Sunday, September 13, 2009

Fear and Anger

Imagine that your teen age daughter is not home at the expected time. As the hours go on, terrible pictures form in your mind. You worry that she has had an accident or has been hurt and she cannot call you. You think about how much you love her and how awful life would be without her. You wonder if or when you should call the police. You are so afraid.

Then she comes in. Nothing happened- she was with her friends and was having so much fun she forgot to call. Now you are furious. A few minutes ago you were terrified that she was dead, now you are personally going to kill her.

There is a close link between fear and anger. When we are afraid, we are vulnerable. We feel the strength of our need of another person. We experience their ability to hurt us. We feel weak and powerless. Anger gives us power. Anger pushes away that vulnerability. Anger puts us in control: I thought you were hurt and I would die from the pain of it, I was so powerless. But now I am angry, I am going to kill you myself, I am completely in control.

We often talk about the link between anger and fear in our kids. I am more and more convinced that behind every act of aggression and violence there is fear, panic, vulnerability, hopelessness, powerlessness. Connecting with those feelings give us much more power for change.

But what about us? There are many ways in which the kids make us afraid. They may make us physically afraid, by aggressive attacks, lashing out in a restraint, biting, kicking, etc. They threaten us. Also, we feel afraid about what will happen to them on our watch- will Johnny run away and get hurt? Will Crystal cut herself badly this time and need to be hospitalized? Will I be blamed? We are afraid of censure, oversight, the opinions of our co-workers and bosses. We feel lost and vulnerable when we don’t know what to do, when our best techniques are not working, when Anthony just will not change. We doubt ourselves.

I wonder how often this fear gets converted to anger, and acted out? Maybe- hopefully- we do not actually scream at the kids or threaten to kill them ourselves. But there are many ways to act out anger- harsh punishments, refusing to help, excess bossiness, and maybe most common, distant withdrawal. All of these make us feel more in control, powerful again. We turn away from our feeling or fear and helplessness and feel strong.

At the cost of good treatment and connected, safe relationships with the kids which would promote their healing.

What if as a staff or in supervision we talked about our fears and were open about them? What if we shared our feelings of pain and hopelessness about the kids that don’t change? What if after working them through them with adults we even talked with the kids about these feelings, in a modulated way? Could we then model that an adult can be vulnerable, afraid and strong at the same time? Could we teach the kids how to have a strong relationship that includes and contains scary feelings?

When you see anger in the kids, look for fear and vulnerability. When you feel anger in yourself, look for the same things.

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