Anger is a natural reaction to loss, threat or helplessness. When we feel that something is being taken away from us, we feel anger; it’s an instinct born out of protecting what we consider to be ours. When we feel insecure, uncertain or attacked, we get mad. And when we feel like we don’t have any control over what is going on in our life, when we feel victimized but incapable of fighting back, we can feel enraged.
It’s understandable then for children whose parents are separating or divorcing, to feel anger. When a marriage falls apart, all three “anger triggers” are present: loss, threat and helplessness. In many cases, children are simply caught in the cross-fire of fighting spouses. The spouses will go their separate ways and the children will be the ones who have to live with the short-term and long-term consequences of the broken marriage.
If you’re a parent experiencing divorce or separation, the following are some tips to help you deal with your children’s anger:
Acknowledge That They Have a Right to Be Angry
As mentioned, anger is a normal and expected reaction during divorce or separation. It’s an appropriate feeling; that is, the situation is really anger-provoking. Do not devalue your children’s anger in any way, nor ignore it or “pass it over.” The worst thing that a loved one can do during this difficult time is to make a child feel guilty for feeling whatever he or she feels. Instead, both parents must strive to communicate that they know their kids are angry, and that they respect their right to that emotion. It is often hard for parents to acknowledge and accept their child’s anger; they want to believe that the children will be as “happy” and relieved about the divorce as they are. They tell themselves that it’s better for the children this way. Few parents can stand the guilt they would feel if they acknowledged to themselves that their children might be truly hurt by the divorce. For all these reasons, it takes a brave parent to allow a child to express his or her anger and upset. And yet, allowing it is one of the biggest favors a parent can do for his or her child at this time.
Help Them Find Ways to Deal with their Anger
Anger is not black or white; instead it’s a complex emotion that has many nuances, shades and colors. It is important that you provide you child with the opportunity to look at their anger, and see (a) where is it coming from, (b) how strong it is, and (c) where is it directed. When a person can break down his or her feelings into its component parts, the feeling becomes less of a vague consuming monster and more of a state that’s tolerable inside and can be discussed and shared outside.
This step is important as different kids experience divorce and separation differently. In fact, even siblings have different reasons for their anger. One can be upset because he or she wasn’t consulted in the decision-making; another sibling can be upset because he or she blames herself for not noticing the problem and saving the marriage. A parent must be able to take a personalized approach to their children’s anger, so that specific issues can be responded to effectively.
Give Them an Avenue to Express their Anger
Anger is an emotion that is best released; otherwise it can eat a person up and even cause mental health issues like depression or anxiety. Art therapy may be suitable for some children, giving them a safe way to release the darkness of their inner world. Professional art therapists are trained to help people of all ages release negative emotions in a healthy way. Some children may do better by talking about their feeling. They may be able to talk to a parent when the parent is skilled in “Emotional Coaching” (see Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice by Sarah Chana Radcliffe). Emotional Coaching involves welcoming, accepting and naming a child’s feelings without judgment or correction of any kind. In this way, the emotion is safely released and healed. For instance, if a child says, “I hate you for leaving Mommy” the father can respond, “You’re really really mad at me for breaking up this family. I can understand that. This is not something you ever wanted. You want us all to be together.” By saying all this, the father allows the child to express his rage and let it turn into the sadness that is really under the surface. If the child starts to cry after hearing his father reflect his feelings, the father can say, “I know this makes you so sad. It’s so painful not to have us all together anymore.” And then the child will cry some more and the father can just sit silently near the child, allowing all the pain to move freely. This approach is very healing. It is very different from the “cheerleader” approach in which a parent says things like, “Don’t worry – it will all be great! You’ll have two homes and lots of fun going back and forth and all your friends will be jealous, etc.” This kind of response can actually make a child furious, because the parent is rejecting the child’s pain instead of facing it head on. Child psychologists are trained listeners who know how to help kids express and release their pain. If your child isn’t opening up to you or is inconsolable or is having problems at school or misbehaving excessively at home, do try to arrange for professional therapy – it can really help.