Behind the Frowning Veil of Anger

Anger is a beautifully complex emotion. It’s an emotion we all experience. It’s what I call the onion emotion because anger is seldom just anger. Beneath it lies layers which are easily ignored.

Anger has many guises. In order to be able to accurately assess it, it requires us as parents to pause and take stock of the context of a situation, in order to be able to differentiate between the deeply rooted vulnerable emotions, and the angry outbursts which from result from healthy parenting boundaries.

Perhaps you’ve found yourself in the Woolworths check out queue and your toddler is having a foam-at-the-mouth moment because you refuse to purchase the speckled chocolate eggs. Perhaps your teen has sworn, slammed the door and proclaimed that they will hate you forever because you have confiscated their cellphone as a result of a serious curfew infringement. Well done- you’ve been a good parent and put down a boundary which has resulted in an unpleasant emotional outburst, a superficial anger. But this is only one kind of anger.

There is another, deeper kind of anger, which in fact, is not anger at all. Behind its frowning veil lies emotions such as fear, pain, sadness, heartbreak or immense confusion. Anger is the bodyguard that attempts to protect us from these emotions which make us feel vulnerable.

This past Sunday, my Rachel had been having an exceptionally difficult day and whilst I realise this is not a completely foreign concept for a two year old, it was somewhat out of character to the degree she was displaying it. Now she’s a strong-willed and determined little mite, who has been known to give me uphill, and often needs boundaries reinforced, but on Sunday, she was being particularly stroppy. After yet another meltdown I took her to her bedroom but before I left, I reflected on her weekend. She’d had a nasty face plant off of her bicycle on Friday afternoon (where so much blood was spilled that even her older brother was in tears), she’d incurred a few other bodily injuries attached to various childhood garden adventures, we’d been out at the Arts Festival and several other places which changed her routine, and her daddy was leaving on an airplane later that afternoon. Things in her little life felt upside down and confusing.

When I considered this, I realized that on this particular occasion she didn’t need a boundary, she needed a parent who understood that her lashings out and anger were because she felt vulnerable, she needed drawing in, she needed patience, she needed comfort.
This got me thinking to my own teenage years, when my mom was terminally ill with cancer. Often I would lash out at her for no reason, simply because I did not know what to do with my own overwhelming emotions. But instead of reprimanding me for disrespect or responding with harsh words, my mother, in her wisdom, would walk over to me and envelop me in her arms. Within the safety of these I would sob and sob. You see, she understood the complexity of anger, and she knew that as humans, we lash out when our fear of vulnerability threatens to engulf us.

Whoever in our lives may be angry, whether it be a toddler, a teen, a work colleague or a neighbour, we need to be brave enough to peel the onion and not fear the tears that inevitably come with it. When we are able to take a breath and to step back, we will see what’s really going on, what emotions are really bubbling up, emotions that are screaming to have a voice but feeling like they may completely overwhelm us if we let them out. Next time you are faced with anger, just consider for a moment. Anger is not anger. Anger defends vulnerability.

When I reflected on this in Rachel’s bedroom, I got onto my haunches and looked at my distraught, angry little girl, and said, “Rache, come here”. I opened my arms and she fell into them. After a long, deep hug, the tears dried from her cheeks, she stood up, and walked out the room a much happier child, and we all had a much happier afternoon.

As parents we need to have wisdom and patience to understand the roots of anger, and by doing so be in tune with our children’s real emotional needs, especially those which cannot be easily expressed, those which lie beneath the frowning veil of anger.

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