During times of transition and grief, parents often expect sadness and anxiety as the news of a divorce is shared and daily activities and homelife changes. We practice empathizing and soothing our children, creating structures and plans to help them feel safe and loved during the changes. And, still, despite the well thought out plans, disruptive anger and aggression often present themselves in the picture. Today’s article will describe the developmental purpose of anger, as well as offer some strategies for meeting and managing these feelings together as a family.
At every developmental stage, there is a need to have influence and control of our environment, from cradle to grave. We seek a secure base from which to take multiple risks to grow. Children do not have control in a divorce. They don’t decide to separate. For many, the awareness of this and the uncertainties that lie before them, evoke a forceful resistance to maintain a known experience. There is power in anger, a fierce “no” to protect themselves. Children can feel and touch their influence in a real way, as others respond to them. Anger is a normal response to unexpected change. With that said, it is not a desired state to reside within, but move through toward a balanced acceptance of a new reality.
Following are a few ideas to help manage and work with anger and aggression:
- Acknowledge the truth about the lack of control while creating opportunities for them to have influence. What are some elements of the transition that they can make choices about? Some examples that families have tried are choosing the times of transition “Would you like to go to the other house in the morning or afternoon?” or helping to decorate the new home, “I’d like you to choose the color of dishes for our new kitchen.”
- Allow for healthy expressions of anger and create a plan, “What are some things you can do when you’re angry?” Belly breathing doesn’t always work then! What activities can release the physical energy? Jumping on the trampoline, running around the yard, yelling into a pillow, creating a “punching” object are all examples of ways children can direct this emotion. Just as important, establish boundaries around the expressions of anger that are not allowed such as yelling at or punching a sibling. This co created plan creates a safe place to move through the unpleasant feeling.
- Lastly, help your child to accept this as an understandable response. Many children feel guilt and shame that their anger affects their family, too. “Our family is going through many emotions together, and we’ll get through this together.” Read books or tell stories to help them understand that other children have felt similarly, too. Anger is a normal response in the grieving process and can lead them to a healthy adjustment within the new family dynamic.
“All of us, from the cradle to the grave, are happiest when life is organized as a series of excursions, long or short, from the secure base provided by our attachment figure(s).”-Bowlby, 1988