By Christopher J. Alexander, PhD
Children who are adopted certainly don’t have a monopoly on anger as an emotion. It is quite common, though, for this group of children to manifest anger in ways that can appear excessive, confusing, and threatening. While most children will protest if they are bothered or angered by something they don’t like, it sometimes seems as if the anger expressed by adopted children is in excess of what we believe is called for at the time. This can include having an explosive outburst to seemingly minor things, such as not getting one’s way, a parent arriving late, a casual remark, or an innocent touch.
Adoption specialists point out that adoptees often feel anger in response to being given away by birth parents, feeling like second class citizens, and feeling unworthy of having anything good happen to them. We must also stay mindful of the fact that many adoptees come from backgrounds where there is a family history of poor impulse control, psychiatric disorders, substance abuse, or other factors that can contribute to a poor modulation of emotions. Thus, when the child is angry, he may have little recognition or control over how intense his response is. Also, children who grew up in violent or chaotic environments had aggression and rage modeled for them and they quickly learn that it is an effective way of getting attention and perhaps even getting one’s needs met.
As parents, we must always strike a balance between understanding possible causes of our children’s rage, while taking care not to enter into power struggles or do things to harm or shame the child. This is incredibly difficult, as children are highly skilled at being able to identify and push our buttons! It is inevitable that children will make us angry.
Particularly if you are adopting an older child, he or she may come from a background where there weren’t adequate limits set. The child feels entitled to doing or getting what he wants and resents it when the adoptive parents try to bring order and an alternative reality to the situation. Issues of trust are paramount with adopted children and many of these kids will resist trusting the adults who adopt them. While we recognize that our efforts to bring boundaries, safety, supervision, and guidance to children are in their best interest, they may perceive it as a threat to the foundation of their being. Many parents are surprised to find themselves in huge power struggles with very young children over basic requests such as telling a child to get ready for bed or to wash hands before dinner.
For many people, anger is expressed when they feel out of control. What I find with a lot of adoptees, though, is that they use anger to feel in control. This is why the child may react with anger or rage after a period of calm or when he has shared intimacy with a parent. This may trigger feelings of vulnerability in him, which he defends against by getting mad and physically or psychologically pushing you away. The anger is used to help him feel safe. When parents respond with anger, it confirms to the child that people can’t be trusted and that the world is a threatening place.
But what if we respond to the child in the opposite way? When you’re angry with a friend or partner, do you want them to battle back with you? Probably not. That just leaves you feeling discouraged and wondering why he or she doesn’t understand you. What if, on the other hand, the person we were angry with said something like, “I can see how mad that makes you,” or “You’re really mad at me,” or “That really hurt you?” Even if we are being irrational with our words and behaviors, there is a quality to that level of response that helps to diffuse the situation. Maybe a more balanced discussion of the issues can be had at a different time. But when someone responds to our anger with compassion, we feel less defensive and we pull back from our attack.
In every presentation I do on raising adopted children, I emphasize the role that empathy has for these kids. All of us—children and adults—want to feel that someone understands our needs, confusion, and hurt. Given the isolation and alienation that so many adoptees feel inside, the importance of receiving empathic responses takes on heightened importance. Empathy communicates “I can see how you feel”. It doesn’t offer answers or solutions for painful feelings or events, but it communicates to the child that we can see into their hearts and minds and recognize the impact that things have on them. When parents offer empathy for a child’s anger, he often feels closer to them, as the parents convey that the relationship is strong enough to withstand his rage. Parents also communicate that the relationship they share with the child is more important than any conflict that is going on.
It is a good bet that your child knows what makes you angry, how to get you even more fired up, and in what ways you are likely to react. For a young being who feels so little control in life, imagine how powerful that must make him or her feel, knowing they can bring you to the boiling point without much effort on their part. Next, be aware of what your typical response to being angry is: are you the kind of person who says or does things to make other people feel bad when you’re angry? Are you likely to throw or kick things? Do you feel the need to discuss the event in minute detail at the time you and the other person are angry? Do you need to be alone, away from others when you are angry?
What is important about becoming aware of your own response to anger (in yourself or others) is your knowledge of what you are modeling or communicating to your child. If you want others to hurt inside when you are mad, what will the effect be on your child if you make comments that cause him to feel bad about himself? If you need to be alone when you are mad, how will you handle this need if you are raising a young child and it is just the two of you?
Other strategies that I find helpful in dealing with anger and power struggles include:
Try lowering your voice instead of raising it. Imagine the impact on the child of hearing the parent gently say, “If the trash is not taken out in the next five minutes, I will put the video games in storage for a week.” If a parent yells this, it sounds threatening. If, on the other hand, it is said in a matter-of-fact tone, the child receives the message, “Do as you will. I’m not going to battle with you. I trust you know the consequence for not complying.”
Recognize when you are most vulnerable. If you are likely to be rushed, tired, or on edge on certain days or at certain times, this increases the chance you will get angry and reactive at those moments. What can you do to add a buffer during these times? How can reduce the stress? Will it help to wake up earlier, avoid cooking on certain nights, or tell your partner you need more of their help? Will you need to set limits in advance with your child, such as saying, ‘No TV’ or ‘No friends at the house’ during those times?
Don’t forget to breathe. When I’m angry, I hate hearing that one. But it really does work. Taking one second to breathe deeply or counting to five shifts the brain from ‘fight or flight’, to ‘focus’ (thinking of more rational responses). Remind yourself to breathe, focus attention, and to carefully think through what your reaction to stress/conflict will be.
Anticipate your child’s triggers. Oftentimes, it is possible to predict when your child will get angry. This might be on Monday morning when they have to shift away from weekend mode, on anniversaries or holidays due to the memories they raise, at bedtime, at mealtime, or when they have to do homework. When you can anticipate these events, you are in a better position to think of how to defuse conflict before it arises. This might include giving the child advanced notice, such as, “I know tomorrow is your brother’s birthday and it seems like that is always a rough day for you. What can we do in advance, to help make it a better day for all of us?”
Follow through afterward. Whether the conflict, power struggle, or rage episode with your child was major or minor, and whether it was expected (He always fights with me at bedtime) or unexpected, it is important to talk with your child about what happened. But do it after the tension has settled. For example, while bathing your child, tucking her in, or folding clothes together you can say, “You were really mad at me earlier when I said you couldn’t have ice cream.” Permit your child to share their thoughts or feelings, but try to educate him or her about the impact their words or actions have on others: “When you throw things like you did, it scares the dog and that’s why he doesn’t want to sleep in your bed.” “It hurt my feelings when you called me that name. Clearly, you wanted me to feel bad and you succeeded.” “That ice cream was your father’s and he had been waiting all night to have it. It’s important that we share in this family. Tomorrow, we’ll go out and buy treats that we can all have.” “I’m sorry I called you a brat. I don’t think badly of you. Your behavior makes me crazy at times, but I still think you’re the best kid in the world.”
~Christopher J. Alexander, PhD is a child psychologist, specializing in the treatment of foster and adopted children and the author of Welcome Home: A Guide for Adoptive, Foster, and Treatment Foster Parents.