Anger and Grief

One child had brought a balloon to pre-school. Another little girl saw it and wanted one too. Balloons, evidently, were a favorite with her. She tried hard to figure out a way to get this one, or one of her own--but there were none to be had. When it finally became clear that she wouldn't succeed, she walked right over to me--and hit me. Surprised, I scooped her up into my arms. She tried to squirm away and suggest a distraction. I stayed with the topic and said that it looked like she really wanted that balloon. And she burst into tears. I commented on how disappointing it must be to not be able to have one of her favorite things, and she cried and cried and cried.

I realized how close I had been to responding just to the hit. As adults, that's what we usually do. Depending on our different upbringings and experience, we say "Stop hitting," or we chastise with "Nice girls don't hit," or we just smack them for behaving that way. And, it they don't hit us again, we assume that the incident is closed.

But that little hit was clearly a beginning, a call for help. She wanted someone to notice how badly she felt. Just underneath that brief show of anger was a deep well of disappointment--first about the balloon, but, as the crying went on, probably about other disappointments, about a whole accumulation of times when life didn't go the way she wanted.

How often is anger a cover for grief? If someone put loving arms around us when we were raging, how may of us would dissolve into tears? Not all, of course. That cover is harder to break through in some people than others. The underlying hurt isn't as easy to find. But my hunch is that it's there.

It's hard to think about all of this with our children. We so much want them to be happy. We don't want them to be angry, and we certainly don't want that anger directed at us. Yet they do get angry--they're just as human as we are, and just as many things don't go right in their world as in ours. And, since we're often the safest and closest people they know, we often get the brunt of that anger.

When I am confronted with angry child I try to remember three things. First, they have just as much right to their anger as I do to mine. Second, I would rather see a child who is angry--one who is hoping for something and unwilling to accept injustice--than a child who has quietly given up. (I have to remind myself of this one, because the child who has quietly given up can be so much easier to deal with. And not all anger has that vibrancy of righteous indignation. There is anger with roots in despair that is just another form of giving up--and much harder to deal with.)

The final and perhaps most important thing that I try to remember is that an angry child--any angry child--is a hurting child, and a hurting child is one that I want to help.