Helping Your Hurting Child – by Cara Potapshyn Meyers

What a week. More accurately, what a month. A few weeks back I wrote about my son’s anger and frustration over going down a reading level. I helped him through that devastating blow to his self esteem as described in an addendum to that post. Still, my son continues to harbor more anger and is trying to push it down inside himself, rather than let it out. A terrible thing for anyone to do with anger, especially a child.

At my insistence, my husband and I sought out a therapist for my son. We initially wanted a male therapist as we thought that my son, at age nine, would “bond” with a male therapist more easily. We still may have to investigate that option. However, we found a female therapist who seems to have energy and liveliness that we believe my son could relate to. She also is a huge proponent of “play therapy,” which we knew would help to “break the ice” between my son and this therapist.

I called the therapist beforehand to let her know that at the time we would be seeing her, my son’s ADHD medication would have worn off, so she would be seeing our son in his “raw” state. Raw it was! My son was rude, obnoxious and disrespectful. Three things my son is typically not. The therapist thankfully blew his behavior off and tried to establish at least a smidgen of rapport with my son. He turned his chair around and faced the wall. No amount of coaxing would “turn him around,” literally and figuratively. We came to a dead end.

We gave our son a game to take out to the lobby to play with so that we could have a private discussion with the therapist. She picked up on his anger about a couple things immediately but then noticed that he chose to “internalize” those feelings rather than expose them. I know from experience how difficult it is to establish a “connection” with anyone you don’t know well, especially a therapist. This therapist said that it would take a while for a level of trust to build up. 

In speaking with my son’s ADHD doctor, she indicated that my son would probably be more open and receptive to counseling if he were given a non-stimulant adjunct medication. When I spoke to the therapist on the phone, I urged her to contact my son’s doctor to discuss medication for my son, so that my son would be a little more receptive towards therapy. I haven’t heard back yet, but will be following up at some point this week.

Even with all I have done for my son, I still feel helpless. I desperately want to continue to help my son, but how?

Anger is an emotion. A feeling. “Feeling” is such an abstract term. It is difficult for most people to express their feelings in adequate words and to fully understand how someone else is feeling. Adults mistakenly think that children have nothing to be angry about since their lives are so taken care of for them. But it may in fact be worse for children since they are not able to understand a lot of what is going on in the adult world around them. They have to accept things as they are and have to depend on others to provide almost everything for them. This can lead to frustration, feelings of loss and helplessness which can all lead to feelings of anger.

What can adults do to help children cope with their anger? Here are some tips from a website called

*We can start by talking with children about their feelings and helping them to understand what they are feeling. It is also important not to blame them or make them think that they are bad for having these negative feelings. 

*Stay with the child while he is working through the anger. Don’t abandon him. That way he will get the message that you are trying to help him through it. He won’t have to feel that you only like him or want him around when he has good feelings. This is one of the main reasons why putting an angry child in time-out is more harmful in the long run. A layer of rejection and invalidation get added to whatever the hurt is that is causing the anger. And the child may figure out that the adult is not able to cope and therefore help him with his feelings.

*Help the child to express the anger in appropriate words. Saying, “It makes me feel so mad when my friend does”…,” rather than “I hate my friend,” also helps him to identify his feeling and learn that it is the behavior that triggers something in him and not that he hates another human being.

*Prevent the anger from building up. Don’t wait for the outburst. Set up times when the child can rough-play safely, or can run and scream as much as he wants. Physical activity also helps to release the tension. Pillow fights are good for releasing pent up frustration without hurting anyone physically. Punching bags and stuffed toys are useful pieces of equipment.

*Be a good role model to the child of how you control your own anger and express it appropriately.

Since I already tried “pillow” anger management, have never put my son in a time-out, nor abandoned him when he was angry, have tried (with a fifty percent positive outcome) to talk with him about his angry or frustrating feelings, I have two strategies left to work on: Helping my son to first identify, then express his anger using appropriate words and be a better role model. My own reaction to anger is to initially suppress it. I think both of us are going to start to work on expressing how we feel and to let it out. Even if we have to buy ourselves a boatload of pillows! This should be a challenging task for both of us. For me to express my anger or frustration constructively and to observe and direct my son when he is feeling angry or frustrated and have him express it. This should be quite an interesting journey. For my son’s sake, I hope we can both succeed. 



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