The father was handling the crisis between his two young children with skill and aplomb. It was a typical child hit child offense. Both boys, twins, were about two years old. One belted the other; the other was crying. The father was working patiently with them both, trying to get apologies, naming feelings. Everything was gracefully handled until I noticed he kept on insisting one of his sons was sad.
“You’re sad because he hit you.” The father said it a number of times. The kid, however, wasn’t having it. He crossed his arms and scrunched his face. He wasn’t crying; his lips weren’t quivering.
I turned to my husband. “He’s not sad,” I sad. “He’s pissed.” His brother had hit him. He wasn’t hurt. There were no tears. My experience in helping kids name emotions has told me that when they are named, the child is able to surrender into that emotion. This kid was actively resisting his father’s words because they weren’t correct.
The father continued telling him he was sad. Then, the father said that he himself was going to be sad if the boy wouldn’t accept the apology. My husband and I looked at the father. ‘He’s not sad,” my husband said. “He’s pissed.” And he was.
This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this: parents trotting out “sad” feelings when really they’re angry. Is it because they’re not emotionally literate? Or are they afraid of what exploring anger might look like?
I can understand why a person wouldn’t want to explore anger. In this culture, we simply don’t do it well. We rarely see it done healthily. Where do we see the anger that burns brightly but doesn’t destroy other people? Why was this father labeling emotions as sadness and not anger? I have some ideas.
The masculine is associated with anger.
A study conducted in 2014 examined the connection between the masculine and anger. Those who were more masculine (note: not necessarily connected to gender) disclosed that they had more anger than the participants who were more feminine. Okay, so the masculine tends to be angrier, but it doesn’t mean that men are always more violent. The landscape is more complicated than that.
When it comes to domestic violence, an equal number of men and women initiate it, BUT men are perceived as initiating it more. When it comes to road rage, while younger men are more likely to exit the car and engage aggressively, but women are more like to flip the bird. Both genders engage almost equally in such activities as tailgating, honking, or yelling at other drivers. On the other side, more than 73 percent (73.3) of the persons arrested in the nation during 2014 were males. They accounted for 79.8 percent of persons arrested for violent crime. Taking that into consideration, it’s understandable that this father might not want his son to be perceived as angry. He might want to steer him towards a gentler emotion as opposed to becoming part of a larger societal stereotype. Ultimately, this approach will backfire.
Teaching our Sons to Release Anger
How can we teach our children to let out anger in a way that doesn’t harm people, that tells them, there are moments when anger is absolutely the most appropriate response? How can we wrap our brains around the idea that releasing anger in a healthy way is not the gateway for more violent behavior. In fact, the opposite is true. If it’s released in a safe way, then it gets out as opposed to festering inside or coming out sideways, directed at another individual.
In his Pyschology Today article “Four Ways to Help Boys Process Emotions,” Gregory L. Jantz, Ph.D. details four ways boys can process emotions.
- The Action Release Method — In this method, you have the boy use some sort of physical activity to release his emotions. This could look like stomping, pacing, fidgeting (exercise balls are good for this), and general movement. Sometimes letting off some steam both before a conversation as well as during a conversation can be helpful. As long as something like stomping off is done respectfully, no harm is done. Also, movement during a conversation can be a way of letting a boy access his emotions.
- The Suppression-Delayed Reaction Method — For some boys, they suppress their emotions because they need to focus on something they’re working on, or sometimes they need space for their brain centers to actually process what’s going on emotionally and verbally. While I’m not advocating a boy stuff down his emotions, sometimes waiting before responding can create a safe emotional distance and allow him choice in when he wants to re-engage.
- The Displacement-Objectification Method — In this method, a story or object can be used to help a boy process emotions. This means the boy feels less vulnerable and is able to explore safely. For example, last year, my husband was in a very serious car accident. When I engaged our son about how he felt, his response was very limited. Later that day, we were talking about a book fair we had missed, and that’s when his emotions surfaced. Tremendous sadness overwhelmed him when he talked about how his classmates had all gotten books, and he hadn’t. His response to the bookfair was disproportionate in relation to his father’s accident.
- The Physical-Expression Method –This method can be the scariest for parents to witness as it involves letting the boy use aggression in a way that won’t hurt anyone (including himself). He can hit, kick, or punch an inanimate object. No one gets hurt. For some, this method feels very closely linked to destructive male aggression. And while men do engage in more violent crime than women, it’s also clear there is a perception of men that overshadows the reality (e.g. domestic violence, road rage). However, once the boy engages in this method and dispels some of his adrenaline, he will be able to engage more clearly and calmly about the issue at hand.
Going back to the father at hand. He was so clearly doing his best at the moment. As parents, none of us are perfect. I know I have acted and done things that I later wished I had done differently. My saving grace has been self-reflection, numerous conversations with other parents, and ongoing conversations with my son about how he can better understand and express his emotions. I don’t want to be afraid of my son’s anger, nor do I want him to fear or be ashamed of releasing it. Shaming and suppressing is what I most fear. It is the gateway to more aggressive behavior and creates the possibility of an anger far larger and more destructive than it ever needs to be.
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