“I hate you!”, “I don’t have to listen to you!”, “Go to hell!”, “You’re not my mother/father!”, all of these may be common phrases for children and teens who have experienced trauma, loss, foster care and adoption. Have you ever tried parenting a child who puts his fist through the wall when you ask him to do his homework? How do you parent a child who is irritable and angry from the moment she wakes up?
Children in foster care have experienced varying degrees of trauma, neglect, and multiple attachment disruptions or placements. These children have experienced overwhelming amounts of internal emotional distress at an age when they were ill-equipped to manage their emotional states or distress. The end result is that children in foster care often have lots of BIG and INTENSE emotions with little ability to articulate and express what they are feeling and why they are feeling it (by the way, many adults struggle with this as well).
Where there is anger, there is always pain
Anger is a very common by-product of all this pain and suffering. It is often misunderstood, miscommunicated and displaced. And unfortunately, anger is a very easy emotion to ‘catch’. Early interpersonal trauma forces the child’s social-emotional brain (right hemisphere) to adapt to a hostile or neglectful environment. The result for the child is that all systems of the social brain become shaped for ‘offensive’ and ‘defensive’ purposes. The child is often stuck in survival mode, often using strategies to defend (not learn), attack (not cooperate), avoid (not connect) and provoke (not please).
Attachment and Anger
What happens when a child who has suffered chronic neglect and relational trauma lands on a parents ‘attachment dance floor.’ The emotional demands placed upon the parents are intense, complex and are unlike any other intimate emotional relationship. Emotions are contagious; it’s easy to ‘catch’ an emotion – especially anger. This is perhaps the most difficult challenge for parents and caregivers. What to do with all that anger – theirs and ours!
The most critical ingredient of the parent-child relationship is the pattern of emotional communication between the parent and child. Humans are social-emotional beings with an innate need to connect and form meaningful attachment relationships. The child learns how to get his/her needs met through human connectedness. Learning (or re-learning) the ‘dance of attachment’ is essential as it enables the child to learn how to create and sustain meaningful, loving human connections. In order for this to occur, the parent needs to be able to lead the emotional dance. This requires that the parent not follow the child into distress and anger but respond by leading the emotional dance by modeling for the child how to manage intense, and at times, overwhelming emotions.
For parents, it’s important to remember that we are built to feel. We are social-emotional creatures and are built to be impacted by the emotions of others. If you ran into your friend who was jumping up and down with excitement because they just won the lottery – you would feel excitement and joy. If you ran into a good friend who just lost a loved one and was grieving – you would feel sad. If you’re parenting a child who is irritable and angry – it’s common to feel irritable and angry. Acknowledging the anger is important (because ignoring it doesn’t make it go away!).
Toxic stress and anger needs to be discharged from the body. When we are angry stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol generate increased blood flow to the hands and large muscles, preparing us with the energy needed to fight, flee or survive. Chronic stress and anger takes a toll on our physical and mental well-being. For parents that find themselves being angry and irritable most days, developing a plan to ‘emote’, release and discharge the anger and stress from the body and mind is important.
Parents De-Stress Plan
1) Acknowledge and identify angry/hurt feelings
“I’m angry because ______________”
“I’m hurt because _______________”
2) Develop a daily plan to discharge anger/stress:
– From the body, For example “I’ll walk around the block 3 times today”
– From the mind, For example “I’ll start a ‘feelings journal’ to identify and express my emotions”
The more parents are in touch with their own internal feeling states, the more they are able to effectively manage their own intense emotions. Increased emotional intelligence is important when parenting children with a history of trauma, loss and neglect. Having increased emotional intelligence does not mean that parents have to be perfect and never show any difficult emotion, such as anger and frustration. In fact, it is quite the opposite. The child needs you to express all of your emotions – not just the warm fuzzy ones, so he or she can see how it’s done. The difference here is that parents with increased emotional intelligence are not just ‘emotionally reacting’ to external stressors, they are able to model healthy ways to express and manage their own internal distress, anger and frustration. An upset parent might say, ‘I’m really frustrated and angry right now, I’m going to take a few minutes to calm down and think about what just happened’.
Children primarily learn through imitation, they’re learning from our example
Parents set the emotional tone within the family and can develop a bag of tricks to alleviate the stress and anger in the home. This bag of tricks can include things like: physical activity, exercise, hiking, yoga, joke night at the dinner table, all-day pajama day, game night, anger practice, role reversal night at the dinner table where the kids fix dinner and the parents get to whine, or playing feelings charades. Parents who are able to be creative and playful, will find that they are teaching their kids how to cope effectively with life’s stressors.
