Understanding & Responding to Angry, but Otherwise Wonderful, Children
BY RABBI SHMUEL GLUCK
I’ve been contacted by many families, recently, who share the same dilemma, which I’ll describe shortly. While I’ve come across similar cases in the past, they’ve always been considered to be an anomaly, something that “just doesn’t happen”. Sadly, it’s becoming more common every day. The good news is that this scenario usually follows a common Chinuch pattern. This means that the root of the problem is often easy to detect, and the solution is easy to present to the parents. All that’s left is the parents’ willingness, and training, to follow through with “the plan”.
Most people have heard stories of teenage boys, and girls, who are angry, to the point of being “blinded” by their anger. They may curse, destroy family property, and demonstrate an offensive level of disrespect to their parents. What may surprise people is that this is, now, found in boys and girls who are otherwise model students, well-behaved in Shul, and popular with a group of good friends. No one would believe what their parents describe takes place in their homes.
Although they acknowledge that they’re not perfect, they believe that they haven’t done anything so significantly wrong as to deserve such treatment from their children.
The contrast in behavior between how they act in, and outside, of the home, makes many parents believe that their children must be unbalanced, and conclude that in some way, they’re mentally ill. They also conclude that the children’s issues have nothing to do with them or their parenting approach. Although they acknowledge that they’re not perfect, they believe that they haven’t done anything so significantly wrong as to deserve such treatment from their children. Therefore the parents believe that they’re the victims. They feel hopeless, hostages in their own homes, and resigned to the ripple effects of that specific child’s actions on the other children, and their family’s Sholom Bayis.
When I choose a topic to present in these weekly articles, I avoid articles that focus on a specific problem, because its interest will be limited to those few individuals who are actually experiencing the problem described. The issue presented in these articles won’t affect most families but will offer insight into everyone’s children. In addition, as this scenario becomes increasingly common, parents who have younger children shouldn’t believe that they’re immune from the difficulties that I’ll describe.
I’m using the word child, instead of teenager, because although what I’ll describe is usually found in 14-16-year-olds, it’s also found in younger children.
The primary trick in helping such children is through understanding their perspective. This will offer the tools needed to heal them, and the affected family. Below are seven points that’ll explain how a normal child can become violently angry:
1) All people are different and may react differently to the same events. For instance, a comment that makes one person “feel good”, may “hurt” another person’s feelings. (It’s an art to know how to react, but more difficult when you aren’t ‘connecting” with someone, such as a misunderstood child.) Despite knowing this fact, there’s a wide range between how two different “normal” people will react, because, …. (See” #2)
2) People know little about what other people think, even those people with whom they’ve been living for years. In addition, this child may lack more self-esteem than the parents imagined possible; may be more insecure than they thought, or may feel less concerned about religion than they’re willing to believe is true. The list of misunderstandings is endless.
3) The result of these first two points is that parents may not have any idea of what their child thinks of each parent separately, together as parents, or of their family.
Several things take place as a result of these three points:
a. It explains why sincere comments, and decisions, which were intended for the child’s well-being, were responded to with anger and, instead of making the family situation better, was counter-productive, and alienated the child.
Some parents never really speak to their child. Instead they talk to themselves out loud.
b. Some parents never really speak to their child. Instead, they talk to themselves out loud. They hug their child or tell him/her “I love you”, despite the fact that the child becomes agitated each time. The parents say that when people tell them that they love them it makes them happy. However, they can’t comprehend that their child isn’t them. They must remember that their child stopped being an extension of them around the age of two.
c. This explains how the child can deteriorate in multiple areas without the parents being aware of it. The child kept his/her thoughts to him/herself. Only after multiple personal thoughts accumulated in his/her head did s/he begin to act on those thoughts. If s/he seems angry now, if s/he seems to have dropped Mitzvos “all of a sudden”, s/he’s been accumulating angry thoughts for months, and maybe years.
What I’ve written until now may seem to indicate that the parents are innocent bystanders to a child who’s on his/her personal journey which was caused by his/her lack of life skills. In most cases, well-meaning parents, or at least one of them, significantly contributed to the child’s state of mind, because of that parent’s traits, and behaviors, which I’ll describe in the next few points.
4. Some parents have an approach to their children which can be seen as suffocating and controlling. However, since it’s only slightly more intense than what’s considered to be mainstream parenting, their other children, who may have a healthy dose of self-esteem, turned out okay. The parents are convinced that they’re effective parents, when they’re innocently contributing to their child’s anger.
This doesn’t mean that the parents are terrible. It means that slight suffocation, and a lack of self-esteem, can combine to create very angry children. Just as any two chemicals may be harmless when separate, when they’re mixed together, they can explode. Neither parent or child is fully to blame, but they’re both contributing to the resulting conflict.
