How to explain anger to kids and teens

We’re wired to feel. Not just the good feelings but the messy, sweaty, crazy, fierce ones too. Feelings drive our aliveness, our relationships, our decisions and our humanity. They’re how we connect, love, decide who’s right, who’s not, what’s good for us and what we should steer clear of. Most importantly, big feelings are a clue that something isn’t right and needs to be dealt with. They direct us to what we need to find balance.

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Sadness is a cue to reach out to those closest to us for emotional support. Happiness tells us to keep doing what we’re doing because it’s doing us good, and fear is a warning that readies us for fight, flight or freeze. And then there’s anger. If it’s not managed well, anger will break hearts, relationships and people. If managed well, anger can be protective and motivating. Plenty of good things have happened throughout history because people got angry enough to make a difference.

The more kids are able to recognise what they’re feeling, the more they can experiment with an effective response and the less control those feelings will have over them. It’s never feelings that cause trouble, it’s what we do with them.

Explaining anger to kids and teens

Every feeling we feel has a really good reason for being there – even anger. It might not always spring to life at the best moment, but its reason for being there will always be a good one. Feelings cause trouble when they sneak up from behind and grab on, bear hug style. When that happens, it can seem like that feeling has complete control, which it kind of does for a while. The key to being emotionally savvy and not being barrelled along by intense, powerful feelings is to turn and face them, feel them, and bring them back under control.

Anger has a number of good reasons for showing up

It lets people know what you’re feeling

Emotions change the way we hold our body, the expression on our face and our response to situations or to people. It also affects the type of thoughts we think and the memories that come to us. You can usually tell when someone is angry just by looking at them – and people can tell the same thing when the angry one is you. The way your face looks when you’re angry, and the way your body expands to looks taller and stronger can be a warning to others not to come too close.

It’s energising

Anger feels bad, but what would be even worse is being in a bad situation and not realising it, or realising it and not having the energy or motivation to change it. Anger helps us to know when something isn’t right. When something happens to make us angry, the brain releases chemicals to fuel our bodies and gives us the energy to do something about the problem.

It stops intense, difficult feelings taking over

Anger is the only emotion that never exists on its own. There is always another, more powerful emotion underlying it. When an emotion feels too intense, or when the environment feels unlikely to support that emotion, anger is a way to stop that difficult feeling taking over. Some common underlying emotions are fear, grief, insecurity, jealousy and shame.

When these feelings seem too intense, anger can be a way to hold them down until the intensity lessens, or until the environment feels safer. Anger can be pretty handy like that, provided it doesn’t become a habitual response. All emotions are valid, and it’s important not to shut any down for too long. Being able to recognise, acknowledge and feel the full spectrum of emotions is an important part of healthy living.

Explain why anger feels the way it does

Anger is an emotional and physical response. When something happens to make you angry, your brain thinks it has to protect you from danger so it releases chemicals – oxygen, hormones and adrenaline – to fuel your body. Here’s what that feels like.

Your breathing changes

It changes from slow deep breaths to fast little ones. This is because your brain has told your body to stop using up so much oxygen on strong breaths and to send it to your muscles so they can protect you by running or fighting (even though we all know that fighting is a bad idea!).

Your heart speeds up

It does this to get the oxygen around your body so it can be strong, fast and powerful.

Your muscles feel tight

This is because your brain has sent fuel (hormones, oxygen and adrenaline) to your arms (in case they need to fight the danger – but you probably won’t want to do that) and to your legs in case they need to run from it (okay, you might want to do that).

You might feel shaky or sick in your tummy

This is because your digestive system – the part of the body that gets the nutrients from the food you eat – shuts down so that the fuel it was using to digest your food can be used by your arms and legs.

You might feel like crying

Crying helps to relieve stress – it’s the body’s way of calming itself down.

You might feel like yelling

To fight the ‘danger’, or running away (to escape it).

You might feel like hurting someone

This is really normal, but remember that if you hurt someone with your words or your body, it will always land you in trouble. An angry brain is great at fuelling you up to be strong, fast and powerful, but not so great at thinking things through. Don’t believe it when it tells you to fight or hurt people or things.

To find out what happens in your brain when you’re angry, read on here.

hey-warriorHey Warrior by Karen Young

Kids can do amazing things with the right information! Understanding why anxiety feels the way it does and where the physical symptoms come from is a powerful step in turning anxiety around. Anxiety explained, kids empowered. Purchase Karen’s book here.


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About Author

Karen Young

As a psychologist Karen has worked in private practice and educational and organisational settings. She has an Honours degree in Psychology and a Masters in Gestalt Therapy. Karen is the founder of Hey Sigmund (heysigmund.com), the website dedicated to bringing the science of psychology to the art of being human. She has two children and two stepchildren and lives in Australia. She can be found on Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter and Instagram.

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