Dealing with Hate and Anger
Hate & Anger :: Review
"I hate this lousy house! By the way, what's for supper?"
(You know who.)
Hate is a complex emotion which is not understood very well at all by children; consequently, when they say they hate someone it is more likely an expression of an emotion that is much less complicated than it appears, and certainly immature. In fact, somewhat less than civilized!
When a young child says, "I hate you!" what the child is really saying is "I'm really mad at you!" This is typically associated with a frowny face, tears/crying, an angry voice, physical expressions such as stomping about, head bent forward, arms flailing in menacing ways, name calling, and perhaps throwing objects and even hitting. Small children are less able to hide, disguise, or delay their feelings; consequently, they all come pouring out impulsively, creating a great scene and filling the environment with a dramatic and colorful display of behaviors that invite all the attention they can get. It's as if the child is saying, "Just try ignoring this one." It's something of a tantrum: loud, intense, compelling, sometimes embarrassing, and generally difficult to ignore.
Older children (12 and above) also feel anger and frustration which they interpret as hatred, but in fact, are not really feelings of hatred in a literal sense. The older the child gets, the less inclined he/she is to be as theatrical in the expression of anger and frustration. Although there will typically be some outward signs of what's boiling inside (a menacing glance instead of a menacing gesture, a rolling of the eyes toward the ceiling, facial expressions which declare disgust, and subvocal or barely audible mutterings), older children are more inclined to take their hatred to their rooms (or some other place away from home and family) where they seethe, lick their wounds, rationalize, agonize, philosophize, make the best of it, turn their attention to other things, and on and on. Our youngest son told my wife and me that when he was a teenager and didn't get his way, he'd go to his bedroom, put our picture on his desk and swear at it using every profanity he knew. "I hated you so bad," he said. "But of course, I didn't hate you at all," he continued, "And all the time I was cussing at your picture, I knew you were right."
Nothing is more indicative of one's having lost control than is anger.
How children express their anger depends in large measure on how people have typically responded to that anger. This raises the important question: How should people respond to children when they express anger and hatred? Surely not with anger! That would be umpteen times more stupid and juvenile than the kid's anger! Nothing is more indicative of one's having lost control than is anger. It is perhaps the most immature of all inappropriate parental responses to the inappropriate, annoying, age-typical behavior of children. To be angry is to be out of control. Let's discuss mature, controlled ways of responding, beginning with the behavior of younger children.
As noted earlier, young children tend to be very outwardly expressive of their emotions-positive and negative. When angry, they let you know it in no uncertain terms. Though it is annoying, it isn't all bad. At least you know how they feel, and you have some well defined behaviors to work on. Generally, when a child engages in a tirade of emotion, parents are best advised to just ignore it, despite all its colorful splendor. It's likely nothing but a big play for attention, and is best left ignored.
Here is a wonderful example of what I mean. Several years ago I was in the home of friends who have five young children, at the time all pre-teens, the oldest being twelve and the youngest about a year and a half. It's an exemplary family. Outside the home, the children were the model of propriety and good behavior, so when I observed in the home what I am about to describe, I was taken aback-though ultimately very pleased. Here is what happened:
The father and I were standing in the living room talking. The 6-year-old daughter was seated on the couch reading a book. The 3-year-old son was standing in front of his sister playing with a toy. In walked the 1-year-old who made a beeline for his 3-year-old brother. He was after the toy in his brother's hand. Well, you can guess what happened. The 1-year-old grabbed the toy, and a scuffle began. In an instant, the 3-year-old boy had flung the 1-year-old to the floor, and his head hit with a resounding thud! Naturally, the 1-year-old let out a blood curdling scream. Not to be outdone, and as an expression of justification for his protection of rights and property, the 3-year-old, with the toy well secured in his arm, stormed out of the room, shouting behind him, "I hate Billy!"
The 1-year-old was hurting, I'm sure. His head hit the floor like a brick. It made me wince. The father, completely unruffled by it all, gently rubbed his hand over the 1-year-old's head as he clung to his father's leg, and said simply, "It will feel better soon." The daughter, on the couch, got angry that her dad was comforting the kid who started it all, threw her book at him, and said, "But he started it! I hate you Daddy!" as she stomped out of the room. All of which Daddy ignored, and through which Daddy remained completely unruffled and aloof. Within 1 minute and 39 seconds (as a student of behavior, I measure things like that) the 1-year-old had stopped crying and was playing with his brother who had returned to the room calm and unemotional, and the sister had retrieved her book and was reading it as though nothing had happened.