5. Many children feel like they “don’t belong” in their own home. They don’t feel good about who they are, and few, if any, family members make them feel any differently. This feeling began without any family members alienating them. For children to become outwardly angry, usually requires that members of the family have alienated them, even if their only intention was to protect themselves from the children’s mistreatment. From how they’ve interpreted previous incidents, the children have multiple “proofs” that they don’t belong in the family.
Family members, who are unaware of what’s going on in the children’s minds, believe the children to be selfish, bad, etc. Therefore, it’s understandable why they’ve distanced themselves from them. From their perspective they’ve become the victims, and continue to be increasingly mistreated.
6) As a result of all the previous points, the children make comments which they believe “are obvious to everyone”, but the other family members wonder how they could make them. S/he’ll say, “I help more than anyone else does”, while doing less than all the other children. S/he’ll say to the parents, “You always stick up for my siblings”, although the siblings have begun to resent the parents for always sticking up for him/her. S/he’ll say, “You don’t spend any time with me”, when the parents dedicate more time with him/her than with any of the other children, and sometimes even, combined.
The worst part of what the child is going through is the injustice. No one is willing to acknowledge (s/he’s certain that everyone, knows s/he’s being mistreated) how unfair the parents are to him/her
The worst part of what the child is going through is the injustice. No one is willing to acknowledge (s/he’s certain that everyone, knows s/he’s being mistreated) how unfair the parents are to him/her.
If my previous points are accurate, then the communication gap between this child, and everyone else should begin to make sense. The child who seems to be “impossible” sees him/herself, and should be seen by others, as being misunderstood.
What parents should realize is that the child who’s acting angry is really hurt. The parents may have suggested that the child go to a friend for Shabbos, and the child refused. The parents are wondering what s/he’s thinking. Is s/he deliberately trying to sabotage any chances of getting him/herself into a happier “place”? Is his/her goal to destroy the family?
The answer is that the child’s feelings are hurt and s/he wants “proof” that the family loves her/him. Being asked by the parents to go away for Shabbos, or longer, is painful, even if s/he knows s/he would enjoy the Shabbos elsewhere. S/he may be self-destructive, but his/her motive for not wanting to leave the home is understandable. Nevertheless, the parents may be wondering, “why doesn’t s/he just say something to us?” The answer is that …
7) The child has never learned to communicate her/his feelings to people, and certainly not to her/his parents. The parents may believe that they’re always ready to listen to the children, but many parents don’t understand how other people, and most importantly, their children, perceive them. Some people, in this case, the parents, believe they’re open to discussion, without realizing that they’re only open to have others, in this case, their children, listen to them. The parents speak softly, smile, listen, but the conversation doesn’t end until the children agree with them. The parents walk away with the belief that it was a “good” conversation. The children walk away, wondering why they even try to discuss anything with their parents, and then they stop trying.
I’ve recently recognized an interesting communication glitch, which isn’t anyone’s fault. Some parents are very confident, and their children interpret their confidence as controlling, and as people who don’t listen. The confident parents are truly willing to compromise, change their approach, and try (almost) anything that makes sense. Since they speak so confidently, the non-confident child “shuts down”. S/he sees the confident parents as instructing, when they’re talking, and being diplomatic, when they truly want to hear what s/he says.
Other parents believe that they’re open-minded, but limit the areas in which they’ll be open-minded, such as when it doesn’t infringe on their view of what the Torah expects of them, or their public image. In truth, they aren’t as open-minded as they believe they are, and may not be open-minded at all.
Finally, many parents are unaware that their body language can convey disappointment, and even resentment, to their children. However, their children are very, very, aware of it, believe that their parents words are meaningless, and can’t be “heard” above the much louder message that their bodies convey.
The scenario of the angry child, is a combination of typical mistakes, which are really nothing out of the ordinary. Repairing the damage will also only require basic parenting tips. What makes this situation different from most, is the number of parenting tips required. Anyone experiencing what I’ve described will need more advice than I can place in a few pages. (I invite anyone to call me if they believe these articles apply to their family, and are in need of advice.)
Parents should remember that even though they may not be to blame, they’re still the only ones who can repair the relationship, and the child’s emotional health. Below are some points, and techniques, that the parents need to change in order to make the child a part of the family again.
Parents should remember that even though they may not be to blame, they’re still the only ones who can repair the relationship, and the child’s emotional health.
Before I describe the techniques, parents must be aware of the following five points:
1) If the child is very angry, it may take months before any tangible improvement can be seen. Improved parenting approaches may reap positive change in a few weeks, but real change will take months, or years. Parents need to know this before they begin to change their approach, or they’ll give up before they have the opportunity to succeed.
