Conflicts in ChildrenRICHARD P. FITZGIBBONS
Excessive anger in children can be a major source of tension and conflict in families and marriages. This section is meant to help parents come to a deeper understanding of how they can protect the emotional lives of their children and guide them.
Common Origins of Childhood Anger
Please rate your child's anger on the following anger checklists.
Active Anger in Children/Adolescents
Suspension from school
Passive-Aggressive Anger in Children/Adolescents
Always late/leaves earlySevere
Refuse to eat
Selfishness is one of the major causes of anger in children. Please rate your child on the selfishness checklist below.Narcissism Checklist
Three Basic Mechanisms for Dealing with Anger in Children
In Helping Clients Forgive: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope, I wrote, parents can provide valuable assistance to children by helping them develop an understanding of the three basic mechanisms used to cope.Denial
During early childhood, the most common method for dealing with anger is denial. The dangers attached to denial include emotional harm to the child, increased feelings of sadness, guilt and shame, or the misdirection of the resentment toward others.Expression
The next method commonly used for dealing with anger is either to express it openly and honestly or to release it in a passive-aggressive manner. It is of benefit to review with children the numerous ways in which anger can be vented passively. The therapist might consider having the young patient complete an anger checklist to identify these behaviors. Many parents can also participate in the evaluation of their childs anger by completing an anger checklist in relation to their son or daughter and thus provide the therapist with additional information on the degree of the childs anger.
It may be helpful to view actively expressed anger as encompassing three types: appropriate, excessive, and misdirected. Children benefit from learning the value of healthy assertiveness as well as the danger of responding consistently to situations in an excessively angry manner. It is important for them to realize that when they do not resolve their anger from a particular hurt, they may later misdirect the resentment toward others. Such anger can damage friendships, interfere with learning, harm family relationships, and limit participation in team sports. In clinical practice, we find that the most common recipients of misdirected anger are younger siblings, peers, mothers, and teachers.
Concepts of displacement and the consequences of displacing anger can be difficult for children to understand and accept so concrete examples need to be used. At times, it can be helpful if parents or a therapist relate stories of misdirected anger from their own youthful experience.
Some therapists believe they have been successful in treating anger in children and adolescents when their young patients express the anger they had previously denied. Actually, what has been accomplished is only one step toward actual resolution because, in itself, expression is incapable of freeing children from the burden of resentment which they carry. The experience of anger can lead to a desire for revenge which does not diminish until the existence of the resentful feelings are uncovered and subsequently resolved. Without this uncovering and resolution, anger can be displaced for many years onto others and erupt decades later in loving relationships. Anger may not be fully resolved until a conscious decision is made to work on forgiving the offender.Forgiveness
Not surprisingly, what forgiveness is not needs clarification. We find that children need to learn the following issues. Specifically, forgiveness is not tolerating and enabling angry, abusive people to express their anger. It is not being a doormat or acting in a weak manner and it does not limit healthy assertiveness. It does not mean trusting or reconciling with those who are abusive, insensitive, or show no motivation to change their unacceptable behavior. Finally, forgiveness is not necessarily going to others and informing them that one is forgiving them.
As already stated, clinicians often discover that the relationship in which children experience the greatest degree of disappointment, and subsequently the greatest degree of anger, is in the parental relationship, especially the one with the father. This is particularly true at the present time when almost forty percent of children and teenagers do not have their biological fathers at home. Numerous studies have documented difficulties with resentment and aggressive behavior in the children of divorce (Block, Block, & Gjerde, 1988; Guidubaldi, 1988; Hetherington, 1989; Johnston, Kline, & Tschann, 1989; Wallerstein 1983, 1985, 1991; Wallerstein & Blakeslee, 1989). One study of parental love-deprivation and forgiveness revealed that most respondents implicated the father, not the mother, as being emotionally distant (Al-Mabuk, Enright, & Cardis, 1995).
The major cause of anger in the father relationship is the result of growing up with a father who had difficulty in communicating his love and in affirming his children. Misdirected father anger may be a contributing conflict in our schools and homes today. Many children who have intense father-anger present with conduct disorders, oppositional defiant disorders, attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorders, and intermittent explosive disorders.
Difficulties in the mother relationship that lead to intense anger can be the result of not experiencing enough love and praise, feeling controlled or criticized, or being made to feel that one does not measure up to some standard. At times, too, the child may have felt overly responsible for the mother, or may have come to the conclusion that she was overly critical of the father.