Let's analyze this situation. First off, it would be completely inappropriate to have characterized the expressions "I hate you" of the 3-year-old boy and the 6-year-old girl as literal feelings of hatred. They were expressions of anger - impulsive, brief, and generally shallow, immature expressions of anger. Second, the father gave absolutely no attention to any of the junk behaviors that were exhibited: shouting "I hate you," the book throwing, the sibling rivalry. None of that junk got one single word of attention from Daddy. It was as though it had never happened. Even when he comforted the wailing baby, he didn't acknowledge any of the wailing-related behaviors. He only said, "You'll feel better soon." Third, within a very brief period of time, less than two minutes, the incident had begun, run its entire course, and was followed by three happy siblings playing with one another as though nothing had happened. The reason, of course, being that Daddy had treated it all as though it was nothing. No attention was given to any of the inappropriate behaviors.
Now you might ask, "But wait a minute, wasn't comforting the crying boy a reinforcer for either crying, grabbing his brother's toy, or both?" That is a good and reasonable question. In this instance, it wasn't for at least two reasons:
First, the father gave no verbal attention to the child's crying or book grabbing. He simply said, "You'll feel better soon." The pain of being thrown to the floor and hitting his head with a THUD was punishment enough and Daddy couldn't have said a thing to heighten the reality of that. The kid was suffering from the consequences of his own behavior. Daddy left that alone. He simply comforted the child. He ignored the behavior.
Let me put it another way. Suppose that an adult, through carelessness and foolishness, sustained a serious injury, and was laying on the ground in a puddle of blood writhing in pain. You wouldn't ignore the plight of that person's body for fear of reinforcing his foolishness. You would give comfort and treatment to the person, but ignore the foolishness that had created the need for comfort. You'd say something like, "Help is coming," or "What can I do to make you more comfortable?" or "Just relax, everything will be fine," and similar soothing expressions. You wouldn't say, "That was a really stupid thing to do, you know? I mean, after all, look at what happened to you! Because of your stupidity you're likely to bleed to death! What a klutz you are!" By now, all of this is perfectly obvious to the victim. Natural consequences of his behavior have taught him about the foolishness of the behavior. It wouldn't do any good for you to harp on and on about it. In fact, such reactive statements can lessen the teaching effects of natural consequences by building up resentments about them!
Second, the response of the father put the environment back in order. In less than two minutes, the whole affair had run its entire course from beginning to end. Everyone was happy. The children were playing together compatibly and were appropriately engaged in other things. Remember, the only way you can tell how effective your responses to behavior are is by the effect those responses have on the behaviors that follow. If the environment is quickly brought back to order, if the people within that environment resume a "normal" character, and the incident passes as a flash in the pan, then it is highly probable that what was done was appropriate.
As parents, we must be extremely careful to not overreact to emotion-packed statements like "I hate you!"; "You make me sick!"; "I hate this terrible home!"; and so on. From the moment this kind of junk spews out of the mouths of our irate children, the tension in the environment is usually so elevated as to make it difficult for us as parents to be calm and objective about it all. Our first inclination of course is to respond in kind: "Well loving you isn't always the easiest thing to do"; or "If home is so bad, why don't you just leave?! Make my day!"; or "Just wait a minute, you insolent brat! You don't talk to your mother that way!" Such in-kind reactions are inappropriate, out of order, low on the scale of civility, and serve to only aggravate the situation. Not only are the children out of control, the parents are out of control. No one wins, everyone loses, and the environment of the home is left in shambles with all kinds of repair work to be done. Here is a better way:
|Child:||"I hate you, Mother. You make me sick. I wish you'd die!"|
|Mother:||"I'm really sorry you feel that way, Dear. I can tell you're angry. Let's talk about it in a while when you're not so angry."|
|Child:||"Don't pull that active listening, empathy crap on me, Mom. That makes me sicker than you do!"|
|Mother||"When you're angry, it's hard to hear anything that's acceptable. You'll feel better soon. Let's talk then."|
And so on. You recognize this as active listening and empathy giving. It is an excellent way of defusing explosive and potentially explosive situations. Sure, the kid is probably going to stomp off mad as hops, and you're going to be left standing there agonizing over his anger, feeling guilty about what you did wrong to raise a child to feel such anger, hate, ingratitude, disrespect, and so on. Feeling that way is totally useless since it solves no problems, does nothing to improve what's happened, and provides no direction to securing the future. Take three or four deep breaths, say to yourself, "I'm really proud of you for keeping your cool. You did a masterful job! What a tiger you are! Boy, I like you!", then pat yourself on the shoulder, stroke your arm or shoulder affectionately a few times, put a smile on your face, and go about your business humming or singing or whistling.
