How do I stop getting angry with my anxious child?

Our very first question for this year is: “How do I stop getting angry with my anxious child?” This is a really good question. I wouldn’t be surprised if the person asking this question is feeling guilty about getting angry with their anxious child so the first thing I want to do is assure you that getting angry with your kids is normal.

Anger is just a feeling and feelings are neutral. It’s okay if you get angry with your kids; it’s how we express the anger that matters. So when you say, how do I stop getting angry with my anxious child? My answer would first be it’s okay that you’re getting angry. Now, if you’re yelling or if your anger is making things more difficult, if you’re snapping at them or if anger is motivating how you care for them when they’re anxious that can certainly be an issue.

And again, I want you to stop feeling guilty about this and just recognize that. Anger is normal. So let’s talk a little bit about why anger is normal being around anxious people makes us anxious. If our kids are anxious, we’re going to catch their anxiety and anxiety can feel like irritability and tension, right? Because anxiety sends us to fight or flight or freeze and fight looks angry, right?

Fllight can also look like anger. It can look like impatience. It can look like wanting to get away from the child, wanting to push the child away. And freeze can look like shutting down, ignoring them, turning away from them. 

These are all things that we may interpret as anger and actually it’s that fight, flight or freeze we’re catching from our anxious child.

Now the fact that we’re catching it again is totally neutral. We’re catching it. Anxiety is meant to be caught. We are meant to catch each other’s fears so that we can do things to protect ourselves. Let’s just forgive ourselves about that. Instead let’s talk about what we can do to take care of our anger, our irritability, our want to ignore them.

So the first step is understanding that anger is normal. And the next thing is to look at what might be underneath the anger. So we talked a little bit about fight, flight or freeze, but here I want to share an activity that is in the Child Anxiety Support membership site. There’s a part of the site that’s called CBT Family. I describe this as a recipe box of ideas, activities and things you can do to teach your child cognitive behavioral tools as they continue to learn how to cope with their anxiety. CBT Family has a series of categories so that you can think about which tools your child might need as they deal with their anxiety. Those categories include things like understanding anxiety, self-esteem and self-concept, calm down tools and feelings literacy. And this activity that I’m going to share with you is under feelings literacy, and it’s called angry sandwiches.

I used to use a card game called Schmear, which is with bagels because you can buy that really easily on Amazon or any store that sells games. And this Schmear has pictures of bagels. And then the kinds of things you might put on a bagel like Nova lox and cucumber and cream cheese, these basic things you might put on a bagel. And what I did was take the bagels and write ANGER. That’s the basic emotion, the essential ingredient to our Angry Sandwiches. And then on each of the different kinds of toppings, I put different emotions that anger covers up. Anger is a secondary emotion. It covers up the primary emotion in other words, anger is always fueled by other feelings. 

Not all kids are familiar with bagels or the kinds of things we put on bagels so I also made sandwiches by just cutting out pieces of paper in the shape of bread, writing ANGER on it, laminating it, and then things like lettuce and cheese and tomatoes, onions, different things to make angry sandwiches.

First, I’m going to tell you what the other emotions are that we might put on our angry bread or angry bagel. And that would be, are you ready? Sadness. Guilt. Frustration. Disappointment. Embarrassment. Jealousy. Hurt. Shame and fear. So when a child is feeling angry, I would say to them, What’s on your angry sandwich? Let’s build your angry sandwich and they would identify these other emotions and put them on the sandwich. And then we would pretend to eat the sandwich. Or I have the little angry guy from Inside Out, the little red guy, and he would eat the sandwich. And it was a really good activity for kids to explore what other feelings were inside their anger.

We would do this for their own experience and then we also might talk about other people. I might say, “When your parent got angry with you what do you think was on their angry sandwich?” Then we would bring the parent into session and have them talk together about what was in my angry sandwich to also help kids understand that parental anger is complicated too. Their own anger is complicated. Parental anger is complicated.

We, as parents, can benefit from doing this activity as well. What’s on your angry sandwich when your child is anxious. Let’s go back through those again. It’s sadness, guilt, frustration, disappointment, embarrassment, jealousy, hurt, shame or fear.

When you get angry with your anxious child, what’s happening? Part of it is you’re catching their anxiety. So that would be fear. Fear would be on your sandwich. Maybe you’re catching their anxiety and you yourself are just feeling some fear. But what often happens is we’re feeling afraid of what their anxiety is going to do.

We’re afraid that they are going to continue to struggle with anxiety. That their anxiety is going to be out of control, that their behavior is going to be out of control that people are going to judge them. That they are never going to learn how to cope with it, all these things we might be afraid of, but other things might be on our angry sandwich too. So let’s run through the list. It could be sadness because it’s hard to watch our children suffer. And that makes us sad. It could be guilt. We may feel like a bad parent for having an anxious child or feel guilty.

We don’t know how to handle it or feel guilty that we are getting angry. We might be frustrated. And in fact, every angry sandwich I have ever made. For myself with a child. With a parent in session. Frustration is always there. There can be disappointment. We may feel disappointed that our children are not handling this better. We’re disappointed in ourselves for not handling it better.

We can certainly be embarrassed. If there are other people around, we may feel embarrassed by our child’s behavior or our own behavior. Jealousy can come up to if we have friends or family who seem to have an easier time parenting. We may feel jealous about that. And so some of our anger might have jealousy or resentment.

We may be hurt by the things that our anxious child says to us like you’re the worst parent ever. You just want me to do badly, or we feel hurt because. We are struggling with their pain and that’s causing us pain. And we may have shame at our inability to cope with their anxiety or shame that we have a child that has such a difficult time.

In short, there are many reasons why you might feel angry with your anxious child. 

So back to the question. Can you stop being angry with your anxious child? I would say worry less about stopping it. And learn more about caring for it, which is what we’re working on with our child as well. 

We are not going to be able to stop our anxious child from being anxious. We want them to learn how to cope with their anxiety. 

That’s the same thing for us. We may or may not be able to stop feeling angry with our anxious child. Sometimes going through the angry sandwich activity will help us deal with that anger and magically, it goes away when we recognize it as these other feelings, but if you continue to get angry with your anxious child, just notice that’s happening.

It does not have to drive your behavior. 

I often got angry when my kids were anxious because I was catching their anxiety. I recognized that and learned that before I deal with them, I need to deal with myself. Whether that means taking a deep breath and shaking off these feelings I’m having, whether it means removing myself from the situation until I can get some perspective. 

Usually what happens for me when I get angry is that I try to remind myself not to do anything, not to do anything yet, not to knee jerk my way into a reaction and instead recognize I am really feeling this. I’m really feeling this anger. I need to stretch out my shoulders. I need to get some physical distance. And then I’m able to respond and sometimes my response is: “I can’t help yet. I can’t help right now. I need you to give me a minute.”

That’s perfectly fine because anger is not driving my behavior. I hope that’s helpful. I hope that maybe you’ll think about trying the angry sandwich activity.

And let me know how it goes for you. Let me know what your thoughts are. What is underneath your anger, what is on your angry sandwich? And this is an activity you might do with your child sometime when they’re calm to revisit a situation. You could share with them. This is what’s on my angry sandwich. This is why I was having a hard time helping you when you wanted my help.

What was on your angry sandwich when you realized I wasn’t going to be able to help. If you have other questions that you’d like me to address on the show, you know what you need to do. Go here to ask your question.

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