An Angry Child is a Hurt Child
Children communicate their distress and anger through their physiology and behaviors. Due to children’s’ social, emotional, cognitive and brain development, most children have not yet attained the skills necessary to verbalize their angry or hurt feelings. Subsequently, parents may see more ‘acting out’ behaviors as children emote and discharge toxic stress, grief and pain.
We know that punishing children with histories of trauma, neglect and attachment disruptions is ineffective, as punishment does not actively add or teach anything. In fact, when parents use anger and negative reinforcement, it most typically reinforces negative behaviors. Effective discipline is designed to socialize and actively teach the child important life skills. What the child most needs to learn is how to regulate or manage their internal emotional states. They need to develop the skill of returning to a state of calm after a stressful experience.
The goal is to increase the child’s emotional awareness and emotional management, and these are skills and competencies that can be learned and strengthened at any age. What an angry/hurt child needs most is to learn these skills of self-awareness and self-expression. The child needs reassurance that their grown-ups understand their anger/hurt/distress and can respond in ways that comfort, soothe and relieve the pain and suffering. Active listening and empathy sends the message to the child that you are interested in understanding and alleviating their pain and suffering; an angry child is a child in pain.
When the child is in a state of distress, anger or hyperarousal, it is imperative that the parent respond to the emotional needs of the child by providing the external regulation that is necessary for the child to return to a state of calm/regulation. Using interventions like time-outs and room time are often ineffective as they assume the child can self-regulate or self-soothe. When parents put an angry, dysregulated child in isolation, it most often reinforces the child’s belief that they are bad and/or unlovable. In addition, it leaves the child alone with intense and overwhelming thoughts and feelings. Being able to return to a state of calm after a distressing event is a learned skill; a skill that needs to be modeled and observed in order to be learned.
When a parent can remain calm in the eye of the storm, and model for the child how to manage internal distress, the child learns the dance of increased emotional intelligence, which is how to think before one reacts. The goal here would be to increase the child’s ability to return to a state of calm after a dysregulating event, so the parent would use a time-in, where the parent provides the external structure the child needs to return to a state of calm. The parent would remove the child from the stimulating environment and proceed to down-regulate the child. With a small child this would involve rocking, singing, deep pressure rubs down the spine; with an older child it might involve taking a walk together, exercising, listening to music or using expressive arts.
For children in care, the grief process includes anger. Giving children permission to feel their feelings and validating their pain, loss and trauma is a part of the healing process. Teaching them, over time, how to cope with and manage their intense feelings is critical. They need to learn healthy ways to express their angry, hurt and painful feelings. Each night at the dinner table have all family members share: ‘Today I felt happy when _____’, ‘Today I felt sad when _____’ and today I felt angry when _______’. Learning to identify and label feelings is easier in calmer moments.
One of the biggest problems for many children in foster care is that they have not experienced enough pleasure. The first five years of life are supposed to be filled with lots of pleasure, fun and play. In fact, play is the language of children. Giving and receiving pleasure is one of the most important things the child learns in the early parent and child attachment relationship. Human connections are supposed to be pleasurable, but what if the child has not learned this, and subsequently does not know the give and take of social-emotional relationships? What if the child is stuck in chronic states of distress and anger, and does not know how to pull him or herself out of this emotional distress?
Each time you play with the child, you replace distress and anger with pleasure, frustration with laughter, and isolation with connectedness. In addition, you will provide the child with the experiences that he or she needs to strengthen emotional and social development. The child will learn good impulse control when he or she is playing a board game where he or she is required to take turns. The child will learn how to think in a more organized way when playing structured games that have a beginning, middle, and end. They will learn how to express their feelings with words when they play ‘feelings charades.’ They will learn how to be sensitive to other people’s emotional needs and cues as they socially interact through play.
Yes, it is true that children in care have been negatively impacted by abuse, neglect and multiple placements. Children in foster care arrive in their new families with more pain, fear, anger, confusion and despair. The good news is that children change, grow, and heal within the context of healing relationships. Emotional relearning occurs within and through these healing relationships.
Aristotle said, “to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way” – now that is Emotional Intelligence!
Allison Davis Maxon, M.S., LMFT is a nationally recognized expert in the fields of child welfare and children’s mental health specializing in Attachment, Developmental Trauma and Permanency/Adoption. She is the Executive Director of the National Center on Adoption and Permanency and was the foster care consultant for the Paramount Pictures movie Instant Family. Allison was honored in 2017 with the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute ‘Angels in Adoption’ award and is the co-author of Seven Core Issues in Adoption and Permanency: A Guide to Promoting Understanding and Healing in Adoption, Foster Care, Kinship Families and Third Party Reproduction, Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2019.