“What lesson would you like grown-ups to learn about how to treat children?”
“What I want them to learn… to let the children let all the anger… learn that children… just be able to let all the angers out.”
Crumbs! This little girl was very determined to make her point, even though she struggled to find the words. It was one of those occasions when a recent event had made quite the impact, and was colouring the child’s responses.
However, what she was communicating struck me as very important indeed.
When a young child displays anger, it’s our natural response to curtail it.
We want them to learn that losing one’s temper is unacceptable behaviour in our society. Often a tiny temper lost results in violent outbursts and damage to property, to themselves, or to others.
We need to let children know they should learn to control these impulses.
True though this is, in the meantime, where does the anger go? How do we help very young children learn self-restraint without sowing the seeds of harmful repressed emotion?
It can be very frustrating being a tiny person – it’s not so surprising that they lose their rag from time to time – and anger is a valid emotion.
We must be careful not to accidentally teach the lesson that extreme feelings are to be inhibited at all costs. It’s important that we acknowledge children’s feelings, even the difficult or ugly ones.
They need to know that it’s perfectly normal to experience passions that are difficult to control, and that we have all had to learn to deal with them in our own way.
This little girl was pleading for a way to give vent to her anger, pleading for permission to ‘let all the angers out’, instinctively knowing that working through the fury would help her be rid of it.
She clearly understood, however, that social rules prevented her from giving in to her rage.
So how can we help? Firstly, it’s crucial to acknowledge the emotion that a child is feeling. To dismiss their truly heartfelt response can be counterproductive and harmful.
Sometimes, just hearing the words “I can see you’re feeling very angry” can be enough to start the journey back to rationality.
Try to help them verbalise exactly what’s going on. “Can you describe to me how you feel? What’s it like?”
Be honest with children. Tell them how you interpret the situation and check in with them that your understanding is correct. Give them some responsibility for their own emotions: “Do you want to stay feeling angry?” “What would help you feel better?” “Can we think of a solution together?”
Because of course, the best way to overcome ‘all the angers’ is to take their power away, so they become secondary to the task in hand of moving forward from this nasty place.
With particularly volatile children, I’ve had some success revisiting an outburst some time after the event – a “Do you remember when…” conversation, or an attempt to recreate the emotion using drawing, or painting or moving to music.
Non-verbal expression can be hugely powerful, and utilising expressive arts activities can allow children the space to explore their deeper, and less pleasant, emotions whilst keeping themselves and everyone around them protected from the worst of their wrath.
Nikky Smedley is a writer, educator and passionate advocate for the child. Her book Create, Perform, Teach! (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, £14.99) is out now.
As part of the How to Speak Child project, Nikky has been collecting interviews with children about how adults communicate with them. To read more head to the How to Speak Child blog, at howtospeakchild.com/blog and join her Facebook page at facebook.com/Howtospeakchild.