overreact”, although they may have the best intentions, only make the person more angry as they are thinking with their primitive ‘fight or flight’ brain not the cortex which can be reasoned with. The underlying emotion that has triggered the anger is not being addressed, or worse, pushed aside. Using ‘I wonder’ questions will help your child in developing emotional intelligence. Label what you see ‘I see your face is all red and scrunched up and it looks like your angry’ or ‘You look really upset, I see your fists all tight and you’re breathing quickly, I wonder if you’re hurt because Sally wouldn’t give you her toy’.
But what if my child is angry?
Just like us adults, children feel emotions too, but their maturity level and juvenile brain development means they can not address the cause and have very limited self regulation. Children don’t know why they are angry and communicating their feelings may not be something they have developed as yet.
Communication and frustration from not being able to communicate effectively is one of the lead causes for anger in children. They can not process their feelings or communicate them well enough to be heard, leading to the anger outburst in the form of a tantrum or crying. By only focussing on the action, we are missing the 90% that is lying beneath the surface causing the real damage.
Try and look at the situation from their point of view. What is it that has made them express their anger in this way. Was a toy taken from them and they can’t find the words to ask for it back? Is their vocabulary underdeveloped so they can’t express what they need to say so anger in the form of screaming takes over? It may be that they have a fear and that fear is being expressed in the form of anger.
In the same breath, anger in adults can also manifest itself from fear or fright. Seeing your child run out onto the road will be seen as anger in the heat of the moment, when in fact the emotion is fear. The fear that your child could be hit by a car. Explain this to your children so that they understand your emotion aren’t always what they seem e.g. ‘It looked like mummy was angry but I was really scared then because you ran onto the road and you could have been hit by a car’.
So whilst we will always have angry moments in our lives, look at the emotional trigger first and by addressing that, the anger will in turn disappear, increase your child’s emotional intelligence and create a more harmonious family life.