At The Youth Fairy we work with children who are finding it difficult to cope and make good choices – this might be because they feel overwhelmed, anxious, are suffering with low-mood or are finding it difficult to manage their anger.
Part of our solution focused approach to therapy is to help young people understand how their brain works in relation to these areas; why they feel, behave or struggle in unhelpful ways and, just as importantly – what we can do about it.
Our brains have many different parts but the 2 most relevant to our blog today are the conscious and subconscious.
The Conscious brain is the part that makes you ‘you’ and is aware of your interactions with the world around you. This is connected to a couple of other really important parts too.
- Our Intellectual Mind; when we think from here we are reasoned, creative, make good choices and pretty optimistic too.
- Our Primitive Mind; think back to those caveman days! This part hasn’t really changed very much since then and that’s a good thing – because it’s the part that keeps us safe when we are faced with a threat.
The primitive mind is headed up by the amygdala – AKA the fight/flight/freeze area of our brain. And when we are faced with a serious threat it will hijack our intellectual mind and get us primed to run or fight our way out of that situation.
When this part of our brain believes that we are in immediate danger it doesn’t require us to spend time reasoning, discussing, thinking over the options, and coming up with creative solutions. We need to react – quickly – so that we can do whatever we need to survive.
This part of the brain has 3 ways of keeping us safe and they are anxiety, anger and depression. If we are anxious we run, angry we fight or if we feel miserable and really down we don’t go out into the danger in the first place!
Today we are focusing on Anger:
What you may or may not know is that an angry child is no more a ‘naughty child’ than an anxious child – it’s just the outward behaviour might be bigger and louder than that of a child who is struggling with anxiety.
Anger is the primitive response that enabled us to fight off wild animals or other tribesmen looking for a bit of fisticuffs – it made us stronger, feel more powerful and often louder too! And when our children are displaying angry behaviour they are also in a survival mode.
Think about a time when you have been angry – it’s hard to express how you feel in the moment isn’t it?
Later on, when we are calmer (back in our Intellectual Mind) we think of all the reasoned responses and well-development counter arguments we could have offered, how we could have expressed ourselves better or we wonder why that witty comeback has now only just come to mind.
This is because language centre of our brain is in our Intellectual Mind NOT the primitive! And apart from an anxious scream or a loud scary roar perhaps, it wouldn’t be needed if we were actually faced with a wild animal or another angry tribesman. So it’s much harder to reason or articulate yourself well when you’re in that survival fight or flight mode.
Now imagine your child, tired from a busy week at school where they have been managing their behaviour all day; listening to the teacher, learning new skills, navigating new friendships AND the fact that yesterday Simon wanted to sit next to them at lunch but today they have decided that they want to sit with Sam – remember how big this was when you were 11!
They come home and you start asking them about their day. They respond with grunts and groans and only seem interested in what food you can give them (right now) – is this sounding familiar?
You ask them if they’ve got any homework and start to moan that you’ve told them at least a 1000 times to hang their coat up or put their shoes in the shoe box. They walk past a sibling who accuses them taking a game from their bedroom… aaaaaaaannnnnd…..where did that explosion come from?
They are screaming, shouting and slamming doors!
Now, we aren’t saying that screaming and shouting are the appropriate ways to respond but we are hoping to shine a light on where that ‘out of the blue’ 0-100 response came from.
We talk to kids about their stress bucket, which is a metaphor for negative thoughts and experiences that build up in the brain over the day (or longer periods of time).
The more that’s in the stress bucket, the more their angry primitive mind is activated. So the overwhelm that has been building up over the day means they have a simmering stress bucket by the time they come home and that last comment from their sibling caused the bucket to overflow.
Of course, WE know that they are safe and that a calm conversation might have been a better solution. In fact, we may (not recognising that they are now in their Primitive Mind) try to reason with them in the moment and want them to explain why they are shouting. But remember – their language centre is not functioning as effectively as it should – they are unable to have a conversation with you.