Other sources of anger sometimes result from hurts and disappointments from siblings or rejection by peers. Often an older child misdirects anger at a younger sibling that is really meant for a parent or peers. Many children and adolescents crave peer acceptance to develop a positive sense of self and to protect themselves from loneliness. Those children who are scapegoated regularly in school rarely tell their parents how they are being treated because they are so ashamed or because they believe that their parents cannot protect them. Therefore, parents need to be aware of the various ways in which this conflict can manifest itself. These include: isolation, withdrawal, ventilation of hostility toward others, social anxiety, or depression.
Some children have difficulties with their anger as a result of modeling after a parent who could not control anger. This excessive expression of anger is then passed from one generation to the next. In our experience, this modeling occurs most often with the father.
Many in the mental health field believe that the excessive anger seen in ADHD and other disorders in children is biologically determined (see, for example, Hechtman 1991). However, at this time, no specific neurotransmitters have been identified which cause excessive anger. Also, the use of addictive substances can trigger excessive anger as well as personality conflicts, especially narcissism.
Parents can assist their children in their character development by teaching them to be understanding and forgiving when angry. We refer to this as an immediated forgiveness exercise. This does not preclude punishing a child for a display of excessive or midirected anger, nor asking an angry child to apologize to the recepient of their excessive anger. Appropriate punishment for angry behaviors often helps a child learn to control anger.
After an angry incident the child can be recommended to try to forgive if they have been truly hurt by another. Also, children can learn to stop denying their anger and to resolve it by thinking at bedtime of forgiving anyone who may have hurt them on that particular day or in the past. In Ephesians 4, St. Paul recommends that we not let the sun go down on our anger. Unfortunately, many children and adults do because they do not work on developing and using the virtue of forgiveness at the end of the day.
Children are usually pleased to learn how the virtue of forgiveness can help them control and resolve their angry feelings.
We will now examine some of the specific childhood and adolescent disorders with a focus on the treatment of the excessive anger. The resolution of this resentment facilitates the healing of childhood disorders. The childhood disorders with the greatest degree of anger are attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, intermittent explosive disorder and character/personality weaknesses.Oppositional Defiant Disorder
One of the most common conflicts seen in children is oppostional defiant disorder (ODD). The symptoms of ODD are:
Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) has been seen as a developmental precursor to conduct disorders and is more common in families where there is serious marital discord (DSM-IV). However, in one study of ODD associated with ADHD, two subtypes of ODD were identified: one that is prodromal to CD and another that is subsyndromal to CD but not likely to progress into CD in later years (Biederman, Faraone, Milberger, Jetton, Chen, Mick, Gree, & Russell, 1996) . When ODD co-occurred with CD in this study, it preceded the onset of CD by several years. Also, higher rates of positive family histories for CD or antisocial personality were found among the CD compared with the ODD and ADHD children.
The excessive anger seen in ODD is not as severe as that in conduct disorders in that most of these youngsters do not yet struggle with violent impulses and fantasies. The psychotherapeutic use of forgiveness can play an important role in decreasing or resolving the hostile feelings, thoughts and behaviors seen in ODD. If the strong anger in ODD is treated effectively, our experience indicates it may prevent the later development of conduct disorders.
Children with ODD also are helped by attempting to grow in the virtues of obedience, gratitude, generosity and respect. Parents can prevent the development of ODD in many children by working on growth in marital self-giving and by not abandoning their sacrament of marriage through separation and divorce.Case Study
This case demonstrates the use of forgiveness in ODD.
Sean, a seven-year-old, became increasingly angry and rebellious with his mother after his father left the family. He regularly lost his temper, refused to listen to his mother, and provoked his sisters. He also became much more defiant and narcissistic and demanded that his mother buy him new toys several times weekly.
In the sessions with his mother and sisters, Sean admitted , I'm really mad at Dad. He doesn't care about us. All he ever did was watch TV anyway. Sean's mother told him that his anger was hurting her and his sisters and that it reminded her of his fathers selfish temper tantrums. Sean became tearful and remorseful during the session and stated that he did not want to hurt anyone. He agreed to try to let go of his anger with his father on a daily basis and thus attempt to avoid repeating his dads self-centered behaviors. This intervention seemed to motivate Sean and when he slipped back into oppositional defiant behavior, his mother would remind him to continue to forgive his father. Over the course of several months, the work of daily thinking that he wanted to understand and try to forgive his father helped Sean to gain more control over his angry feelings and behaviors. However, there were times when, after spending a weekend with his selfish father, it would take several days to gain control over his sad and angry feelings.
treatment of the anger and anxiety in the following childhood disorders are
Children who experience separation anxiety disorders, divorce and separation stress, bullying victimization or adoption have sustained damage to their basic ability to trust and feel safe in or outside the home. Their difficulty in trusting is often not identified adequately. The mistrust checklist below has helped many parents in understanding the nature of their childrensí conflicts.
