Divorce is a death of a marriage and former life. Anger is a stage in the grief cycle of Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. It is natural for your children to go through these normal stages of grief, and dealing with their anger is an expected by-product of divorce. Even if kids are relieved that their parents are divorcing, there is still the fallout of stress and an upheaval in their lives.
How you deal with your own fury will reflect how the children deal with their anger issues. Are you erupting like a volcano or are you an oasis of calm? You are a role model for the kids, so think how you may be contributing to their angry outbursts. Exhibit the behavior that you wish your kids to emulate.
When I react, it does not work as well as when I pause and then respond. My responses are calmer, targeting the problem, rather than angry demands of my child. Reactions, as opposed to responses, are more apt to inflame an already volatile child, rather than giving guidance. Take a deep breath or count to three to maintain your composure when the kids are pushing your buttons. Here are a few helpful ways to deal with your child’s anger:
1. Use “I” statements when addressing angry kids. Say “I feel disrespected when…” or “I will be fine doing that for you, when you ask in a calm voice.” You are taking responsibility for your own emotions and not giving kids power by inferring that they have control over you, as in, “You make me feel…” When you have house rules that apply to all, enforcing them is not personal. A good standard rule is, “In this house we treat others with respect and use quiet voices.”
2. Reassure your children that they are loved by both parents. Sometimes acting out with anger is a way to get attention when parents are focused on the drama of divorce proceedings. Give extra hugs and attention to kids as a way to prevent attention-seeking outbursts. Schedule family meetings to discuss issues when they are small to prevent them from escalating.
3. Find age appropriate ways to deal with a child’s anger. Pre-schoolers do not understand permanence and so may get angry when asking, “When is Daddy coming home?” (Never). A great tool for younger children is to allow them to express their feelings through drawing or painting. Encourage them to play and tell their stuffed animal friends about how they are feeling.
Younger children may present their anger through tantrums, and removing them from the situation can help. If a toddler starts getting anxious, distraction may prevent a meltdown in the store checkout line.
When older kids yell and show anger, keep your cool. Let them know that you understand that they are angry but they have to express it in a quieter way. There are books on divorce for all age groups, so give them one or two. If they do not want to talk to you, enlist a godparent or family friend to spend some time with an angry teen. Tell them that you love them, just not their behavior. Children may need a break from both parents to get a sense of perspective on their situation. Perhaps spending a weekend at a pal’s house would give them a breather.
4. Make sure you inform important adults in their lives about your divorce, such as teachers and coaches. There are divorce support groups just for kids and teens, where they can vent to others who will understand them. Grandparents, aunts and uncles can give kids a place to hang out and hear their confidences.
5. Beware if anger turns to violence. If kids are getting violent, you may need to call the police as one acquaintance did on her teenage son. If there is aggression or extreme personality changes, contact their doctor. A little acting out is expected, behavior bordering on abuse is not. It may be that you are the one that requires a time out. Nurture and take care of yourself, so you can deal with children’s anger in a constructive way.