Now let's consider the child. He is alone fuming. Wild thoughts are racing around in his head: "I'm going to run away!"; "I hate this hell hole!"; "I wish my lousy parents would just die!"; "I'll get even. Just wait and see. I will get even!" Huff, puff, pant, pant, snarl, snarl! Then the kid remembers, "Hey, I can't run away, I have a date tomorrow night, and I need the car. Boy, I better settle down or I'll never get to use the car." (15 minutes later.) The boy is now upstairs in the fridge. He is calm and collected. Mom walks in:
|Mom:||"Time to fill up the empty leg, huh, Son?" And as she passes, she runs her hand warmly and affectionately across his shoulder.|
|Boy:||"Yeah." (He's starting out easy. He doesn't want to overdo it.)|
|Mom:||"Leave a little room for supper."|
|Boy:||"Okay. What's for supper?"|
By now, the hostility of a short time ago is gone, the parents are in control of the atmosphere of the home, the boy has put his anger behind him, and he has reminded himself about a reality of adolescent life: "If I want the car, I'd better behave myself." And things are now stable.
As a parent, you might say to yourself, "But that's terrible. The only reason he's good is because he wants the car! That he told me he hates me means nothing. I, his mother, who walked through the valley of the shadow of death to bring him into the world, then nourished him, cared for him, loved him, and sacrificed for him. I mean nothing to him. These sacrifices mean nothing to him! The only good I am to him is to keep his stomach full, and to give him permission to use the car. What a terrible kid I've raised! Where did I go wrong!? How could this have happened to me?!"
The parent isn't terrible at all. What's terrible is adolescence! For kids this age, parents aren't there to be loved, they're there to be used, exploited. We are resources, not love objects. We must remember that love is a very mature sentiment. Some kids, as kids, never feel it as love. They are so absorbed with gratifying their own appetites-whatever those might be (acceptance into the peer group, making the ball team/pep club, etc.)-they typically give no thought to loving their parents. It seldom if never enters their head! "But what about my feelings?" you might ask. "Can't he see how he's hurting me? Doesn't he care that this is killing me?! That it's tearing me apart? That he's putting me through a meat grinder every day of my life!?! Can't he see that?" The answer to that is very likely "No," or at least, "Probably not." And so what? This too will pass. Just stop and think for a minute about your relationship to your parents when you were a kid. Did you ever worry about how they felt about anything? Did you ever say to a teenage friend, "Out of respect for my parents' feelings I'm not going to ask for the car tonight. In fact, I'm going to be as selfless, loving, compassionate, considerate, gentle, and kind as I can possibly be. I'll do whatever I have to do to spare my parents despair or sadness or discomfort." If you want an example of weird, that's it! It's not only weird, it's not healthy. Studies have shown that kids who are docile, always neat, always do what they are told to do, don't talk back, are always well-behaved in school and get nothing but good grades, are basically charming and passive are most likely to grow up to be the least healthy adults.
Don't worry that your hurt is completely lost to a kid, eclipsed by his need for self-gratification. Don't agonize over this. It's just all part of the territory. It's the heat of the kitchen, and in a few years, the probability is very good that same kid will become a loving, appreciative son who will say to you, "Boy, Mom. How did you stand it? You don't know how much I appreciate you. I really do love you. Please forgive me for being such a dink!" Then he'll hug you, and kiss away the hurt. And you'll go to your bedroom to cry again, but this time-out of joy and happiness.
A few years ago our oldest son, now a father, called his mother from California and said, "Mom, I just called to apologize for all the dumb things I did as a kid. I love you," then hung up. In this instance, when he said "I love you," he knew what he was saying!
While I was on my way to a nearby community to give a talk on parenting, my 18-year-old daughter was with me. I was giving her a ride to a friend's house on the way. She asked where I was going and what I was going to do. I told her I was going to give a talk to some parents about living with teenagers. Our conversation went like this:
|Daughter:||"Oh, I'd like to hear that. I'd like to know how to live with teenagers."|
|Dad:||"What advice should I give to these parents?"|
"Tell them to hang in there, Dad. Don't give up. Pretty soon
everything will be all right and their kids will love them.
