My son is experiencing anger for the first real time in his little life, and it is fascinating me.
He’s obsessed with the computer right now (Up To Ten), but since he can’t work a mouse he needs someone to help him. The computer room has a baby gate on it, he can’t be in there without an adult, and we don’t always want to play so sometimes we have to say “no” when he indicates he wants to play. On two occasions this week the “no” has elicited a very strong reaction from him. He gets angry. He screetches and his face gets red. He bunches his fists up into little balls, his body straining like a weightlifter trying to heave a barbell up over his head. He lets out short, loud shrieks while tears stream down his face. This is raw anger.
Few of us can really remember what it was like to feel an emotion so completely. We have so many filters and checks and inhibitions working in our brain, conditioned from the time we were little to control our emotions and express them in “socially acceptable” ways. But children his age have no such self-control mechanisms in place. They don’t yet understand why their body and mind feel this way, and they have no choice but to let it all out in a physical and emotional hailstorm.
What makes this spectacle somewhat heartrending for me is seeing the fear on DS’s face. In between shrieks he looks at me with this helpless expression, as if he were being carried away in a current that is far too strong for him to fight. In between shrieks are little wails that say “I don’t like this, what is happening?, help me”. It must be frightening to lose control over yourself. To have your body raging with adrenaline and emotion and not understand why…life is tough with a 2 year old, but being a 2 year old is certainly tougher.
I do what I can to reassure him. I stay close. I try to validate his feelings with a sympathetic tone and expression. “You are angry. You wanted to play and you are so mad that you can’t!” I try to convey the feeling that I understand and sympathize. I try to give him the words, terms he can use to understand what he is experiencing. At its peak he is not able to cuddle or be physically comforted, but I stay close so he knows I am there with him.
When in the throes of these fits, he looks around for a way to “let it out”. He used to hit me, or try to hit me. But the other day he tried something new. He was standing by a doorway while I knelt before him. His body was straining with the energy of anger, and he began to look around, seeking something…he looked over at the door jamb and moved his head towards it, gently touching it with his head. But that doesn’t do it for him. He hit it harder with his head. But that hurt! So now he’s doubly upset.
It was fascinating to watch. We all know what it’s like to feel so angry that you want to kick or hit or throw something. Usually we manage to get a grip. But little DS cannot. He feels the need to release this harsh energy building up inside him but he doesn’t know how. He wanted to bang his head on the wall, but it hurt and now he feels anger and pain. I wnat to work on giving him other suggestions. Like hitting his thighs with his fists, or stomping his feet (he’s not quite coordinated enough to do that yet).
After a minute or two the anger begins to subside, and the cries and tears become more inviting of me, of comfort. He falls into my arms and accepts my hugs while he sobs. Eventually he will nurse and the last of the negative energy will be soothed away. It’s hard to watch him go through this. But I feel good that I am right there with him, guiding him through. And I know that when he makes it through and feels release at the end, that he has learned a valuable lesson: he can do it, he can get through this, there is acceptance at the end.
Our society is so ignorant about children’s emotions. We accuse them of tantruming to “get their way”. We see their outbursts as manipulative, even calculated. But the truth is that little children have no filters in place yet. When you see a child react like my son does, you are witnessing emotion in its purest and rawest form. It should not be punished or suppressed or scolded. It should be empathized with, and validated. The child is afraid of his own power, of the strength of the emotion coursing through him. What he needs is to know that we are right there for them, and that they can get through the experience whole and intact. I wish more people understood this. DS’s outbursts evoke sympathy from me, but for many people such displays evoke anger. I suspect it’s because when those people were little, their own raw anger was greeted with the same response. Here’s to breaking the cycle.