Refocused Rage

Dear Parentworks,

If you have a child full of RAGE, how do you recommend dealing with them. Currently he takes his rage out on me.

- Parent of "The child with ODD"

Dear Parent of ODD child,

I want to begin my reply with a review, for anyone else who has experienced similar concerns, of the areas that were briefly covered when this letter was initially received: "A few things to touch base – it would be helpful to know how old your child is and since your subject line indicates ODD, whether or not you have received a professional diagnosis and are currently receiving help. Finally, if you are not currently receiving any help with this problem, consult your pediatrician for more immediate assistance and direct referral for ongoing treatment options – your safety and that of your child are crucial priorities in your life and there is help out there. Take care."

Next, I want to set out some general help seeking priorities; First: Whenever there is an issue of true safety to your own person or your child's safety, do not wait - get immediate help. Either from pediatricians or local crisis hotline numbers. Second: Before receiving advise from any source, it is important to make sure that the person answering your question has enough information to give a useful answer.

Therefore, given that the question above is a crucially important issue (anger) but considering that it does not provide enough information to adequately answer it fully, I will give broad and general information. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is for someone in immediate danger or who is actually being abused or abusing to seek local, professional help.

Anger is a huge and tough nut to crack! So let's start with a basic premise: All of our emotions are very real to us and it is vital to realize just how valuable it is to acknowledge people's emotions. It is OK for people to feel what they are feeling. (No one can just automatically stop feeling something just because someone else wants us to.) However, and this is REALLY a key point - What we DO about how we feel is a very different matter. There are lots of things that are not ok to do when we feel angry, i.e. It is never ok to hurt (physically or emotionally) someone else and it is never ok hurt ourselves.

At very early ages it is essential to establish with children what the ground rules are in the household for dealing with anger. Decide what is ok for them to do as an appropriate, physical release for their strong feelings. Some families refocus that energy through the use of art i.e. suggesting the child draw (scribble) a picture of how angry they feel, play dough is good for squeezing and smashing. Others take a break by going outside to bounce a basketball or take a brisk walk. A secured trampoline works for some as does punching a pillow. The point is there is a physical response to anger and that energy needs release in ways that allow that steam to be let off in acceptable ways. Once calm, the person is then in a much better position to talk about what was happening. Words are an essential piece in solving the puzzle of emotions.

These are goals for all families and again can start at a very early age. It is never too late to begin establishing ground rules. Think about the rules you would like to see  first, become clear in your own mind then spell them out - when everyone is calm. But what about a situation where things have already started to escalate out of control?

You state that your child is taking his anger out on you now: For me, this is what's considered a "loaded question" - the range of what this means to different people is vast!  Since you don't specify what it means for you, let me start with a simple beginning and end with an example from the opposite extreme. In relatively simple terms, let's remember the old saying "We hurt the ones we love the most." I don't believe it needs to be this way, but especially with young children, parents can definitely, emotionally, feel this way. A school age child may work very hard all day long behaving socially appropriate with their teachers, their friends and dealing with their not so nice school mates. They are aware that it is not socially acceptable to yell at the teacher or hit someone who's bugging them. Once they walk in the door at home and are safe and sound with people who love them and will love them no matter what - all that built up tension of the day can be taken out on family members. They are sullen, belligerent, rude and angry - and we haven't even done anything but say "hello". Again, this behavior can often stem from the need to release all the strong negative feelings from a difficult day and let it out. This child still needs to know that while you can understand their feeling of anger or frustrations from a difficult day and that there's pent up energy...taking it out on the family is not an acceptable outlet. Decide together what are some things that this child can do when they get home to release the day's build up and then talk about it afterward. They and you deserve to be treated with respect.

 A more extreme situation is the family where a child witnesses abusive behavior or where they have been allowed to physically or emotionally abuse others. It can feel harder to change behavior which has been established after long periods of time but it is possible. Living in a safe environment is essential to healthful growth. Discontinuing any destructive behaviors - witnessed, enacted yourself or which have been allowed to happen is the first step toward change but learning new ways to replace the old is needed for the future. Many schools, hospitals or community centers offer anger management classes for adults and children as well as parenting classes which can assist you in teaching your family self esteem building and safe parenting skills. You mention ODD in your signature line. For those of you who don't know, ODD is a clinical diagnosis which stands for Oppositional Defiant Disorder, a developmental disorder occurring in childhood or adolescence, lasting for 6 months or longer and which includes at least five of nine very specific behaviors. If your child has been tested and formally diagnosed with ODD, I strongly urge you to follow the treatment plan that you should have been given. For children, some type of plan which includes skill building for the child and other members of the family have proven most successful. A key piece to the success of  your son's treatment is for you to also receive help in learning how to deal with your own feelings about this issue - some type of support (group or individual) for your work in changing the way you've been doing things and skill building for ways to deal more effectively in the future can all contribute to long lasting relationship building for your family.

Building a legacy for ourselves and our children which includes peaceful resolution to problem solving, good communication skills and knowing you can feel safe with your loved ones not only makes the world a better place but your own family life is more enjoyable.