Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Don't keep telling me I'm angry

When working with families who have complex needs, especially experience of domestic violence and abuse, I am often told by the parent, family, friends, teachers, social workers and sometimes the child, that they are 'angry'.  This is used as a blanket term to describe their general behaviour which may consist of screaming, breaking things, swearing, shouting, threatening, hurting others, hurting themselves, storming off and throwing things. 

Well, you may be thinking, that does sound pretty angry behaviour so what's the problem?  Telling a child they are angry, especially those who have lived around domestic violence and abuse is never helpful.  It gives the child a label, they become known as that 'angry child' and even worse come to know themselves as angry.  Labels are never helpful as they restrict and define and that is the last thing a child needs to carry through life with them.  Their experiences of domestic violence and abuse have already served to restrict and define them so they don't need anything else.

I encourage everyone involved with the child to ditch the word angry from their vocabulary and to look beyond the presenting behaviours.  Children who have lived in unpredictable and frightening conditions will have been shaped by these and will have adapted behaviours to cope but will not have developed an ability to understand their own and others emotions, they certainly won't be able to talk about them but will know they are 'angry' as they have heard it so often.

The most important thing is to encourage a child to think is that maybe they kicked the door because they were feeling frustrated, confused, annoyed, jealous or just had too many feelings going on at that moment.  Being clear that it's not OK to kick things but working out what led up to it in terms of feelings can help avoid it some time in the future.  When someone takes our parking space on a rainy day and we have to park miles away from the shop and will get soaked now we don't just have just one feeling about this.  Most likely we do feel some rage, upset, frustrated, hurt, depressed etc., if we win the lottery we will maybe feel happy, overwhelmed, excited, scared, confused etc. so never just one feeling.

Broadening a child's emotional vocabulary is essential, especially as those who live through trauma, generally have a very limited pool of emotions they can identify and talk about so that is our number one task, always.  If we keep telling a child they are 'angry' then that is what they will be, perpetrators of violence say they act because they are 'angry' or were made angry by someone or something so then it is not their fault.  Anger is an emotion like any other and it is important to explore it with children as no emotions last but it must not define a child as they may then grow into an 'angry' adult and this can become the excuse for hurting others and we all know where that leads.

Children do not need to be defined by their behaviour, ever.


  1. "Broadening a child's emotional vocabulary is essential" A simple yet vitaly inportant statement! Should be on the walls in schools x

  2. thanks Ruthie, agree 100% I am on a mission to change things for all the children and non-abusive parents who deserve that we all try to understand what they need and how best ot support them. thanks for your comment, really helpful x

  3. This reminds me of my work with the Probation Service. We ran Home Office programmes, one session of which was identifying feelings. I ran that session with probably 100 or more offenders, mostly men, and I don't think we ever got a list on the board greater than 5 emotions, and often less than that. They really struggled to identify and verbalise different emotional states. I remember one man saying 'happy, sad, angry, there aren't any more are there?'

  4. That says so much and is what I always suspected would be found if any one was to do such a piece of work with offenders. Emotional literacy is so key it astounds me everyday that this is not the main focus of all early years and educational work as it would erradicate so many difficulties for youngsters, families and society.

    We will just have to keep on keeping on about it!

  5. Charlotte Reeves5 July 2012 at 02:52

    Jane, I found this blog really interesting and since reading it I have had it in the back of mind when supporting so called 'angry' children. I have been doing work with them about how they can feel many emotions at the same time, in the same way they can both like and dislike the perpetrator of domestic abuse.

  6. That's so great to hear Charlotte, so easy for everyone to label a child's trauma as anger as that is how it presents but not at all helpful to them. I always say we never just feel one emotion at one time anyway as its always more complex than that. Children will fulfill there labels so we need to be aware of it, always.

    You are so right that children have conflicting emotions around the perpetrator so it is wonderful that you are doing work with them around this as again people tend to tell them what they need to feel about them or stamp all over there feelings.