The taboo of anger in children.

About a year ago, I started working more systematically with children as an educator and at the same time, I started following the NSG training programme. I had been puzzled in advance about the “ideal way” of treating children in favour of their optimal development, but, especially after starting the training, I began wondering how it might be possible to introduce Gestalt theory and practice into such a professional setting.

Being surrounded by the same children everyday, I have the opportunity to observe their development closely, at least as far as their way of making contact with their environment is concerned. You can see parental do’s and don’ts being interpreted, how children project “negative” behaviour to other children, how contact patterns are little-by-little shaped, on daily basis, through their interaction with their parents, friends, schoolmates and teachers. Observing that development, I cannot help but wonder what the correct place of the adult is in this process. How should the parent and the teacher act in order to promote healthy and adaptive development in terms of Gestalt growth?

What I find most striking and disturbing in my work with children is how anger, aggression and aggressive behaviour is being handled, both by the parents and within educational environments. Naturally, the younger a child is, the less introjections it has internalised regarding what is right and wrong. As a result, the child acts on impulse. Pushing, grabbing, biting and hitting are just natural forms of behaviour in order to protect your area, claim ownership, express your feelings, and in general establish your physical and emotional boundaries. If that were the unconscious perspective of the child concerning aggressive behaviour, what is the conscious perspective of the parent and the teacher? And most importantly, how does their perspective interfere with the process of healthy development?

It is commonly acknowledged, by psychologists and therapists, that anger is the least acceptable emotion in our culture. Society shows minimal tolerance of the expression of anger, as it is regarded as something negative and unwanted. This notion is formed from the beginning of our lives. Expressing your anger physically or verbally as a child can lead to punishment, social exclusion and a general sense of rejection from the environment. These responses on the part of the environment to the aggressive behaviour lead to the creation of the taboo of anger. Anger is an almost forbidden emotion, and aggressive behaviour is labelled as bad or even catastrophic. Subsequently, children hold their angry feelings in, suppress them until they explode, turn them inwards on themselves until they implode, become withdrawn, depressed, self-destructive or physically aggressive.

            The most common cause that sends children to therapy, as reported by gestalt therapists, stems from anger management issues. Constant suppression and discarding of anger will eventually lead to dysfunctional behaviour. When these issues express themselves with symptoms like violent behaviour, parents send their children to therapy in order to “fix” them and make them behave nicely; similarly, when children behave with symptoms such as withdrawal and depression, the parents also send the child to therapy, to see “what is wrong” with them.

It is really quite surprising, how, most of the time, it doesn’t occur to the parents that what is “wrong” with their child is actually a reflection of something that is wrong in their contact with the child. Many times, parents ask me in a state of painful agony whether their child has behaved “nicely” or has been involved in “bad”/inappropriate incidents. And when the children have been involved in a fight or in a situation where the child explicitly expressed his or her anger, the parent looks disappointed and troubled, and are often ashamed of this “bad” behaviour.

             The expression of anger in healthy ways is necessary. During therapy, the child and the adult can discover several ways to express their anger in an acceptable, safe way. In Gestalt play therapy, anger can be dealt with by deploying various techniques, like punching or screaming into pillows, drawing, making forms out of clay and destroying them, talking to or through puppets and various other techniques. But for me, it is important that we, as adults, have to understand that inhibiting the expression of anger jeopardizes the healthy development of our children. Treating anger as unnatural creates problems either currently to the child or in the future for the adult.  As parents or educators, we have to first understand, accept and then teach our children that anger is a natural emotion; it is neither good nor bad and it would be better expressed somehow, in an appropriate way, before it has to be brought to the therapist’s door.

03/11/2013, Leiden

Article for the NSG electronic journal "e-wareness"

Electra MatsangouComment