Family Stress, Anger, and Emotional Burdening
Other than having a psychiatric or medical condition that contributes to poor impulse control, anger in a child is often consequent from emotional hurt and overburdening. Children act out with anger for many reasons. They may have feelings of powerlessness- not enough control over their own lives or in their relationships, they may be experiencing trauma from the loss of a parent through divorce, death, or emotional unavailability, and/or they may be experiencing changes in family structure or daily schedule. Before it is determined that a child needs reality-based consequences, one must first evaluate and address the emotional burden or pain a child is experiencing.
There are two most common ways children mishandle their anger. If children feel unsure of what they are feeling, or have been taught through modeling that expressing their feelings is not okay, they often internalize their anger by keeping it bottled up inside, as in depression. Other children externalize anger and may profusely overdo its expression as in tantrums or unexpected outbursts. If a child feels unsafe at home, this externalizing may take the form of bullying at school.
Everyday life stressors coupled with family stress may tax a child’s coping mechanisms. Simply stated, if the sum total of stress exceeds the available energy for coping, misbehavior in the form of mishandled anger may result. Parents often have concerns that their child is overly angry or rude when asked to complete routine chores or homework. In many instances, this child is using all of his/her resources to cope with the stressors brought forth by the family situation. This child may have limited energy to handle anger appropriately, and therefore lashes out at parents. This type of anger serves an important function; it is communicating a much deeper need, the need for emotional protection. How do parents know if they are emotionally burdening their child? ( Taylor, John. 1989. Diagnostic Interviewing of the Misbehaving Child. Warminster, PA: Mar*Co Products Inc.)
Here are some typical signs of an emotionally burdened child:
- Emotional Numbness– This child may become un-empathetic towards others because all of his/her emotional reserves are being consumed for personal survival.
- Dysfunctional Need to Control– This child may become dishonest, relentlessly protecting him/herself from vulnerability. Thoughts and true feelings are kept private and authority figures are kept at a distance.
- Depression– This child feels that it is impossible to get his/her needs met, virtually giving up by repressing awareness of feelings, and tuning out.
- Lack of Responsibility- This child is extremely stressed and uses all of his/her resources to deal with the ongoing family stress. This child has no energy for life and therefore may evade all responsibilities at home or school. ( Taylor, John. 1989. Diagnostic Interviewing of the Misbehaving Child. Warminster, PA: Mar*Co Products Inc.)
What can I do as a parent to not emotionally burden my child?
- If you are struggling in your marriage or going through a divorce, seek outside help to deal with your emotions. Do not make your child your “surrogate spouse.” Have very clear boundaries that you are your child’s parent, not friend. One of your jobs as a parent is to emotionally protect your children by shielding them from your emotional stressors. Becoming “best friends” with your child severely thwarts the social and emotional development of your child. Create your own network of support through extended family, church, community, and friends.
- Examine your relationship with your child. Read and reflect on the following questions and seek help from a therapist for additional guidance:
Do you exercise too much control over your child’s life, or not enough control? Are you aware of what your child needs developmentally? Do you discipline with anger and guilt instead of empathy and consequences? Are you meeting your child’s need for love, attention, and time? Are you validating your child’s experience/existence even if you do not agree with your child? Are you regularly affirming your child’s successes or failures? Are you so overly concerned with your child’s performance that you are neglecting to look at his/her effort?
- Develop and implement clear routines so your child knows what to expect daily.
- Do everything you can to ensure that your child can have a reliable, meaningful relationship with both parents.
- Be attuned to your child’s needs without becoming overprotective or invasive.
- Provide opportunities for your child to share feelings and thoughts, but respect his/her need for privacy.
- Keep your child’s life balanced between school, family, friends, outside activities, and personal down time. Do not overschedule your child.
- Be mindful of your child’s need for sleep, health, proper nutrition, and provide for these needs accordingly. A deficiency in any of these areas increases emotional vulnerability.
- Be aware of your own needs for sleep, support, health, balance, and nutrition. Your emotional vulnerabilities greatly impact your ability to parent your child.
- Enlist the help of a qualified therapist to assist your child through challenging family times.