Evoking Anger as a Request for Help

A friend of mine was puzzling over the behavior of a child she had been caring for. “He must have known that what he was doing wasn’t going to accomplish anything positive. It seemed as if he was just trying to get someone else to feel as mad as he was feeling.”

The scenario had a familiar ring. I thought of how often it happens in our family. One of my children gets mad, and in his anger does something that cancels out any sympathy I might have felt. He breaks something. He does something he knows I won’t like. Sure enough, it makes me mad too. From an adult perspective, as a strategy for getting help with feelings, it seems so totally counterproductive.

I have some sense of a child’s right to be angry. If they just come up to me straightforwardly and say, “Something has made me so angry”, I’m very good at listening. I can encourage them to yell and pound on a pillow (or, if they’re little enough, on me), as a way to vent some of that anger. When the anger is presented cleanly and the request for help handling it is clear, I can even do well when they’re angry at me.

But chidden rarely present us with a tidy, well-articulated, well-mannered request for help with their feelings The situation is usually much more messy. They are more likely to embody their feelings--to radiate anger or frustration or disappointment. I think the request for help is still there, but just not in the form that adults are used to. Rather than a verbal description of the situation (a typical adult mode of communication), we get a child’s picture. They show us.

I wonder if what my friend was experiencing was an upping of the ante. I can just imagine the child’s (undoubtedly unconscious) reasoning. He had first offered as clear a picture of his feelings as he know how. Not getting the help he was looking for, he saw that it would take more than just showing how he was feeling. So he did something to evoke that same feeling in the other person. Surely now, feeling the feeling herself she should be able to see just what was going on for him and help him out!

The logic is touching How is a small child to know that provoking an adult to feel angry herself is not likely to increase her sympathy for his feelings?

The lessons for me are twofold. One is to look carefully at the pictures of feelings that our children present, before they up the ante. If they look angry, take time to ask them about it, invite them to show it more fully in a controlled situation. The second is to consider, when a child has just done something that seems expressly for the purpose of pissing me off, that what I am getting is a request for help. I can let them know what I think of their behavior. I can tell them that their strategy for getting help is seriously flawed. But if I have any space to respond, not only to the behavior, but to the underlying request for help, we’ll both be better off.