All kids — like all humans — get angry. When we feel threatened, we move into fight, flight or freeze. Anger is the body’s “fight” response.
But humans don’t only get angry in response to outside threats. When something happens today that reminds us of a past upset, we get angry to protect ourselves — even if the threat today isn’t really much of a threat. That’s why our three year old’s defiance triggers our rage.
We also get angry in attempts to maintain our equilibrium. So when our own fear, hurt, disappointment, pain or grief is too upsetting, we tend to lash out. The anger doesn’t get rid of the hurt, but it makes us feel less powerless and temporarily numbs the pain. This explains why anger is part of the grieving process.
So humans mobilize against any perceived threat (even our own upsets) by attacking.
That’s true for kids as well, of course. And because kids don’t have a context for their upsets, a small disappointment can seem like the end of the world. Worse yet, since they don’t have a fully developed frontal cortex to help them self-regulate, children are even more prone to lashing out when they’re angry. (Doesn’t it seem crazy that we expect them to handle anger constructively, when so often we adults don’t?)
Sometimes attacking makes sense when we’re angry, but only when there’s actually a threat. That’s rare. Most of the time when kids get angry, they want to attack their little brother (who broke their treasured memento), their parents (who disciplined them “unfairly”), their teacher (who embarrassed them) or the playground bully (who scared them.)
Luckily, as children’s brains develop, they gain the capacity to manage their anger constructively — IF they live in a home where anger is handled in a healthy way.
What does “constructive” mean?