Why Are Young Children So Angry?

Adolescent anger is showing up in grade school kids

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Ever since Cain killed Abel, kids have been acting out. Still, the ongoing rash of school shootings by preteens and teens has taken our collective breath away. And as psychologist Ron Taffel reports in Family Therapy Networker (Sept.-Oct. 1999), this anger epidemic seems to be reaching ever younger children.

Taffel interviewed a diverse group of 150 “angel-faced innocents” one year before Columbine and found disturbing levels of anger among very young children—5, 6, and 7 years old. It’s not lethal rage, he writes, yet their “casual explosiveness” startled him. Taffel’s “angels” beat up siblings, tear apart bedrooms, scream in rage, attack opponents on Little League fields, and tell parents to fuck off. What’s going on? asks Taffel, the director of family and couples treatment at the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy in New York and author of Parenting by Heart (Perseus, 1993). Why are young children so angry?

Taffel acknowledges the influence of violent movies, videos, and CDs, but says they play only a secondary role. Children turn to our junk culture, what he calls “the second family,” to fill the void created by parents too busy to spend time with them. Today’s children are angry because they feel invisible and ignored by parents who do not hear or see them. They are desperate to be seen and known, rather than scheduled or psychologized. They are craving “one-on-one time,” he says. “We are in a life-and-death struggle over who will connect to the core selves of our children—mothers and fathers or the enveloping world of the second family.”

Confused by their children’s anger, parents have lost their moral direction, he adds. Anxious to do the right thing and fearful of being oppressive, parents have become paralyzed. They “are often loath to offer clear, uncensored advice.” Too many parents have glommed on to various trendy approaches to child rearing—from Thomas Gordon’s Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.) model, which emphasizes allowing children to express themselves freely, to the more rigid tough love model—rather than taking the time to understand who their children really are. Prepackaged techniques won’t work, he says, because each child is “an idiosyncratic individual.”

“There’s been so much emphasis on quality time. But you have to hang around to notice when there are quality moments,” adds Jan Drucker, director of the Child Development Institute at Sarah Lawrence College. Not only have we failed to acknowledge how much kids and adults need to connect; we’re also not providing opportunities for that to happen, she said in a phone interview from her New York office, where she runs a private practice in clinical psychology. Our busy lives don’t leave time for hanging out. And the resulting stress “increases frustration and anger and diminishes time to connect in positive ways, which might reduce frustration and anger.”

In her 30 years with the Child Development Institute, Drucker, too, has observed mounting anger in increasingly young children. Some anger is normal, she says; we expect outbursts at certain developmental stages, such as the “terrible twos” and the preteen and teen years. But now anger is standing out in periods that weren’t particularly known for it.

Of course, there’s anger, and then there’s anger. Drucker notes that we must learn to differentiate between normal “back talk” and more disturbing behavior. Some kids talk the way they do because they hear everybody talking that way, which she believes reflects an overall decline in the level of civility in our culture. So to determine whether anger is a facade, mere sloppy behavior, or a sign of a deeper disturbance, parents should take the time to “figure out who your kid is.”

As Drucker writes in Scholastic Parent & Child (Oct.-Nov. 1999), that means identifying how children express frustration, understanding the activities that tend to elicit it, and finding alternatives to its unacceptable expressions. Also, parents can help children develop a strategy for approaching new tasks one step at a time, she explains, and then praise them for even the smallest accomplishments.

But the core problem is societal, she says. “The American ethos is to be a team player, and a sterling individual. . . . Those are two very different and conflicting values.” Those conflicting values, which are transmitted to children by parents, schools, and the media, combine to create a lot of pressure—and pressure ratchets up the frustration level. Parents send similarly confusing messages, and Drucker suggests they examine their own behavior. Yes, children are less respectful. :But have we adults also changed our base level?”

Changing our responses to children can make a difference, says Taffel. He describes his success with 14-year-old Jay, who was sent to treatment after inviting “300 of his closest friends” to a parent-free party, and then several weeks later vandalizing an office building. Abandoning his customary therapeutic neutrality, Taffel confronted the youth about his passion for anything other than “second-family pursuits”—CDs, video games, and friends. “A passion for something other than the pop culture itself builds connections that are usually antidotes to aggression,” he explains.

Jay’s case, it turned out, was fueled mostly by boredom. When Taffel advised Jay’s parents to insist that the boy develop a passion for some extracurricular activity, the youth grudgingly picked a science project. “A year and a half later, Jay is no longer a dead-eyed kid in thrall to the mass culture,” Taffel writes. “He seems to have, literally, come home after a long voyage in an alien land.”

Getting our children to come home isn’t impossible. But they’ll show up only if there’s someone there to open the door.