“I hate you!” OUCH! How many times have parents heard that from their child? Whether we respond or react depends on our relationship to anger.

Let’s face it. Aggression is normal. From the infant screaming in anger when he’s put in his crib to the toddler kicking or biting his playmate, to the preteen taunting her closest friend in school, each is expressing aggression, with the potential for rage, hatred, even violence that’s within all of us. It’s our job, as parents, to hear and respect our child’s anger, helping him learn how to transform his aggressive impulses into more constructive forms, such as assertiveness and activity. We want to raise children with adequate impulse control, channeling their aggression into productive action, yet not with so much control that their spirit is suppressed. This requires reaching a balance for setting some limits on aggression.

Children need to learn how to master their combativeness, or they won’t be successful in calming themselves. This prevents them from considering the needs of others. Although this might be frightening in a 3-year-old, it is far more frightening in a 14-year-old. The older the child, the more serious the consequences are likely to be.

Before parents can teach their child how to be assertive rather that aggressive, we must first get in touch with our own feelings about aggression. Reflecting on our own childhood:

• How was aggression handled in your family? 

• Is it easy or difficult for you to express your own anger? 

• How do you feel when your child expresses anger?  

• Did your family members scream at each other or moderate their voices?

• Were you allowed to voice your opinion, or punished for bold behavior?

• What are your feelings about aggression and anger now?

• Do you and your spouse fight often? 

The most important consideration in children’s development of aggression is their exposure to aggression in their families. If there’s chronic marital conflict, children will adapt sibling conflict. You need to be clear about your own attitudes regarding aggression before you can teach your child to shape his. 

Connecting to the strong emotion behind “I hate you” helps a child feel heard and understood. Most importantly, letting her know she has a right to her feelings, that anger is normal, helps her achieve self-control. 

Here’s what doesn’t work between parent and child:

Child: “I want some ice cream!”

Parent: “ Not now. It’s too close to dinner.”

Child loudly: “I want some now. I don’t want dinner!”

Parent: “ I said no! Now stop your fussing.”

Child: “I hate you!”

Parent: “How dare you say that to me! There’s no ‘hate’ in this family. Go to ‘time out’ right now!”

Child screams, ultimately going to the stairs to sit. He hasn’t been heard, his anger wasn’t acknowledged, and there was no effective discipline to teach him alternatives for expressing his anger. We want to teach our child how to modulate his aggression, not to allow the anger to overwhelm us or him, and to help him gain some control while maintaining connection with us.

If parents feel helpless in responding to aggression, what does this teach our children? 

• If a child is aggressive enough, he can intimidate his parents.

• “My parent isn’t strong enough to manage me. I must be very powerful.”

When parents react to a child’s rebellion with punishment, a valuable opportunity is lost for connecting to the root of the anger, to understand what’s fueling the strong emotion. What’s learned: 

• The person who hits, kicks, bites, or screams wins.

• Children have no right to express their feelings; adults have all the power.

We help children learn to manage their aggression by encouraging healthy assertion. Our children need to know how to advocate for themselves, how to make their own choices, and how to take appropriate risks in life. We also want them to learn that 1) We can’t always get what we want when we want it; 2) Hitting, kicking and screaming aren’t effective ways to get what you want or need; 3) You can get more of what you need through talking, with adults willing to listen and understand; 4) Self-control facilitates positive connection.

We all have a right to our anger. Unconditionally accepting our child’s strong emotions, as hard as it may be when he says “I hate you,” builds connection. Our child feels safe to express his feelings without judgment or criticism. Typically these words translate to “I’m mad at you. You aren’t hearing me, OR you’re discounting my feelings, opinion, needs, OR this isn’t fair.” It’s often a cry for help, telling us our child’s having a problem, something’s blocking him from being successful. Speaking to the root of the problem is far more powerful in achieving connection. If anger and aggression weren’t tolerated in our own childhood, our child’s anger will certainly trigger us, rendering us powerless to respond effectively. Our reaction will alert us to any unfinished work we still have to do.

“I hate you!” A suggested response: “Wow, you’re really mad at me right now! I’d like to understand what’s upsetting you. How about letting me know in a way I can hear.” Bravo, we’re connecting! 

Tune in for more on anger next week....

Wishing you a peaceful, healthy 2017.