I receive lots of feedback on what parents find helpful in my sessions and workshops. The science of anger and aggression is near the top. Here are some simple insights for you and your child:
What is Anger?
Anger is not fear, stress or anxiety; anger makes you and your child hot-headed, and fear often makes you feel cold and clammy.
What makes us angry?
Parents and children can get angry about many things, typically in adults, and two things may trigger it.
- Violation (infringement, breach) of expectation
- Blockage of goals ( I am doing this, I want to do this, get out of my way)
For example, we are driving quite happily, and someone cuts us up, which will make us feel each of those things.
In children, it’s more complicated as they are not born with self-control, and so they get angrier quicker and not for the same reasons as we would, such as:
- Sharing their toy,
- or when your child wants a lolly, and they can’t have it
- Leaving somewhere, being tired and hungry ( more on this at my workshop)
Is Anger excellent or bad?
Neither, far more complex. Anger is a normal emotion to be understood, utilised and controlled. On the upside, anger can be motivating and lead us to create and energise, but it has a bad rap in English culture.
What Happens In the brain?
Making it simple ( the brain is a complex structure, and we are still learning), we have three brains:
1. Brainstem often called Reptilian brain
This is the brain we share with birds and reptiles. Think of it as the “housekeeping brain”.
Hunger, temperature control, fight-or-flight fear responses, defending territory, keeping safe — that kind of thing. The structures that perform these functions within our brain are incredibly similar to those in the brains of reptiles.
2. The limbic system ( feelings and emotional development)
This is the brain we share with cats, mice, and other mammals. Mammals have feelings, so this part of the brain is where we develop attachment and emotional development.
3. The neocortex, cortical brain
Humans can do so much more than some animals, and they can think, reflect, create, empathise and more)
It is like a guard dog, and it doesn’t think it wants to ensure that you can survive and sends lots of messages to another part of our brain. Hormones are released, such as adrenaline, which causes the fight response. This is all hardwired.
How long is the Anger Response?
It is a quick sudden Burst; the neurological response to anger lasts less than two seconds. After that, it takes a commitment to amplify or continue. Many other therapists and I advise counting to 10 and deep breathing.
The time allows the “cortical brain or thinking brain” to come up with a solution, and tricky if you need to manage the anger or meltdown in your child. Children’s brains are born unfinished and from the bottom up, so they get angrier quicker and sometimes longer if the feeling is misunderstood.
If you get angry a lot, a small amount of stress can be stimulating, but if you are chronically angry, there are significant consequences, according to Dr Geoffrey H Tofler:
The risk of a heart attack is 8.5 times higher in the two hours following a burst of intense anger.
( Geoffrey H Tofler et al. Triggering of acute coronary occlusion by episodes of anger. European Heart Journal: Acute Cardiovascular Care, February 2015 DOI: 10.1177/2048872615568969).
The risks for children are high too.
It’s normal for children to be dysregulated. However, constant dysregulation leads to high cortisol levels. There are links between elevated cortisol and depression, anxiety and emotional dysregulation later in life.
Is it nature or nurture?
We inherit genes, but we don’t know which gene may be switched on. We LEARN To deal with and control anger, just like we learn everything else. The environment you grew up in plays a big part, especially if your parents were not good models for reacting to and regulating anger. We tend to develop two ways of responding to anger.
1. Angry Withdrawal ( bottle up and may later explode)
How are you? How do you manage conflict within your home and with your children?
The Good News!
We always need to start with how we react as parents, then our children can learn from us positively. If you were traumatised as a child, then seek help and:
1. Become conscious of your body and how you react and how your brain works, then teach it to your children. I meditate; it’s a little bit more than being mindful; it’s been life-changing and enables a sense of calm for my body and mind.
2. We need to have an intention to express it differently and make this a priority. Habits can take a long time to change, but the brain is plastic, so there is always time.
3. You need to practice many times, so it’s all about repetition. This is the same for children, and they need to understand their brain and how it works and help them manage emotions by having ways of talking and expressing them.
Anger is complex, and it is neither good nor bad, but constant outbursts damage you and your child.
Parenting is hard, and I think we all need support; if you are worried about your anger and your children, please contact me if you would like to attend a workshop or consultation. With Love Catherine
Dr Mark Milstein, I like his site as I am interested in the science of therapy.
Beacon House has some excellent resources on Brain-based trauma, such as those I have used above.