From young children to teens, James Lehman, MSW explains why your child is in trouble if he or she uses anger and acting out behavior to control others.
When children use anger to get what they want, it can feel for all the world like they’re pointing a loaded weapon at you. As a parent, you dread the ugly and sometimes violent emotional outbursts that come with this type of behavior. Before I discuss children who use anger as a weapon—or the way that I like to put it, as a problem solving technique—I want to caution people that once a child is using extreme anger, they’re in a lot of trouble. And by the way, I’m not talking about a two-year-old throwing a tantrum, I’m talking about a five-year-old throwing toys around the room or an eight-year-old hitting his sister or a twelve-year-old kicking holes in the wall. Once a child is at that level, there are some serious issues at stake, and you need to get them some help fast. There’s no way I can address every aspect of this problem in one article, but what I can do is explain a little bit more about what’s going through your child’s head, and the steps you need to take as a parent to change this pattern of behavior.
Let me explain to you why I think that your child is in trouble if they’re using anger to seek control. I believe that kids who act out this way haven’t developed the appropriate problem solving skills to deal with the stressors, emotions and situations they experience at their age level. Don’t forget, anger is a feeling, but anger is also a problem that has to be solved. When you’re angry and you’ve got all that chaotic energy inside of you, you have to learn what to do about it besides take it out on others. When you’re afraid, you have to learn what to do with that fear—that’s a problem you have to solve. Too many times feelings are looked at solely as feelings and not as problems for which your child needs to find a solution.
It’s also important to understand this: kids get a sense of power from acting out and they use that power to solve the problem instead of learning how to cope with life. These children don’t learn the mechanics of problem solving or how to deal with their feelings appropriately. And that’s an important and critical misstep, because it leaves them on one side of the cliff with no bridge to the next phase of life, the phase where they learn to negotiate, to get along with others, and to solve the problems that arise without losing control.
How Kids Use Anger to Control Their Environment
From the age of four, almost all of us learned how to solve our anger problems, and now we do it so easily and quickly that we don’t even realize that we’re solving them. We feel angry at our boss but we keep our mouth shut. Perhaps we jog after work, or we go to the gym. Or we watch a movie or read a book. We do things that enrich our lives to compensate for the stressors that we feel: We find a way to solve those problems.
But with kids who use anger to manipulate a situation, it’s a whole different story. They’ve learned to solve the problem of feeling uncomfortable by striking out at others. When they have a hard time, instead of dealing with their emotions, they strike out. And in the short term, that solves their problem—usually people back off. If their parents or teachers or caregivers don’t back off the first time, they back off the second or third or fifth or tenth time. Even if they just kicked a hole in your wall, they don’t even see it as their wall, they don’t care. To put it plainly, the child or the teenager has nothing to lose.
Once children learn how to use acting out, aggression, destructive behavior and verbal abuse—that whole family of behaviors—as a coping mechanism, as a skill to solve life’s problems, they are treading on dangerous territory. Because when they find that it works, they keep doing it. And the older they get, the more that technique becomes ingrained in them. And so by the time they’re older children or entering early adolescence, this is their main way of coping with anything that frustrates or upsets them.
Are Your Younger Child’s Meltdowns Giving him Control?
It’s simple: the more your young child succeeds at using anger and destructive behavior as a way to solve his problems—and the more you let him get away with doing that—the more entrenched that behavior is going to become.
Here’s what happens: Your child is faced with a situation that’s frustrating. He responds by losing control. As a parent, you see your child melting down. But if you look at the bigger picture, is he really losing control? Because here’s the thing: the next time you tell him he has to go clean his room, you’re going to remember the last explosion and you’re going to ask in a different way, or soften the request. If he explodes again, eventually you’ll clean his room yourself. So even though it looks like he’s losing control by melting down, in reality he’s getting more and more control over everybody in the house.
The same thing happens at school. Even though these kids look like they’re losing control when they act out, in fact, they’re getting more control over the class because they wind up not having to do the work. Somewhere along the line the child learned that acting this way gave him an edge, and gave him some power—it gave him some control over the adults in his life. The expectations placed upon him were diminished, and the tolerance for inappropriate behavior was raised. In his very bright human mind, he realized that it worked. And so he tried it again, it worked again, and it worked again until it became a pattern.
When these kids lose control, in their mind, they’re in control. They’re getting back at you. They’re showing you that they’re not going to do what you ask of them. If not now, then maybe the next time you’re going to ignore their behavior and do it yourself. And that’s their goal. It’s a very difficult pattern to break as a parent and you may very well need guidance from a behavioral program or a behavioral specialist, even when your child is still young.
For Parents of Angry, Acting-out Teens
I think if teens are acting out and using anger to control you, they certainly have years of experience that says that this method works for them. They may behave themselves around their friends, or around the police. They have to behave themselves in public for the most part, and they tend to do so. But when they get home or are at school where this behavior works, they readily employ it.
