Anger Is The Canary In The Coal Mine Of Emotions For Kids (And Adults)

by Amber Leventry
Originally Published: 
Angry girl breathing fire
Malte Mueller/Getty

My Amazon shopping cart currently has boxing gloves, boxing target mitts, a swing which is also a tent-like hammock, and a full-body sensory “sock.” I am curating ideas for my six-year-old daughter. She is not an angry kid, but she struggles with anger and I am trying to find tools to use when she feels out of control and acts out in destructive and negative ways. Words only do so much when her emotions are escalated. She needs to move and do. She needs places to safely channel her anger.

I can relate on a very intimate level because I have struggled with anger too. But I am 40 years old. I know how to self-soothe in ways that don’t hurt myself or anyone around me. I have also learned that the anger is almost always a signal that something bigger and more vulnerable is at play than simple agitation or blinding rage. Anger is the canary in the coal mine of emotions.

Anger is also called the bodyguard of emotions. It keeps our more complicated and painful emotions hidden or at a distance. Anger shields us from sadness, anxiety, guilt, regret, shame, and jealousy. Anger allows us to blame others for our feelings instead of taking ownership and really examining our reactions in certain situations. Anger is a valid feeling and I still get angry, but it is no longer my go-to reaction. I try to avoid using it as a defense mechanism or a means to keep people at a distance. The whole “we hurt the ones we love most” excuse is bullshit and is an easy way to circumvent vulnerability and growth.

A lot of what fueled my anger and irritable moods were anxiety, depression, and fear. I hid my worries and sadness, well but did not hide my sharp tongue, exasperated sighs, and cranky moods. I felt tense and grouchy all of the time. When something didn’t go the way I liked, inconvenienced me, or created a sense of the unknown, I became angry. My anger was about control, which helped me avoid dealing with lingering trauma and PTSD. My anger kept me away from my shame and guilt of being an alcoholic, and when I got sober, my anger kept me from the discomfort of being in a body that didn’t feel right.

Sobriety provided answers to what I needed: emotional safety and gender transition. Letting go of my anger helped me find ways to evaluate what is really bothering me when I feel my jaw clench, my shoulders raise, and my chest tighten. I am able to better see what I need (reassurance, exercise, a break, a plan, a hug, etc.) and I can articulate those needs in ways that actually comfort me instead of adding to the conflict or chaos.

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All of this has also allowed me to become less defensive when people around me are angry. It is easy to catch another person’s anger and make it our own. But someone else’s anger is not usually about us; being less angry and less egotistical go hand-in-hand. I am not naïve, though. Of course, arguments happen and tempers flare. Sometimes someone is to blame for an egregious act. However, knowing that my own anger iceberg has underlying reasons for its existence helps me be more patient and empathetic when my kids are angry. I am still a work in progress, though.

Like angry adults, angry kids can become irrational and destructive; they are smaller versions of us with a lot less fucks to give.

Signe Whitson L.S.W., C-SSWS for Psychology Today recommends teaching our kids assertiveness over aggression. If we can give language to our child’s anger and then alternative choices for ways of dealing with it, we are providing skills that will make a big difference in their lives. Whitson recommends physical strategies like yoga, sports, or meditation to help kids control their bodies and quiet their minds. Once an angry child is calm, they can talk through and manage their emotions and work to change patterns that will help them make healthy choices the next time their feel out of control.

Watching my kids, especially my youngest daughter, rise and fall in their anger, triggers my own. It is easy to dismiss our kids’ tantrums as inconvenient and disruptive. We have places to be, reason we want to instill, and yelling we want to stop. It’s maddening, and my knee-jerk reaction to my kids’ anger is to get angry too.

Recently I forgot to step away and recognize this. My daughter—the one who I am about to buy boxing mitts for—had one of her biggest out-of-control episodes. She went from antagonizing her siblings, to not listening, to running away when I tried to talk to her, to throwing objects down the stairs, to whipping items off of her desk. She was crying and screaming. She was shaking and her skin was red and blotchy. She was pissed. I was too.

Nicolette Attree/Pexels

I was no longer thinking clearly and was responding with equal resistance. My stubbornness kicked in and I took away all screen time (my only currency) for the foreseeable future. I tried to lecture. Something kicked in and I eventually stopped talking. But I didn’t have it in me to give her what she needed: empathy.

She needed a hug.

She needed me to not make her anger about me. I realized my anger was in response to hers because I lacked control, and my sadness at seeing her so upset overwhelmed me and tapped into my own pools of sadness.

I was able to switch gears and see that her original outburst and reason for being reprimanded came from sibling jealousy and her underlying insecurity of being left out. Shame and then fear of consequences kicked in when she realized her negative behavior had consequences. I failed to see this in the moment and it wasn’t until after the anger was gone that we could actually talk about her feelings. We made a plan to find ways to snuff out those quick flames of anger for future outbursts. Something to hit or kick was what she wanted. I completely understood.

I understood the need to physically release the pressure and anxiety that blinds us when we get angry. I felt her desire for a different outcome. I want that for her too because I understand that desire in myself. And if it takes boxing gloves to get her where she needs to be, then I am happy to hold the punching mitts.

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