Chezky: (screams) “I’m not going to go and you’re not gonna make me!”
Mother: “Yes, you will go, because I said so. I’m your mother and you will listen to me”
Chezky (screams even louder): “No, I won’t!” He picks up a bottle of Pepsi from the counter and throws it against the wall. He runs up to his room, slams the door, and punches his fist through the bedroom wall.
Mother calls father at his office, and cries into the phone. “You’ve got to something! I can’t take it from him any more!”
Father: “I’ll handle it when I get home. Try to cool down.”
Who has lost control? Everyone! Even father, who cannot concentrate on his work at the office.
What to do? Some people might suggest that when father comes home, he removes his belt and gives Chezky a sound whipping, letting him know who’s boss in this family. There are several problems with this. First, father has already done that, and it has not stopped Chezky from being defiant and going into a rage. Second, although Chezky is only 14, he is big and muscular, and father is afraid of provoking a physical altercation. Thirdly, it is not unheard of that a father is led off to jail in handcuffs because the child called the police and showed them the welts from his father’s beating.
A somewhat similar scene may occur when mother tells Chavi that she cannot go to Esti’s party until she picks up everything in her room. Chavi goes into a rage, shouts, “I’m already late for the party. I’m going!” and bolts out the door.
Anger is the most common behavior problem in teens (and in adults as well) and is very destructive. The Talmud is very descriptive: “When a person is in rage, all the forces of Hell take control of him” (Nedarim 22a). Ramban begins his letter to his son with the instruction to avoid kaas (rage).
There is some confusion, because in Hebrew, the word kaas is used to refer to three distinct phases. Kaas may refer to (1) the initial feeling when one is provoked; (2) the reaction to the provocation (rage), and (3) retention of the feeling (resentment).
It is important that we focus on “rage” rather than on “anger.” Anger is a feeling that occurs when a person is provoked, and a person does not have control whether or not to feel angry. The problem is that a person may act out one’s anger, and this is a behavior rather than a feeling. To avoid confusion, we’ll refer to acting-out anger as “rage.”
It is reported that the Chafetz Chaim would open the aron kodesh (Ark of Torah) and pray tearfully that G-d should relieve him of the feeling of anger. No one ever saw the Chafetz Chaim act out anger, because he was in complete control of his behavior. But he could not always control his feelings, and he asked G-d to take away this feeling. This is why we should not tell a child, “You should not feel angry.” That is asking the impossible of him. Rather, a child should be taught how to manage his anger.
We should address two issues: (1) How should parents react to Chezky and Chavi, and (2) how can we teach a child not to go into rage.
Let’s address the second point first. Children learn behavior from their parents and others around them. If a parent screams and shouts when angry, the child learns this response. If parents can control themselves and say, “I feel very angry about this,” and say what made them feel angry and what they intend to do about it, they teach the child how to handle anger.
One of the problems about rage is it often works. To avoid the consequences of a parent’s rage, the child may comply, but this reinforces the idea that rage achieves what you want. Similarly, if in order to keep peace parents give in to a child’s demands, that, too, reinforces the idea that rage works. But the effectiveness of rage is similar to the effectiveness of alcohol as a tranquilizer. It works for the short term, but the long term effects are destructive.
When a child is angry, it is no time to talk about anger management. The Talmud says, “Do not try to appease a person when he is in rage” (Pirke Avos 4:17). Such discussions should be held when everything is calm, and a child can be taught how to avoid rage, the salutary effects of controlling anger and the negative effects of rage. All this good teaching, however, can be undone if a parent exhibits rage, or, if the parent responds to a sibling’s rage by giving in to his demands. The child should see that rage does not work.
Incidentally, rage is not always explosive. A child may act out rage by withdrawing and sulking. Anger is energy, and the scientific principle that energy cannot be destroyed holds true. Although there may not be any bruises or broken dishes, rage that is not handled properly gets turned inside, where it lingers and either results in delayed acting-out or causes the person to be depressed or feel crushed.
Teaching anger management must be done before the anger occurs. Children should be taught why rage is destructive. Acting-out anger often provokes the other person, and may result in just the opposite of what you want. Even if you get what you want, you’ve made an enemy of the other person. It should be pointed out that when one is in rage, one loses control of oneself and one may say or do things which one will regret. The Talmud does not hesitate to point out that the greatest of all men, Moses, was in rage three times and each time he made a mistake. If rage can have that effect on Moses, just think of what it can do to us!
Children should be taught (and shown) how to react to another person’s behavior. Inasmuch as rage causes loss of control, we must understand that if another person is in rage, he has no control and may do or say things he does not mean.
