I was walking through a friend’s house when immediately, a frog leapt to my throat. A painting hung there in her hall—and somehow, I felt more understood. I comprehended a nugget of that transcendent truth art can mine in the soul.
The title? Jesus and the Angry Babies.
Anger issues—angry babies (and angry children and angry mom)—is a subject featuring prominently in my life since becoming a parent seven years ago.
For the first three months of my eldest’s life, it seemed that if she was awake, she was screaming. “Colicky” felt like an understatement of her infancy. “Strong-willed” felt like an understatement for both of my toddlers.
That painted depiction of a human Jesus encountering human, angry babies was a comforting reminder that my experience is both normal and hard. I found in His face traces of fluster and fondness, ache and acceptance. I wondered if, like mine, perhaps His heart rate became elevated and brain released oxytocin. A body’s stress response is not sinful—though I often shamed myself as if it was.
Jesus probably did encounter angry babies. But I took comfort at the thought that their anger had nothing to do with Him. I tended to take my children’s anger personally, like it said something about how I was doing as a parent (= unsatisfactory) or who I was as a person (= a failure).
Anger Issues? 4 Things to Consider
A child’s anger issues can trigger any number of emotions in a parent: defensiveness, rage, sadness, fear, uncertainty, worry. Like physiological responses, emotions are not wrong or sinful; both types of reactions communicate something.
As parents, we’ll be more likely to respond helpfully—rather than react unhelpfully—when acknowledging our own responses to our children’s anger. This keeps those responses from controlling how we behave … just like we want our children to gain the ability to do.
1. Check yourself: What do your child’s anger issues stir up in you?
God blessed me with two intense children capable of shockingly intense emotions, both positive and negative. That level of intensity can be intense for me as their mom. Their joy can be positively, gloriously contagious—as can their ear-splitting rage.
When my kids explode and I explode right back, serious false beliefs drive my reactions.
If they are failing in some way, it means I am failing as their mom.
I cannot handle this.
I can’t be okay if they’re not okay.
There’s something wrong with them.
This is all my fault.
Fear and shame drive those beliefs. That led to unhelpful, sometimes hurtful, reactions toward my children.
In truth, I didn’t know how to handle my own anger issues. So when I encountered theirs, it sent me straight into “fight or flight” mode … which just continued cycle of anger in our family.
My destructive reactions—attempting to stifle their yelling with yelling louder, or shutting down and retreating from heated interactions with them— signaled I needed personal boundaries to keep their drama from becoming mine.
Gradually, with a lot of support, counseling, and encouragement (because anger issues are more common than you think), I began to be able to slow down in those moments. I noticed what was stirring up inside me, addressed it (or at least, set it aside to be addressed at a later moment), then focused more fully on empowering my child to deal in healthy ways.
2. Check the situation: Can everyone be safe?
When anger issues arise, a parent’s job is to make sure everyone can be safe both physically and emotionally.
Working to become emotionally safe as parents is a prerequisite for us being able to help kids with anger issues. Then we can check the space around us, making sure our kids are not a physical danger to anyone else around. This might mean removing an aggressive child from the situation or excusing siblings to another room for a time.
Start with a verbal reminder: “It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to hurt people.”
Now is the time to begin (or continue) building an environment where any feeling is accepted (though every expression may not be).
To begin, get into the habit of naming feelings as they arise for yourself and your children. Not only does this reinforce that feelings are normal, but gracious naming of feelings also lets people know they are seen, builds emotional literacy, and defangs those frighteningly intense feelings.
Then we can start to talk about better ways to express anger.
3. Check for the heart of the matter.
Not only is a compassionate response to anger the one we see our Heavenly Father model, it’s also more effective.
Fear and shame (as opposed to healthy guilt) are not good motivators for heart change in adults or children. Romans 2:4 tells us “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance.”
I’ve seen my daughter’s panicked anger dissolve simply by telling her, “I love you no matter how you feel.” I can testify that when my kids feel safest with me—to be themselves as they are in that moment—we get to the heart of their anger issues sooner.
Sometimes that “heart of the matter” is anxiety or shame coming out sideways from something that happened at school or with friends. And sometimes the core issue is they are hungry, dehydrated, overstimulated, or under-rested.
Both of my children also have some sensory sensitivities (something I didn’t realize until I sought help for their intense behavior). Some agitation can be avoided with a little planning and forethought in our daily habits. We need to consider how these matters play into reactions and behavior.
4. Don’t check your watch.
Once I started taking more care to respond to my child’s anger issues as a coach instead of my more natural fight or flight instinct, I was careful not to be discouraged. Even though I was responding with kindness and empathy more often, sometimes it wasn’t “working.”
I had to take more of a long view of change in my family. James 3:18 (NLT) says, “And those who are peacemakers will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousness.”
I scrawled this verse on my kitchen’s tile walls to remind me the peace and righteousness I want to see grown in my family won’t happen overnight. All I can do is to plant seeds of peace in my interactions. Then, I can trust God that, in due time, righteousness will spring up.
Anger issues need so much grace
On FamilyLife® Today, I heard author and speaker Amber Lia remark, “It takes a childhood to raise a child.” Of course, it does, I thought (mind blown).
So why do I still find myself expecting my 3-year-old to handle frustration at least as well (if not better) as I do with a fully developed and educated brain?
Can I remind you of a little secret you already know but which helps to hear?
There is so much grace.
There is so much grace for the struggling parent. And there is so much grace for the struggling child.
Anger issues, our child’s or ours, can make our homes feel like an emotionally gory battlefield: messy and hopeless. But with some intentional and prayerful planting, perseverance, and support from others, we may discover the field we’re on is actually a garden.
And there’s righteousness, connection and joy coming in due time with the harvest.
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Laura Way serves with FamilyLife as a writer and lives in Orlando, Florida with her high-school-teaching-husband, Aubrey, and their two vibrant young daughters. She and Aubrey lived in East Asia for seven years until relocating last year. She enjoys writing about becoming more fully human while sojourning through different places, seasons of life, and terrains of mental and spiritual health at hopeforthesojourn.com.