It is likely that we have all witnessed this at some point from our children whether toddler or teens and perhaps in our own behaviour as parent too.
So, what can we do to support our children?
As you can see the comment from their sibling wasn’t the cause, it was just the match that lit the fire.
We are likely to end up in our Primitive Mind when our stress bucket is overflowing, and we are feeling overwhelmed and out of control.
In that moment when they’ve tipped into the Primitive Mind what can we do to help?
- Give them space – if they seem happy for you to stay then you can sit with them or close by. But if that seems to be fuelling the fire, give them the space to calm down.
- Don’t’ abandon them – if being near them seems to be irritating them more give them space but stay in the vicinity. We are tribal beings and need to feel like our fellow tribe members have got out backs so we feel safer. Let them know you are here for them when they are ready – perhaps sit outside their door or nearby so they can see you are not about leave them alone in the wild to fend for themselves.
- Show empathy – big emotions can bring feelings of guilt, embarrassment and shams. When your child does find the courage to come over and cuddle up with you or say sorry after a meltdown try not to address the behaviour there and then. If their stress bucket hasn’t cooled down fully you could be provoking another explosion or adding to that negative ‘talking to’ they are likely giving themselves already.
- Keep calm yourself – if you start to respond with anger in that moment then it’s likely to trigger them even more. They are already in a heightened state of alert and feeling under threat. If another angry tribesperson comes along to join the fight things are likely going to escalate.
- Reflect on the behaviour later on – when they (AND YOU) are in the Intellectual Mind.
Once they are in their Intellectual Mind you can ask them how you can help:
- Do they want to talk?
- Do they want help or advice?
- Do they want to take some positive action and just take their mind off their day?
- If they are ready, you can discuss ways to help them cope better when they are feeling angry. Let them make suggestions first, but if they are finding that difficult you could share some things that work for you (that may or may not work for them too) – they could take a walk, spend time with the dog, listen to music, practice some breathing techniques.
- You can let them know that anger is one of their emotional responses and that we all feel it at times – there is a purpose for it. Let them know that you understand that when we are feeling angry it can be almost impossible to communicate well, but by having some strategies in place for the future, we can give ourselves ways of coping better and getting back to the place where we can make good choices again.
Remember, your child is not their behaviour. They are not a naughty child. They are a child who is responding to a situation where they feel overwhelmed, and they are responding with anger (just as another child may respond with tears).
If you notice that your child is feeling angry in a way that is becoming destructive for them, is affecting their confidence, their self-esteem or their relationships, you can contact one of The Youth Fairies for a free Initial Consultation where we can discuss how we can help them cope better, feel happier, calmer and more in control.
Confessions Youth Fairy Lisa, Burgess Hill
How I wish I knew then, what I know now. I am, as you may already know, Mum to three children. My eldest will soon be turning 25 (how is that even possible?). Kaelum is about to start a new job as a Teaching Assistant in a therapeutic special school which provides education for pupils with social, emotional and mental health difficulties. I am so proud! Kaelum really struggled with school. At the interview he was asked what he brought to the job over the other applicants. Kaelum said “I understand the children, that was me. I was angry and frustrated in school and didn’t see the point. I wish I had, so now I want to help them figure out how they can make better choices, earlier.” This resonated with me, especially in light of the knowledge I now have and the way we work. You see, when Kaelum felt overwhelmed and out of control his go to emotion was anger – this anger was hard to manage. At school and at home he became the ‘naughty’ one. I didn’t know how to help him, or me, understand or cope with his anger and he spent so much time in detentions, in his bedroom, and generally being isolated for his angry outbursts. He wasn’t a naughty child – he was (is) lovely, kind, considerate and generous – but we didn’t know how his brain worked or how to provide him with ways to cope better. I’m excited that as he moves into a new career, he will be able to share some of what he now knows and support others in overcoming the challenges of being ‘an angry child’.