First Comes Hurt, Then Comes Anger and Aggression

Washington Parent Magazine, January 2003
Kay Kosak Abrams, Ph.D.

Anger is a signal, and without anger, we cannot survive. Like a vital sign, anger informs us that our well-being is threatened or that harm has occurred. When we feel angry, our primitive "old brain" releases adrenaline to enable us to "fight or take flight" in defense against whatever has threatened us.

In the 21st century we may face a traffic jam instead of a saber tooth tiger. Our "fight or flight" defense may be to hit the horn or scream at the offensive stranger.

Whether we are confronting another mess our children made, jumping in to stop the bickering or responding to a defiant teenager, our anger wakes us up to tell us it is time to cope. It may be time to step back, delegate, refuel or take charge. Luckily, our "new brain," located in the frontal lobe, has the capacity to reason and problem solve in response to our anger signals.

We develop our ability to cope with angry feelings as we mature. As children develop they gain increased ability to tolerate frustration and to deal more adaptively with feelings of hurt. When aggression prevails over reason, our good old "fight or flight" reaction wins. This is naturally more often the case for young children who may hit, kick or scream rather than show empathy or "use words." Learning how to deal with anger is largely a learned behavior but also involves individual temperament.

First Comes Hurt

To understand and manage angry feelings and aggressive behavior, we must first recognize and remember that anger comes from hurt. Aggression is the behavioral response--the acting on the hurt and anger. Empathy is the curative response that eases the hurt so we can shore up our coping defenses.

Anger is a biological response to all kinds and degrees of frustration or hurt. Anger might speak to unmet needs or to feeling vulnerable. Anger can speak to feelings of jealousy or shame. When a child feels left out, angry feelings speak to needs for recognition or affirmation. Anger that arises from feelings of helplessness identifies or points to needs for mastery.

When we feel frustration, we need understanding before we can cooperate or compromise. When we offer or receive understanding, potential feelings of anger melt away and solutions can more easily be found. When 4-year-old Marc refuses to leave a play area after lunch, soothing words offer comfort while limit setting, "Daddy knows you love to climb and this was fun. One more time down the slide, then it is time to say ‘goodbye’ until next time!" Such empathy is more likely to minimize anger and facilitate cooperation than, "That's it! Time to go! If you scream like that, we just won't come here next time!" This response is far more likely to aggravate frustration and anger.

Transforming Anger in Very Young Children

Transforming feelings of hurt, such as frustration and anger for very young children (infants through age 3), is mostly about comfort. We need to be physically present with very young children. We are there to "use words" for them, to divert their attention, to calm and to nurture. We step in with empathy to resolve conflict. We also set limits to promote maturity that will ultimately help our children cope with anger more constructively. Setting those limits, however, whether it's telling a child that it is bedtime or requiring her to take turns with the toy, can provoke anger and frustration. At such times, we may offer soothing, or we may need to ignore and calmly tolerate the emotions, allowing our child to calm herself.

Whether anger and aggression stem from delayed gratification or from conflict, it is key that we understand the hurt feelings that underlie the anger. For a 3-year-old, the hurt about not getting her way is about recovering from frustration and learning to delay gratification, which is part of maturing. It is not necessary to leave her escalating from a cry of frustration to a wail. Although she has been told "no," a comforting hug or a hand to hold can minimize the duration of anguish. If her little brother grabbed her toy, we can empathize with the injustice and retrieve the toy or help her retrieve it. Limit setting can be achieved with calm, kind firmness. There is no need for harshness. Sympathy and empathy make limit setting much easier.

Transforming Anger in School-Age Children

In the face of conflict, the school-age child has a larger toolbox than the toddler. By age 5 or 6, most children have learned to delayed gratification. They can wait their turn, are able to share and have learned that many privileges are earned. They have successfully adapted to the world with respect to shared resources and no longer resort to whining or screaming. Feelings of anger can be transformed into feelings of determination. A 9-year-old brother may throw an insult toward his 7-year-old sister who may then be all the more determined to "one up" him rather than wail or tattle to her parents. This greater maturity means greater ability to use language and to negotiate and compromise without adult intervention. In addition, physical pursuits can be good outlets for feelings of stress or frustration.

The ability to respond with humor represents cognitive growth in the school-age child. Using humor to tease or to defend against feelings of hurt is a fabulous psychological defense. Children may effectively resort to mutual insults to achieve peace. We may ideally want them to resort to complimentary words, but realistically, children can be quite blunt.

Compromising to avoid further conflict or talking with a friend who will certainly "be on your side," are effective means of melting anger away. Drawing and journaling also transform feelings of hurt, frustration and anger.

