The reasons and causes for a child to be prone to angry outbursts are too numerous to discuss in one article. Children are born with different innate dispositions, may be dealing with a disability that constantly frustrates them, or may be reacting to a dramatic change to their life. These are some examples of life factors that result in an angry child who is difficult to manage.
Having an approach specific to the particular cause is an important consideration when dealing with anger management for kids. However, we can find some universal parenting principles in the Bible that are necessary ingredients for helping children develop coping skills to function in the world.
In my 20 years in working with families, a common theme I have found with children and teenagers with anger problems is inconsistent parenting. A lot of permissive parents focus on being connected to their child, but shift to be controlling in a crisis. Conversely, authoritarian parents don’t know how to be positively connected to their kids when things are going well and provide little support toward autonomy.
Many parents shift back and forth between the two styles inconsistently, leaving the child without stable boundaries to figure things out. The result is that the child is constantly frustrated through the lack of consistency in their environment and they don’t learn coping skills that translate to the demands of real life.
In their landmark parenting book, Parenting with Love and Logic, Jim Fay and Foster Cline discuss two types of parents: The Drill Sergeant and the Helicopter Parent (Fay and Cline, 2006). The Drill Sergeant orders and controls their child, communicating the meta-message, “You’re too dumb to do the thinking for yourself.” The Helicopter parent hovers and protects, constantly trying to shield their child from the hardships of life. This type of parent communicates the meta-message, “You’re too weak to survive in this world. Without me you will never make it.”
Both of these parenting styles represent important, but extreme elements of a parenting plan. Obviously, children need protection and discipline. But how do you provide these parenting needs in a balanced way?
Ephesians 6:4 reads, “Father, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” In other words, Paul is admonishing fathers to not provoke their children to anger by providing them with a training process that builds their character through exposure to principles that are good for them.
The authors of Parenting with Love and Logic have come up with four different focus areas of parenting that very closely mimic spiritual ways we can see God facilitating His people’s growth in stories in the Bible.
These dimensions include:
- creating an expectation of behavior
- discussing consequences for failing to meet the expectation
- delivering the consequences with empathy when expectation is not met
- allowing the child to try again
The goal of this model is to allow children to learn from their bad choices instead of worrying about their parents’ reactions. Many times, a child’s anger problems are related to their frustrations in trying to become an individual without receiving a parenting approach that is teaching them to make responsible choices for themselves. In this article, we will consider how Fay and Cline’s parenting approach really mimics biblical principles that God uses with all of us to help us grow without exasperation.
In Deuteronomy 28:13-15, after laying out the expectations of His covenant with the Israelites, God makes it very clear what the consequences will be for obedience versus disobedience. It is kind of a simple point, but God demonstrates an incredible amount of respect and trust by laying out His expectations with the freedom of the people to choose.
I suppose since He created people with the knowledge that they would rebel against Him, He could have made them without the freedom to choose. He did not, even though it says in Genesis 6:6 that God’s heart “was deeply troubled” that He made mankind. As a parent, I have often found it difficult to think of my children as individuals rather than extensions of myself. I have wanted them to avoid all my life mistakes, succeed where I have failed, and cause me as little stress as possible.
The main problem with this approach is that it is all about me. It is selfish. God seemed to believe so much in mankind’s potential that He was willing to gamble that they would find the right path toward growth by giving them the freedom to choose. He let mankind learn from their choices without being controlling or needy.
The heart of creating a good expectation for a child is that both the expectations and consequences are clear. There should be a targeted focus on what they need to learn at their current developmental stage. For example, if children need to learn to clean up after themselves, there should be a clear expectation to clean their room daily. The child should be able to repeat what meeting the expectation looks like and reflect an understanding what the consequences look like if the expectation is not met.
Parents often create expectations on the fly, through anger or worry. When a child learns about an expectation through a parent’s emotions, they are burdened with the dual focus of figuring out how to keep their parent calm and reflect on their own choices.
