SUBSCRIBE NOW
As low as 99¢ for the first month
SUBSCRIBE NOW
As low as 99¢ for the first month

Heffner column: Separating angry feelings from behavior

Dr. Elaine Heffner
More Content Now
Pontiac Daily Leader

Columns share an author’s personal perspective.

*****

These days it is easy to feel that you are losing it. Nothing feels normal and the reality is that nothing is normal. As parents this may mean having less patience with our children, which then leads to feeling guilty. Children, especially young children, have not yet developed necessary controls in the way they express their feelings

The way children express anger influences the way we react to their behavior. No one likes being the target of someone else’s anger, especially if it is someone close to you. Their anger feels like an attack and can make you feel like attacking back.

Children’s anger sometimes feels like an accusation - as if they’re saying you are a bad mother. Sometimes they even say as much. A child’s anger over not getting something he wanted, or not doing something he wanted to do is his protest, but instead of it sounding like something about him, his mother hears it as being about her - his behavior is her fault.

A mother may wonder if she did something that was wrong, but more likely mothers feel their requests were perfectly reasonable and start to feel angry themselves at the child’s attack. Parents say they tell their children it’s alright to be angry, but somehow it doesn’t feel that way when children really express it. The idea of anger is not the same as anger that is expressed.

Real anger can feel scary. People say things when angry like, “I could kill you for that.” We don’t go around killing each other when we’re angry, because we have control over our feelings. But children haven’t yet developed those controls and they express anger in primitive ways like hitting, screaming or throwing things. This kind of behavior can feel threatening.

Because children have not yet developed inner controls, but act out their feelings, feelings and behavior seem to be one and the same. The feelings take form in behavior, and because the behavior feels threatening we label it “bad.” Young children are unable to tell the difference between feelings and behavior and so begin to believe that it is the feelings that are bad.

The fact that angry feelings are joined emotionally to attacking behavior in childhood seems to color our response to anger throughout life. We were all children once, and sometimes still have trouble separating angry feelings from behavior, both in our children and in ourselves. We may still be afraid that the intensity of our feelings will be matched by the enormity of our actions. It can begin to feel unsafe not only to express anger but to feel it.

Actually, our job is to help our children learn that their feelings are acceptable, but hitting, screaming and throwing things are not. A mother can only teach this though, if she herself feels that her own anger is not dangerous to her child, and her child’s anger is not dangerous to her - anger does not have to be wiped out in order to achieve one’s own goals.

To accept your child’s anger and teach him to express it differently you have to be able to tolerate the fact that your child doesn’t like something you are doing - in fact doesn’t like you at that moment. In other words, you have to risk feeling like a “bad” mother. That feeling doesn’t make you a bad mother.

If you can accept this you don’t have to counterattack with your own anger, or give in, making you feel helpless and your child’s anger seems powerful and frightening - to him and to you.

Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.