So, what happens? You see these kids get moved through school. There are countless conferences with teachers and parents and school psychologists. But really, in the end, if the child is resolute, nothing changes. He goes to Special Ed classes where they tiptoe around him and he does easy work. They pat him on the head when he spells ten words right and tell him what a great guy he is. In short, they do everything they can to manage his behavior. And the school’s goal, by the way, is not to educate him at that point—it’s to manage his behavior. And that’s exactly what he wants. He wants to control the environment, control you through his behavior. He wants it to be your job to not upset him. The message to you is, “If you upset me, bad things are going to happen.”
Never lose sight of the fact that as a parent, your most important job is to teach your child how to learn to solve problems. Teens are miserable half the time because they’re dealing with some tremendous problems and at the same time, trying to learn how to manage life. They’re not children anymore and they’re not adults, but they are starting to have some adult expectations of responsibility—without the benefit of all the tools adults have. In fact, the only way they can get those tools is by learning how to manage situations. There’s a saying I like: “Action precedes understanding.” In other words, teenagers have to go through all of this stuff, and in the end, they’ll understand how it helped them.
But kids who avoid solving problems through intimidation, abuse, anger and acting out behavior don’t develop the skills to deal with life. Sadly, they wind up as young adults whose primary problem solving skill is to intimidate others and break things if they don’t get their way. The truth is, there’s no future in our world for adults like that. And they rarely grow up without encounters with the police, substance abuse, and criminal activity.
For kids who learn how to solve problems through defiance, all they do is defy. And if you ask them why they did it, they’ll tell you it was your fault or somebody else’s fault. “I was wrong but you made me. You wouldn’t let me have the money. You wouldn’t let me stay up and watch TV. You wanted me to clean my room and not let me finish my game.” You, you, you. And these kids wind up feeling like a victim all the time, and you know, if you feel like a victim then the rules don’t apply to you. And so they strike out defiantly, and that becomes their main technique to solving problems. Who are these kids I’m speaking about? They’re the brooding teenagers who are angry all the time at home. They become teens who get involved with drugs and alcohol. They become teens who get involved with petty crime and the police. And you know, you’ll see them do antisocial things in the community. They’ll be destructive, knock down people’s mailboxes, or break into cars. And they get involved with all that because they actually see themselves as victims and therefore, somehow it’s different for them. But as a parent, you’ve got to really rigorously and strongly challenge that feeling and that way of thinking. For people who aren’t able to give up that victim identity, it becomes very hard to change.
Getting Control Back
I think the way that you get control back is to grit your teeth and be ready for a big fight. Start saying no, and mean it. Be prepared to lock up the video game in the trunk of your car. Be prepared to let your child scream in the store for 15 minutes. Be prepared to call the police. Be prepared to go through these things and be ready to do what it takes for your child to understand that this strategy, this problem solving skill of acting out, doesn’t work anymore. If you aren’t able to deal with this problem, you’re endangering yourself and you’re endangering your child. The behavior is going to escalate. Parents need to understand that and seek outside resources, have a backup plan, and be prepared to stand your ground.
I suggest you read as much as you can on the subject of managing kids with behavior problems. Find a behavior-oriented therapist. Work with the school and do whatever you can. Also, there are books available at the book store and programs available online that can help you get the skills you need. I developed The Total Transformation Program to help parents in this exact situation by giving them a plan, a practical way to grit their teeth, say no, mean it, and know what to do next. Because, if this problem doesn’t change in your child, in adulthood it becomes really terrible and sad. The terrible part is, of course, adults can’t solve their problems by acting out and exploding. They wind up in jail, they wind up fired, they wind up hopeless. And it’s sad because when the child becomes an adult, he really feels cheated by life. He doesn’t understand why he hasn’t made it and other kids have. And he really feels like a loser—in fact, these kids feel like losers for a great amount of their lives, because they know right from wrong. Many times after they act inappropriately they feel sad and confused. Deep down, they know what good behavior is and bad behavior is—they just can’t operationalize it when they’re upset.
So if you’re in this position with your child, you need to learn new problem solving skills. In essence, you have to develop special parenting skills for kids who have special needs. And you know, you can tell if your parenting skills are working or not if your kid’s out of control. And if that’s the case, that doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent—far from it. You’re tolerating your child, you’re doing the best you can. What it means is that your child also needs to develop a new set of skills, and your child needs a parent with a level of skills that you don’t have yet.
The good news is you can get those skills that you need to teach your child how to manage his behavior. You can go online to find support. You can see a therapist who deals with behavioral problems and who can teach you techniques to deal with your child. Yes, action precedes understanding. And you can start taking actions now. Don’t be so intimidated by your child’s anger that you are afraid to take action and get the help you and your child need.
Child Anger as a Weapon: When Your Child “Points the Gun” at You is reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents.
Empowering Parents is a weekly newsletter, online magazine and parenting blog published by Legacy Publishing Company. Our goal is to empower people who parent by providing useful problem-solving techniques to parents and children. The views expressed in the articles on Empowering Parents represent the opinions of the authors and the experts quoted therein. Unfortunately, it’s not possible for us to respond to every question posted after an article on our website. Empowering Parents encourages its readers to participate by weighing in with suggestions and advice.
James Lehman is a behavioral therapist and the creator of The Total Transformation Program for parents. He has worked with troubled teens and children for three decades. James holds a Masters Degree in Social Work from Boston University.