For a year or two, their kids will hate them, but then they will love their parents. I hated you and Mom for about a year and a half, but now I can't believe how much I love you."
|Dad:||"What did we do to make you hate us?"|
|Daughter:||"By always saying `no', and not letting us do the things we wanted to do-things our friends could do and were bugging us to do."|
|Dad:||"But if I hear you correctly, you're saying that it's important occasionally for parents to say `no', and to exercise some control over their teenagers."|
|Daughter:||"Oh, yes! Otherwise we get spoiled rotten and our lives are miserable."|
Do not be intimidated by verbal or gestural expressions of hatred. Do not be distraught or plunged into despair because you think you raised an ungrateful, selfish, mean, ugly kid! None of those descriptions of the child are any more accurate of his character than is "I hate you" an accurate expression of his feelings toward you. A 1982 study on the relationship between child temperament and parent-child relationship revealed that, "Child temperament was more strongly related to parent behaviors than to child behaviors. Children of parents who were negative, non-accepting, submissive, critical, disapproving, severe, and had low levels of interaction were more likely to have severe behavior problems." Parents, don't walk around the house with a long, expressionless face etched with grief, eyes and shoulders drooping, shaking your head back and forth in despair, hoping your kids will get the message to shape up. It won't work. It disgusts them! Be the model of happiness and with-it-ness. Smile, stand and walk erect, laugh and joke. In a word, be "up!"
Do not react in kind to kids' ugliness. Rather, in complete control, and being calm as a summer's morn, respond with empathy. Defuse the situation. In this regard, just a word of caution since it is so important to be in control and to respond appropriately. If the environment at the moment is so highly charged with emotion that it would be extra difficult to come up with a controlled response, buy some time. Say these words, or words to this effect: "Excuse me for a few minutes while I collect my thoughts. My head is spinning and I don't feel like I can be as rational as I want to be. I'll be back in a few minutes." This will give both you and your child time to calm down, and it will give you time to collect your thoughts, review your notes, and so on.
Upon returning you are able to get off to a fresh start:
|Parent:||"Now then, even though you denied yourself the privilege of going to the movie by not getting your chore done, you want me to grant you that privilege."|
|Child:||"Yeah! It's no big deal. Just this once. I'll never ask again! Promise! And next Saturday, I'll do my chore plus wash the windows. Isn't that fair?!"|
|Parent:||"I'm sorry. I can tell how badly you want to go to that movie. I'm sure it would be fun. But I can't solve your problems. This is your problem. You created it, you own it, and now you must live with it."|
|Child:||"What! You mean I can't go? You're not going to let me go!? This is unreal!"|
|Parent:||"You're partly right. You can't go, but not because I won't let you. You can't go because to go is a privilege you didn't earn. I gave you the opportunity to earn it. You chose to do other things."|
|Child:||(Stomping off in anger) "Boy, you're the meanest person I ever knew. I hate your guts!"|
But this too will pass. A great lesson will have been taught. You will have kept the environment in control, and you will be emotionally intact. It's really the better way. One more experience in my family to illustrate this. I was visiting with one of my daughters about her growing-up years and our performance as parents. She said, "You and Mom really did a good job." (So far, so good.) "But one time I was really disappointed in you, Dad." (Oops. I braced for this one.) "One time I wanted to do something that I really had no right doing. It was against your expectations. You stood your ground, but I kept after you relentlessly. I begged, got angry, said mean things. I did everything I could think of to beat you on this one-all the while hoping you'd not give in. What I was doing was only what teenage kids do to their parents. It's a game, a contest. Well, you gave in, Dad. I was so disappointed in you. I thought I could trust you more than that, and that's stuck with me all these years." (Ouch!) In recalling this I'm reminded of a 1990 study done by the Girl Scouts of the United States that found that for 49% of the children surveyed, grades 4-12, an adult had been a major disappointment to them!
This is not to be interpreted to mean that parents must always get their way, and kids must always lose. The message here is that in situations where parental expectations are clear to everyone and obviously in the best interest of the child, when it is evident that what is happening is nothing more than a power struggle over a matter that shouldn't be an issue, the understood expectations of behavior should be protected. Angry and hateful outbursts to the contrary should not be recognized. There is a better way of dealing with hate and anger.
Audio Clip 1
Hate & Anger :: Review
Now To Review
- Children's expressions of hate and anger (and even love) do not carry the same meaning as do those expressions coming from adults. Remember, children are in the process of learning the meaning of things, including words.
- Children who always get their way through such intimidation, or who are docile and never complain, are less likely to be behaviorally and emotionally healthy as adults.
- A truly loving, accepting home is one where kids can express hate and anger without being hated and without evoking anger.