One of the patients in the hospital was a very unstable diabetic. His reactions to insulin could go from one extreme to the other. One time he had an insulin reaction which so lowered his blood sugar that the brain was not able to function properly, and he went completely wild. Several hospital attendants tried to restrain him. I had to administer an intravenous injection of glucose to bring him back to normal, but he was flailing his arms about and landed a solid blow to my face. After I managed to inject the glucose, he promptly came to and asked, “Why is everyone here? Is there anything wrong?” He had no recollection of what had just transpired. Although I was in severe pain, I could not feel angry toward him. He had no idea of what he was doing.
It is not always easy to live up to, “Do not judge another person until you can see yourself being in his place,” but we should teach this to our children and take the opportunities to demonstrate to them how this is done.
In order to avoid loss of control, we should prepare ourselves in advance not to have a knee-jerk reaction when provoked. The old method of counting to ten (slowly) will give us a chance to put the mind into gear so that we react with intellect rather than with emotion. Like everything else, prevention is far better than cure. By action even more than by word, we should teach our children what to do when they feel angry.
O.K., but in Chezky’s and Chavi’s cases rage was not prevented. What should mother’s reaction have been? Some people may say, “Cut out this psychological foolishness. Children must listen. Lay down the law to them,” Good luck. If you know how to do this, please share it with us.
When a child shouts, shouting back at him “DON’T YOU DARE SHOUT AT ME!” is counterproductive. He will emulate your emotion rather than listen to your words.
We all want people to understand us. Kids, too, want to be understood. Remember, Chezky is reacting with the immaturity of a 14 year-old. Mother should react with the maturity of a 36 year-old. Chezky does not want to go wherever mother wants him to go, and his reasons make perfectly good sense to him. Let’s look at an alternate response.
Chezky: (screams) “I’m not going to go and you’re not gonna make me!”
Mother: “What’s the problem? We’re all going to Uncle Chiam’s for Yudi’s Bar- Mitzvah. It’s a family affair and we all belong there.”
Chezky: “Yudi’s o.k., but I can’t stand being with Nachman. He torments me. I don’t even want to be in the same room with him.”
(Mom, haven’t you ever felt the same way? But you behaved with the maturity of an adult, whereas Chezky is behaving with the immaturity of a 14 year old.)
Mother: “I can understand that, but if you don’t go, you’ll be punishing Yudi for his brother’s behavior. That’s not fair to Yudi.”
Chezky: “How about if I go and say mazal-tov to Yudi and then leave. O.K.?”
Mother: “You can stay just as long as you feel comfortable.” Given a choice, Chezky may decide to stay longer.
Responses like this show a child that you are interested in his feelings and that you value them. Kids are most likely to go into rage if they think that no one cares how they feel. A child may have misperceptions which can be cleared up. Even if the child’s reasoning is off the wall, he will react differently if he knows that someone cares how he feels.
Chavi is out the door, so she cannot be reasoned with then. When she comes back, mother might say, “That behavior is not acceptable. You’re grounded for a week.”
Look for an alternate response.
Mother: “You ran out because you don’t like to be late for a party. I can understand that. But I don’t like for my house to look like a pig-pen, and you can understand that. You could pick up your things in less than three minutes.”
It’s possible that Chavi may say, “I’m sorry.” Chavi was wrong, but confronting her with a punishment without acknowledging her feelings leaves her with resentment and a more defiant attitude.
Again, I can hear the remark, ”Quit catering to kids. If I disobeyed my father or mother, I’d get afrosk (slap) that I would remember for next time.” If you have a method that you feel works, that’s fine with me. Not everyone grows up with the parental respect you have. Some children may become more defiant or morose.
Remember, when your teen-ager goes into a rage, that provokes anger in you. This is an excellent opportunity to demonstrate how you handle anger.
If you can count to ten, you might reflect, “What feelings does his rage evoke in me? Do I feel angry because he is making the wrong decision, or am I hurt because my child is disobeying me, and it’s really a blow to my ego as a parent?” When parents act truly in their child’s interest, the child feels it. When the parents act because their own feelings were offended, the child feels that, too.
Let your child know that you, too, know what anger feels like. You might share with him some experiences you had when you were angry, what happened when you controlled your temper and what happened when you lost control. Talk to your child about emotions, and that strong emotions may overwhelm the intellect.
No one likes to be controlled by others. You don’t like it when someone controls you. However, because children are immature, they must be guided by their parents, and they see this as being controlled by them. You may tell your child, “I can understand why you may see me as controlling. As a parent, I must act according to what I understand to be in your best interest. We may disagree on what that is, and if we talk it out, you may come to see things my way or I may come to see things your way.”
Incidentally, there is not a shred of validity to the idea that you can discharge your anger by hitting a punching bag or the like. To the contrary, this may just intensify the anger.
Regardless of what it may look like to you, your child does not want to hurt you. If he knows that you are willing to listen to his point of view, that goes a long way in defusing his anger.
There are a number of books on anger management, both for the teen-ager to read and for the parents to read. The ideas in these books can help us dealing intelligently with anger rather than by responding with emotion.