By Adolescence

It is in middle school and high school that social and academic challenges are heightened. Problems are more complex, as is our means of coping with them. In fact, children who are ill-equipped may become symptomatic or regressive at this time. An example of regression would be a 13-year-old girl who begins restricting her diet in order to lose weight and become smaller, or a 15-year-old who withdraws from his friends, preferring to stay home with his parents. Alternatively, some teenagers become hyper mature and even grandiose in effort to defend against feelings of vulnerability and frustration. When your 15-year-old daughter wants to hang with 18-year-olds, travel to Orlando Fla., and get her own MasterCard, it is time to pull in the reins!

For the budding adolescent, provoking irrational fights with family members is also a favorite means of coping with overwhelming feelings of frustration and anxiety about facing greater responsibility. The parent of an adolescent needs a fair amount of wisdom and calm to ignore provocations and put the accountability back into the teenager’s lap.

Adolescence is a time when social supports become the most important means of securing a sense of belonging and autonomy. As the adolescent becomes more autonomous and looks to her peers for validation, she practices her ability to get along in the world. She is testing her judgment and reasoning and her ability to manage relationships.

The temptation to resort to maladaptive coping, such as using cigarettes, drugs or alcohol is great for many adolescents. Yet, for the teenager who has gained sufficient confidence and competence, this time of practicing is fabulous growth and preparation for launching into adulthood. By young adulthood, our children know how and when to have a voice, how to compromise, and, when necessary, how to fight for what is right.

Moving From Conflict to Win/Win

No matter what the age and developmental stage, there are four steps necessary to move from feelings of hurt and anger to conflict resolution. These steps are applicable whether we are managing ourselves or others. Simply resorting to "time out," punishing, or withholding does not teach skills in conflict resolution, which requires empathy, communication skills and capacity for compromise.

Step 1. Step back and separate emotionally. By stepping back we can better reflect on what is happening, what feelings are involved and what needs are not being met. When we manage others of any age in conflict, our job is to help them step back. Emotional reactivity or escalation may end the conflict abruptly or even fuel the flames. Wait and breathe until you can respond with reason.

Step 2. Listen to each perspective without alliance or bias to either "side." This takes objectivity and needs to be done by a person who is capable of objectivity. If it is you and your child, offer empathy for yourself, "mom is in no mood to hear this fighting…and you two look really fed up; let’s hear some solutions that work for all of us."

Step 3. Offer empathy and validation to each "side." Often there is no "right versus wrong." Both parties feel justified, or "right," from their perspective. Each party needs to be affirmed prior to correction or negotiation. Remember, without empathy for the "hurt" feelings, it is next to impossible to move to compromise and problem solving, which involves giving.

Step 4. Find a win/win solution. Find, or help each child find, a solution that works for both parties. When an argument takes place and feelings are hurt, making amends is usually about each party recognizing the other’s needs.

When parenting and setting limits, it is not always about win/win; we can offer validation and empathy as well as a solution. If a child pines after a toy when shopping, we can offer empathy while limit-setting: "I know you would like this toy for yourself. Remember mommy said we are buying for your friend’s birthday this time. I’ll put it on your wish list." For toddlers, we might offer a "treat" while we shop to satisfy their yearnings.

To a 14-year-old, we may have to say "you got an offer to go to the Redskins, but you have a previous obligation to go to your friend’s hockey game…how frustrating for you…maybe next time." He may still be disappointed and may even try to put it on you. "I know you are mad about not getting to go; you are trying to attack me, but it is not about me." By this age, we can put the accountability back in his lap and step out of it. Most well adjusted kids will work it through and let it go. Empathy for the hurt feelings and patience are always wiser than lecturing, scolding or getting into a meaningless fight that results in no football and no hockey: "Forget it!…, you can just sit at home if that is how you are going to act!"

When Reason Wins Over "Fight or Flight"

In the end, as we teach our children to cope with anger, we are facilitating maturation. Feelings of anger in response to facing frustration, hurt and conflict are a part of everyday life. Teaching our children to have empathy for others, to devise win-win solutions, and rely on reason over aggression keeps our toolbox open and ever-growing. As we face our own limitations and strive to resolve conflict or resolve relational differences, we are practicing our own ability to transform feelings of hurt or anger to feelings of resolve or peace. In this manner we exercise our capacity for reason over our "fight or flight" response. Save that for the saber tooth tiger!

Copyright 2003 - Dr. Kay Abrams

Kay Kosak Abrams is a psychologist in private practice and the parent of three children, ages 8, 11 and 14. She specializes in parent coaching, behavioral assessment of young children and advocacy for students who have learning disabilities. Kay Abrams works with children, families, adolescents and couples. She also has 20 years experience treating eating disorders and founded a "Rediscover Eating" workshop for chronic dieters and compulsive overeaters.

This presentation was the third in the Lecture Series, "It's Just Life: Taking the 'psycho' out of the psychology of everyday living," which began in the Fall of 2002 and is sponsored by Washington Parent. For information or registration, click on "Presentations and Workshops" on the left side of the screen.