I worry about my daughter, Claire. She seems to keep things bottled up inside. Her teachers always tell me how “easy going” she is, letting slights just roll off her shoulders. From our point of view, she is hurting inside but just doesn’t know how to express it. For example, her friends seem to walk all over her, bossing her around, and Claire says nothing and goes along with their wishes. But then, out of the blue, every month or so, Claire loses it, crying and screaming in a fit of rage. These episodes usually happen at home with us in reaction to something very small. My husband and I are so taken off guard by her behavior that we just don’t know what to do or say to help her. What do you suggest we do? These monthly explosions are pretty scary and upsetting for all of us.
I am sure it is very painful for you and your husband to see Claire holding feelings inside without a pathway for expressing them. You see that the feelings are building up inside her like a pressure cooker but you feel you can’t do anything to help her manage the stress in advance. As you can imagine, the process of becoming more comfortable with anger and then expressing it in a healthy fashion is a complicated one. Let’s think about the steps involved:
Step One: Claire must recognize she is having feelings in reaction to others in the moment.
Claire: “My friend, Paige, just told me to go get her pencil sharpened for her. I don’t like that.”
Step Two: She must develop an ability to identify and label what those feelings are.
Claire: “I feel annoyed when Paige bosses me around.”
Step Three: Claire needs to trust her feelings and what she would like changed in response to them
Claire: “My annoyance tells me I don’t want to be bossed around anymore”
Step Four: Claire needs to use words to express her feelings.
Claire: “Paige, I don’t like when you ask me to do things for you that you can do yourself. You need to get your own pencil sharpened.”
Wow! That’s a tall order for anyone; never mind a child.
So, as a parent, how can you help her master this complex process?
1. Help Claire understand her feelings
Claire needs your help in understanding that anger is an acceptable emotion to feel. You can help her understand that when emotions stay inside for a long time, they may come out in ways that are less healthy. You may want to ask her, “What happens if you keep your feelings inside for a long time without letting anyone know?” Her list may include:
a. I may feel sad inside.
b. I might explode down the road.
c. I can’t get what I need.
d. It’s hard for others to understand how I feel
2. Help Claire develop a larger, more detailed vocabulary of feelings
I can’t stress enough the value for children of understanding their own feelings. To help Claire learn more about her feelings, you might start by teaching her a “Feeling of the Week”. Begin with simple ones, like mad, sad, and glad and move on to more challenging ones like frustrated, disappointed, and confused. You might post the word on the fridge. Use the feeling word regularly in sentences throughout the week and highlight it aloud when you see her exhibiting the feeling.
3. Express your own feelings clearly and openly
Claire will learn a lot by watching and listening to you. Your expression of feelings gives her permission to express her own. Don’t be afraid to say things to her like, “I am frustrated with my boss when he watches me like hawk. I am going to meet with him tomorrow to talk with him about the things he is doing that make me uncomfortable.”
4. Let Claire know that she can talk to you about her feelings
When Claire does come home and tell you about her day, listen quietly to her feelings. Stay calm and neutral as she describes to you the events in her life. This will allow her to explore her feelings at her own pace. You might say things like, “Tell me what happened” or even “I’m listening”. Sometimes you might need to inhibit your natural responses. If you say things like, “I hate that your friend treats you that way!”, you might unwittingly fuel Claire’s feelings of uncertainty and shut down, rather than open up, lines of communication.
5. Experiment with Role Playing
You might begin by demonstrating for Claire how you might express anger in a particular situation. Then allow Claire to give you feedback on how you did. Allow her to give it a try. Role-playing might allow Claire a forum to practice responses in advance of difficult situations. Another role-play is to stage a pretend argument with your child. Role-play an argument. Give points for using good conflict resolution skills like staying on point, using words without attacking, listening to the others’ position.
Throughout the rehearsal, expressing feelings with words helps Claire beef up her “anger management muscles”. As she becomes more comfortable and aware of her own feelings, she is developing healthy ways to convey them. Claire frees herself from the destructive cycle of store/explode/store and allows her to be open and spontaneous with others.
I look forward to an update on how she is doing!