2) Parents must also be willing to do more than improve their parenting approach. They must be willing to relearn how to parent and recognize that, with this child, their instincts were very possibly terribly “off”. This means that they’ll need to ask for advice, and listen to it, in spite of the fact that the advice they’re given may be counterintuitive, and contrary, to whatever their friends are telling them to do. While they don’t have to achieve a “perfect score”, they must “get it right” most of the time. Mistakes can negate the positive effects of the previous two, or three, right moves.
3) Parents will need a huge amount of tenacity, to repair what took place. It will require constant vigilance to keep the peace between siblings; more patience than they thought they had inside them; more diplomacy than they thought they could muster; and they’ll have to utilize all three traits every day, throughout the day. In addition, they must be aware of what’s expected of them before they begin.
4) To be patient, vigilant, and diplomatic, will require parents to change their attitude towards their child. Instead of the anger, and resentment, that they may feel for being mistreated, they should feel pity. Their child, who appears angry, is really hurt. Parents must remind themselves that anger scars, pity motivates. Feeling badly for their child can be easily forgotten when emotions flare up, but they’ll have to constantly remind themselves to feel pity, and not anger.
5) As in all families, but more importantly in the above scenario, the home must not have any stress “in the air”. This means that, in addition to not having any stress between family members, there needs to be a general calmness, void of stress over bills, broken boilers, or anything. While this may be impossible to control, making it a priority will significantly lessen the stress levels in the home.
Not feeling angry, or stressed, can be more difficult than people can imagine. Parents can often act as if they aren’t stressed, but they’re covering it up, and doing it so well that they’ve even convinced themselves. Nevertheless, their children will sense the stress. To purge themselves of stress, and resentment, takes time, effort, and constant vigilance. The first step is to realize the importance of removing the stress from the family as a unit, as well as from each individual. The emotional health of one child and, to a lesser degree, of the entire family, is at stake. Parents must connect the stress and resentment, and the family’s well-being, in order to motivate them enough to succeed.
Below are some of the techniques that parents should learn:
1) With this child, parents must stop parenting and begin mentoring. There are many differences between parenting, and mentoring, and they are crucial in this scenario. Mentoring, versus parenting, is the cornerstone of success in this situation, as well as with many other atypical children, when typical approaches haven’t worked. Parents must also relearn how to talk to this child. They must talk like a mentor, and not a parent. This requires more than I can offer in this article. If you’re interested, please contact me and I’ll send you the information, and if you want, we can follow up with a private discussion.
2) Parents must decide how involved they can, and want to, be with their child. In many cases they must step back and let someone else “lead”, because of their child’s anger towards them, or towards their values. Anger is common and should be expected.
3) I often tell parents that, in order to help their child, they must do the following four things:
a) Keep their child busy. School and camp can often accomplish this. In addition, the parents may have to arrange trips, weekend visits with friends and, sometimes, without the child knowing that it’s the parents who are doing this.
b) Make their child feel accomplished. This may be more difficult than most parents think. They must offer the child anything about which children feel good (and not something that their child felt good about a few years ago, or something parents “know” that they would feel good about if they tried it). This may be a Chesed project, a guitar lesson, graphic designing, or anything the child feels good about doing. At this stage, the parents must become accustomed to spending the money (that they may not have). Not spending the necessary money now, means that the spending of money is only being delayed and not avoided. Delaying spending money now, will often cost them even more later.
c) Surround their child with healthy people. The people they choose must have the following qualifications: They must: A) Care about the child; B) Be gifted mentors: C) Have time; d) Be able to stay involved for months, and possibly years. E) The child must like them.
These healthy people aren’t supposed to “correct” her/him. They also aren’t supposed to make certain that the child doesn’t hang around with his bad friends. Such a goal is often futile and will create resentment, making the healthy people an extension of the parents. Instead, the goal of surrounding the child with healthy people is twofold: 1) To give the child an opportunity to see a healthy, balanced, lifestyle (and I’d like to add, a Torah lifestyle), as a viable alternative to how s/he’s been living; 2) To “be there” so that, when the child has an epiphany to live, s/he’ll be able to live his/her own life in a healthy manner. Instead of looking for someone to confide in, the child will already have his/her team in place.
4) Parents, or mentors, must focus on how, subtly, they can build self-esteem. S/he must be offered projects to increase her/his self-esteem. The skill of instilling self-esteem is another topic that’s too much for this article. Please contact me if you feel you need help in this area.
I apologize for the lack of details. As I explained, such scenarios require more space than can be put into an article. The most important thing that I hoped to accomplish was for the parents to look at, and respond to, their children differently. This would be a significant step.
Photo Credit: MEITENG from rgbstock.com