Please answer by identifying the appropriate choice for each item on the following mistrust checklist which applies to your child:
Origins of Mistrust
Same causes as in childhood
Origins of Mistrust Total:
The major $80 million dollar research study of day care for the National Institute of Child Health and Human Developmnet (NICHD) included 25 researchers at 10 universities and was led by Dr. Jay Belsky.
The analysis of research produced the conclusion that early and extensive nonmaternal care carried risks in terms of increasing the probability of insecure infant-parent attachment relationships and of promoting aggression and noncompliance during the toddler, preschool, and early primary school years.
Dr. Belsky stated, "There is a constant dose-response relationship between time in care and problem behaviors, especially those involving aggressive behavior."
This research demonstrates that the infant and child need close bonding with the mother in order to develop a basic foundation for trust and a safe feeling with others. The absence of such bonding is resulting in sadness, anger and mistrust in the children.
This research should be considered when decisions are being made about the care
of babies and infants, in addition to Brian Robertsonís Day Care Deception. Also, Mary Eberstadtís
book, Home Alone America, is an important new work
on the emotional conflicts in children today resulting from day care and other
The 2004 article, "Learning
to Forgive", which I coauthored with my colleagues, Bob Enright and Tom
OíBrien, may be of benefit to parents of children who are victims of excessive
anger from their peers in school or who overreact in anger in school.
The major obstacles encountered in trying to help children grow in the use of forgiveness include: unwillingness to work on the character weakness of selfishness, modeling after an angry parent, the sense of control their anger gives them over others, and a sense of strength and self-esteem derived from the expression of anger. It is not uncommon, either, for the process of forgiveness to be blocked by parents who excuse all angry behaviors in their children with ADHD, claiming that their behavior is solely the result of biological factors over which their children have no control. Such parents may have serious problems with excessive resentment themselves and therefore they are limited in their abilit to teach their children to be responsible for their anger and to resolve their hostile feelings. Subsequently, such parents can help their children by identifying their own anger and working on forgiving those who have hurt them. Unfortunately, some parents have no desire to control their excessive anger. By modeling forgiveness, the majority of parents can bring about a marked improvement in the level of resentment and acting-out behaviors in their children.Other virtues which can diminish anger in children:
Selfishness is one of the major causes of anger in children and in teenagers. You can evaluate your child in this area on the selfishness checklist found at the beginning of this chapter.
Excessive anger develops when people with this character weakness do not have their needs or expectations meet quickly or in a specific manner. In many regards they respond in a emotionally immature and childlike way.
The most common origins of this character weakness in children are due to modeling after a selfish parent(s) or to parents enabling it, while denying the serious negative consequences of selfishness. Other major factors which contribute to this conflict are identification with selfish peers or relatives, an attraction to the selfish lifestyle and the rejection of a moral code or religious faith. This conflict can be present at any life stage, but often manifests itself strongly at the beginning of adolescence.
Growth in generosity is essential if children are to overcome selfishness.
The virtues which can be taught to children to help them address this character weakness are:
Parents can address selfishness in their children by:
A discussion with a child of the long term negative consequences of selfishness in adult life can be beneficial in motivating a child to work on this personality conflict. These serious difficulties include:
The process of addressing selfishness in children can be challenging. The major reasons parents are unable to correct selfishness in their children are:
Couples need to be united and strong in order to address this conflict in their children. Correction of this conflict should not be done in anger. This can be accomplished by the use of an immediate forgiveness exercise in which the parent inwardly thinks of understanding and forgiving the child. Then, the correction should be given only when the anger subsides.
The initial response to parental correction of selfishness is often one of intense anger. This narcissistic (selfish) anger is often vented in an explosive manner in an attempt to try to intimidate and control others.
The growth in the following virtues in parents can help them in being strong in order to protect their children from caving into selfishness and excessive anger:
When an adolescent or young adult is unwilling to change the selfish behaviors which harm the family or himself, parents may be forced to take some of the following actions:
If one parent refuses to stop enabling harmful selfish behaviors, the other spouse may need to take the following actions in order to protect the child, marriage and family:
Fortunately, in our clinical experience, these steps usually result in marital
and family healing and not to separation.
