The Four stages of anger: the spark

In our last post we talked about Stage one: The buildup.  Now on to Stage two: The spark

The spark is the ‘thing’ that sets off an angry outburst.  There are two varieties of sparks, one is external and one is internal.  Both are difficult to see coming and both are influenced by the buildup.  We have all seen two young children who normally play together just fine and then for some unknown reason one begins to give the other the cold shoulder and then just as quickly they will play together again as if nothing happened.  At the other extreme we may see a child and parent who have a long history of mutual antagonism, have a complete blow up over something as simple as the phone ringing or the type of clothing they are wearing. 

Other external sparks may be as common as a parent asking “go clean your room”, “go to bed”, “turn off the TV”, “I am not buying this today”, or if the child was ignored, teased had a physical accident, or got caught breaking a rule.

On the other hand the spark may not be visible at all and be instead an internal thought, that sparks an angry reaction.  They seem to come out of nowhere when there is an angry action.  Somehow the child has had a thought that they linked to some event in the past, that once they started thinking about it they could not control the angry impulse, and some sort of action was taken.  It could be a sudden outburst or a physical action of hitting someone.  Unfortunately these angry thoughts can be set off when a child has a memory of a bad event, or it can be simply from their imaginations, or some combination of real and distorted memory. 

Let’s look at an example that illustrates how it may happen.  Lets say we have a child that erupts into a fit of anger at being told that it is time to go to bed.  Now this seems hard to explain or understand because it just seems out of proportion to the request.  We want to be sure that we don’t mistake the spark for the problem itself.  Now is the time to look at the buildup and what preceded the spark.  Do they think they are being babied?  Did they homework not completed that they are worried about?  Do they know that if they throw a tantrum that they get to stay up an extra half hour?  Or are they tired from having stayed up the night before?  If we can get beyond what has just happened we may find the way to douse the spark.

In fact, dousing or defusing the spark is our main goal at this time.  Learn to recognize what sparks your child’s anger, or your own for that matter, and act decisively to address the matter before it becomes full blown rage.  Later in our blog we will be talking about “Anger Guards”, that for the moment I will describe as knowing what it is that sets us off, pushes our buttons or gets under our skin.  At this stage we must take the time to recognize this in our children and ourselves. 

At a later date there will be strategies to address the Spark Stage discussed in this blog.

The four stages of anger: the buildup

I have been looking at this subject of anger, looking for ways to help our students to find ways of dealing with the anger that they feel in a manner that gives them good results.  As we discussed this in our classes last month I could feel the pain and frustration of parents too, as they tried to deal with their children who expressed their anger at surprising moments or with such intensity that it set us back a bit. 

That brought me to discover a book that described the four stages of anger for a child and really for any of us.  The four stages are (1) the buildup, (2) the spark, (3) the explosion, (4) the aftermath.  Today I am going to describe the first one and on subsequent days we will describe the others with a follow up on how to deal with them.

When we observe the explosion of anger (stage 3), we sometimes mistaken that for where the feeling began.  In fact the display of anger can be something that is building for a period of time before the explosion.  The buildup is stage one and this sets the foundation upon which the anger is built.  It is the child’s history of experiences, stresses and stage of development. It could be due to teasing, losing a game, exclusion, fatigue, hunger, illness, defeatist attitudes, specific worries low self esteem.  These things could have occurred 2 hours ago or over the past 2 years or more.

Every child is going to react differently in those situations.  So one child who loses a game may just accept it and move on, finding ways to improve and hoping to do better next time, while another child may feel totally different about losing and that combined with some other factor may begin to feel the feelings of anger building up inside of them.  Now they may not express it or even recognize it for being anger but there it is boiling inside.  Just like adults this can also be brought on by other outside forces including being tired or hungry.  I know for myself, if I am hungry then my fuse is a great deal shorter.  I may not break out into an angry outburst, but I know that I am a great deal shorter with people and have a significantly reduced amount of patience.

Our goal as parents at that time is to prevent an outburst.  So how do we do this?  Parents can influence their childs anger in the buildup stage by avoiding a source of pain, solving the problem, or directing the child down the path toward a workable solution before they grow out of control. So to break that down, if you know your child gets irritable when they are tired then we need to be sure that they get the rest that they need, naps at the right time.  Sometimes that is inconvenieint for us as parents – but that is part of parenting.  Same thing goes for hunger, but if the child has defeatist attitude then we need to slowly help them to see how they are getting better at a skill by giving them opportunities to practice the skill they are lacking in.  I must say too that our personally comparing our child with another, whether it is a friend or a sibling will not help them to appreciate their own value.  Our goal is to help them to see the things they are good at and to help them persevere in skills so they can celebrate the improvements.

Finally when we talk about a parent “solving the problem”, this can be a slippery slope.  If we are always there solving the challenges or problems that our children face we will end up with a child unable to get creative about solving their own problems.  They will always want to run back to a parent to get things fixed.  What does this have to do with anger?  Our self esteem cannot be raised by others stepping in and fixing things for us.  Even if the child does not solve it perfectly if they are able to work through challenges with our encouragement, they will come out of the situation with a better feeling about themselves.  For instance, lets say two siblings are have a mild disagreement and it starts to get louder.  As a parent we would like to get our peace and quiet back, but if we step in and put an end to it we have not really helped them develop skills for solving problems.  We may want to remind them of skills we have talked about previously and then let them work it out.  This is a building process that over time will help our children. 

To sum this up being aware of the buildup will equip us as parents in helping our child not explode.  It can be used on ourselves too.  I often ask myself when I feel the anger building, “What am I feeling?, What is bringing this on?, Is there other factors that is making this bigger than it really is becoming?”  When I do this many times I can calm myself down or fix the issue before it gets me in trouble.