Children that have anger problems are often choosing the path of becoming an individual while sacrificing their connection to their parents. Experiencing their emotional parent as stable around an unclear expectation is too interfering with decision making, so anger gives their budding individuality a sense of control that their environment lacks. If a parent was to assist their child in solving problems by giving thought to their actions, they must start with clear expectations that fit their current need for development.
The challenge in delivering consequences is to not just be emotionally reactive and to impart a training opportunity through the experience. A short-sighted parent just reacts when their child misbehaves and basically teaches their child how to be angry. Further, a child who can’t figure out how to learn from their mistakes due to their parent’s poor boundaries ends up frustrated in their inability to figure out the world’s rules.
There are certainly examples of God getting angry in the Bible, but He always has a plan when He delivers consequences. For example, in Genesis 3:17 God is attempting to correct Adam’s choice to not be responsible for carrying out His one command, “Don’t eat from the tree.” Instead of accepting responsibility when he fails, Adam blames God and Eve for the bad choice. God has a really good response that will ultimately teach Adam the importance of taking responsibility. Adam will learn to take responsibility by having to work (toil) for his food. Now if he chooses to be irresponsible, he won’t eat.
A good consequence is a form of discipline, it trains a child on how to behave by tying their choices to naturally occurring consequences. Many parents limit the teaching of Proverbs 22:15, “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it out,” to just referring to giving a child a spanking.
Spanking a child in anger mainly teaches them how to be angry. Discipline attempts to correct a behavior by helping the child experience the negative consequence of their choice in a safe environment, so they can later make better choices when they are on their own. For example, letting a child watch TV and play video games who will only clean their room after they are repeatedly yelled at is not teaching the value “work before play.” These are the same kids who get failing grades their first semester away at college because they have no parent yelling at them and they never learned to delay gratification in putting boundaries around their work ethic.
A more salient discipline for the sloppy child would be, “feel free to play video games when your chores of done; failure to complete chores will result in no games until you demonstrate that you are consistently cleaning your room first.” This approach makes the expectation clear, gives the child a choice, and does not rely on anger to impart a learning opportunity.
The parent needs to look at delivering the consequence as loving in the pursuit of preparing the child for real life. Needy parents often get shortsighted and back off on consequences because they fear not being liked by their children. Controlling parents prefer to yell because they assume their child’s disobedience is a personal affront to them, rather than their lack of life training in good choices.
Empathy and Do Overs
When an expectation is clearly laid out and a consequence is delivered with empathy, a child is free to focus on the decisions they have made rather than on the parent’s anger. In Jonah 3:10, it reads, “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.” God’s heart has always been to bring about change (where possible) through discipline and compassion. Whether responding to hardship created by their own bad choices or learning through the discipline of others, God would always allow the disobedient person another chance to try again. This is how He shaped His people.
It can be a fine line with children between exasperating them through harshness versus being too lenient. Veering to either extreme can contribute later to a child who cannot control their anger. Letting a child know in the midst of a failure that they are still loved as they receive the consequence for failing to meet the expectation is how balance is struck between these two.
For example, the child who did not clean his room before getting time playing video games may be told, “What a bummer that you can’t join your friends online for tonight’s game. I am sure you will remember next time to clean your room first.” This approach does not use the parent’s anger as the primary teaching tool. Even in protest, the child has no one to blame but himself for not meeting the expectation. Feeling the parent’s compassion and knowing he will have another opportunity to try again will motivate the child to use logical decision-making to reflect on their choices. A child that is just yelled at only learns how much they dislike being yelled at.
In closing, I find that the principles in Parenting with Love and Logic closely mirror Biblical patterns in implementing discipline with love. Children are super dependent on their parents for almost two decades to learn how to manage their impulses productively in today’s world.
Aside from learning or developmental disabilities, anger problems in children can be indicative of their frustration with their home environment. There is too much reacting and not enough training with love. If your child is showing signs of out of control anger, it may be helpful sit down with a licensed therapist to figure out what is driving the problem. Learning how to train your child without exasperating them can often yield great results for a child with an explosive temper.
“Fathering,” courtesy of Olichel, pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Play,” courtesy of Laith Abuabdu, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Bloom,” courtesy of Olichel, pixabay.com, CC0 License
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