“I just wish I wasn’t so angry all the time!" It was the type of self-reflection you’d expect to hear from a middle-aged man, but there it was coming from my 4 year old son. His face was down on his bed, his little fists clenched so tightly they’d turned white. He’d just gotten in trouble for throwing a toy, and been told to go to his room.
He’d struggled with the command. We could see the battle inside his mind playing out on his face – on one side, the desire to be a good boy; on the other, a furious sense that all of this was horribly unfair. In the end just he let out an animal scream, threw himself into the ground and broke down, punching and kicking the floor. Now he was in his room – dragged there – and was stewing in his own fury, staring for the first time as the complexity of his soul and the nature of the beast within.
The question he’d asked was one my wife and I had asked ourselves more than once before, when his emotions overpowered his sensitivity and he burst into these fiery rages. Why was he so angry all the time? Was it our fault? Was it normal? Was it controllable? Or did we have a future serial killer under our roof, building up a fury that would one day explode?
They’re thoughts that must have passed through every parent's head at least once, as their children fly into some incomprehensible rage. How could a child I love and care for have so much anger inside him – and is this just going to get worse? The answer, it seems, is no – it’s going to get better. According to psychologists, there are a few simple reasons why children get so angry – and there are things we can do about it, too.
The main reason children get angry is simply because they are children. It’s the nature of the human animal – we are aggressive beings ruled by instinct, built to protect our territory and fight for the things we need to survive. Until we teach them to be something more, babies are animals, and they’re ruled by aggression.
According to psychologists, we parents didn’t teach our children any of that anger that they’re brimming with. All the aggression that’s in your child is right there from birth. We can teach them how to control it – but the instinct is right there from the start. In other words, it’s going to get better. Aggression peaks between the ages of 2 and 3, and after that we just get calmer – and better able to control our emotions.
When children cry, we understand that they’re hurt. We understand that our baby is sad or scared or tired, and we try to help. What we usually don’t understand is that anger is the exact same thing. Anger is hurt -- hurt that your child is trying to hide.
A few things can set us off, but for kids, a big one is injustice. Kids get angry when they think things are unfair – and, since they don’t know any better, they think a lot of things are unfair. It takes them a while to learn how to see the world from another person’s point of view, so when we make them obey our commands – or when we refuse to obey their commands -- they usually think we’re just flat-out trying to spite them. A lot of this anger, then, can be avoided just by giving them reasons why. When kids understand why you want them to do something, they understand that you’re not just trying to spite them and they won’t feel hurt – which means they won’t feel angry. Giving reasons develops children’s ability to look at things from another perspective. And it’s your child’s ability to see things from another point of view that will let them control all that innate aggression better later in life.
If we’re teaching kids how to look at the world from another point of view, we’re really teaching them empathy – and empathy, in part, is a chemical reaction. An empathy chemical called “oxytocin” runs through our bodies that makes us care more about others – and there’s a way we can get more of it flowing through our children. The empathy chemical, oxytocin, will flow through a child whenever it’s flowing through his or her father. Strangely enough, this just seems to apply to dads – which, in my family, means this one’s on me. My son’s ability to care for others draws directly from me – and not just from what I do, but from what’s going on inside of my body.
So, how can dads get more oxytocin? By playing with their kids. When parents play with their children or touch them affectionately, oxytocin gets released – and, when it’s released in dad, it gets released in his child, too. Your child will be filled with desire to help you, which will make him want to understand you – and that’ll make him grow in to a better, calmer adult.
Our children’s anger, then, isn’t something we need to worry about. Left unchecked, that anger can build into behavioral problems and violence – but only if it’s left unchecked. If you’re the type of parent who cares enough to read these articles, you’re probably the type of parent who cares enough to keep these things under control. My son’s words worried me – but maybe they shouldn’t have. What they really meant was that he was trying to do something about it. He was looking at himself and trying to be a better person – and a child who wants to be a good person is going to be one.