Boys who do not play sports, have few male friends or are effeminate and angry because they are rejected or picked on by their peers benefit from special attention from their parents, particularly their fathers. See the "Gender Identity Disorder" article which I have written on www.narth.com.
Fathers tend to feel confident bonding with their sons primarily through athletic activities. These men often have difficulty knowing how to be close to their sons who do not show an interest in sports. A common error in such relationships is to attempt to force them to play sports. When a child lacks eye-hand coordination which interferes with the ability to throw a baseball, kick a soccer ball or pass a football, he usually cannot learn those skills.
Fathers can bond with sons who lack eye-hand coordination in a number of ways
including hiking, fishing, hunting, sailing, playing chess, and walking. They
can identify and discuss topics of interest to their sons. These boys also benefit
from their fathers helping them to grow in an awareness of their God-given gifts
which is essential in building male confidence.
parents need to be cautious about diversity and tolerance programs offered to
their children in grade schools, high schools and colleges which do not teach
the Churchís truth in regard to the beauty of Godís plan for human sexuality reserved
exclusively for the sacrament of marriage. In addition, such programs often support
alternative lifestyles, while failing to provide students with informed consent
about the serious medical, psychiatric (see Homosexuality and Hope of the Catholic Medical Association,
Health Risks of Gay Sex", "Gay
Marriage and Homosexuality: Some Medical Comments", family and social
problems associated with these life choices. These programs are attempting
to attack Catholic morality in regard to human sexuality, marriage, family life,
Excellent family resources which can help parents form their children in the truth about human sexuality are The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality from the Vaticanís Congregation for the Family, Humanae Vitae of Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul IIís Love and Responsibility and Theology of the Body, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Bishop Galeoneís pastoral letter on marriage and the Vaticanís statement on same sex unions. Finally, parents should monitor the educational materials from school or CCD classes in order to protect their children from premature or erroneous sexual information which can damage them psychologically and rob them of their innocence.
In 2004 Pope John Paul II stated, "Every educational program, whether Christian
or secular, must emphasize that true love is chaste love, and that chastity provides
us with a founded hope for overcoming the forces threatening the institution of
the marriage and the family and at the same time for freeing humanity from the
devastation wrought by scourges such as HIV/AIDS and promiscuity; that is, using
people as sexual objects."
When a parent feels angry toward a child, the immediate expression of this anger can be harmful, especially if it is excessive. Instead of giving in quickly to the expression of anger, we recommend that a parent when angry with a child try to inwardly reflect a number of times, "I want to understand and forgive" or "I want to forgive and love" until the anger dimishes. After the angry feelings diminish, the parent should communicate with the child.
If a parent works on this immediate forgivenesss exercise, correction can be given to a child in an appropriate manner without excessive anger. Then a child is often be more receptive and less defensive because a discussion can occur without intense anger.
The parentís faith can be helpful also in gaining rapid control of angry feelings with a child. Individuals report that giving their anger immediately to the Lord is helpful, as well as their impatience, controlling tendencies or conflict over accepting crosses in family life.
Richard P. Fitzgibbons. "Conflicts in Children." Institute for Marital Healing.
This article reprinted with permission from the author, Richard P. Fitzgibbons and the Institute for Marital Healing.
The mission of the Institute for Marital Healing is to strengthen Catholic marriages and families by educating spouses and marital therapists about common causes of conflicts in marital self-giving and effective approaches to alleviating such conflicts. Through a combination of online resources, educational programs, publications, and counseling services, the Institute employs a time-tested approach to marital therapy that recognizes the importance of both science and faith in the process of marital healing.
Since 1976 he has used forgiveness in psychotherapy, and in 1986 he wrote a seminal paper on the use of forgiveness and is the coauthor of Helping Clients Forgive (with Robert D. Enright; 2000), published by the American Psychological Association.
He has given many marital conferences on strengthening marital self-giving. Rick has also given many conferences to priests in dioceses and religious communities and to spiritual formation teams of seminaries. In 2004 he coauthored Learning to Forgive in the Classroom for the American School Board Journal and recorded a DVD on forgiveness for mental health professionals with Dr. Bob Enright for American Psychological Associations Books. He is board member of the International Institute for Forgiveness, www.forgivenessinstitute.org.
Copyright © 2005 Richard P. Fitzgibbons
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.