Monday, February 20, 2012

Working with Rage in Children

Mindfulness provides a non-judgmental context for children to understand their rage and other overwhelming emotions. While most educational modes of addressing Oppositional Defiant Disorder revolve around children admitting they are “bad” and repeating “I will be good” statements without a psychological road map they can understand, mindfulness helps children grasp that being a good person doesn’t mean letting go of the need for self-preservation and self-defense. With mindfulness, children directly experience that being good can be its own defense.

One of the first things I say to children with Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD) is “I’m not here to take away your anger. It’s okay to be angry. Sometimes I need to be angry too.” This statement often results in stunned looks among the children and a visible relaxation of their bodies. To an outsider, this might seem counter-productive. How do you change a child’s behavior by accepting it? I would argue that acceptance is the key to changing a child’s behavior. The next time you are angry and someone says to you “let go of your anger” or “be happy!” notice your reaction. Someone judging your anger will probably make you even angrier. The same is true for children.

Anger is a defense against pain. It’s there for a reason. To change a child’s anger, you have to help the child understand why the anger is there – by helping them identify their pain – and then exploring various ways to resolve that pain without a lecture. An adult who judges a child’s anger as “bad” creates more pain in the child and therefore increases the need for defense, resulting in an angrier child at worst and at best, a confused child. A child who needs to defend themselves everyday may not even understand what being good feels like and may not feel it is safe to be good (something that may be perceived as weak). Children of any economic strata may need to defend themselves against neglect as well as physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse. Telling children they should “be good” simply because that is what is expected of them doesn’t resolve their need to defend themselves from pain. It’s especially important to remember that if a child faces detrimental adults outside of school, it’s likely that those children will be unable to trust any adult, even if that adult is the most benevolent teacher in the world. Children who have good parents may struggle with mental illness, which I will address here as well.

You can begin to earn a child’s trust by communicating that you understand their need to defend themselves. Understanding lessens pain. The less pain a child feels, the less they need their defense. The next step is also simple. Angry children are often communicating with their behavior that they need greater control. This need for control may be the result of a horrible real world situation or an overwhelming mental condition. Either way, their world is spinning out of control. One of the greatest gifts you can give a child is the opportunity to teach you (thus wield some control). After communicating my understanding and lack of judgment, I will ask children with ODD to teach me what they notice about their anger. I use my secret code game (written about in its most basic form in an earlier blog) to engage children in this dialogue. One boy recently said to me, “I would rather be code red (rage) than code yellow (which he defined as afraid).” When a child has this kind of insight into themselves, I don’t lecture them about the benefits of not being angry. They’re not ready for that and I want them to learn this truth through direct experience, not simply because I said it. Instead I praise students for noticing what’s really happening and reinforce that they are not bad people for preferring to be angry. The less a child is judged and the greater the opportunity a child has to teach an adult, the more they will open up and begin the process of cultivating self awareness and wisdom. Children – no matter how violent – are pure of heart. Their intentions are pure. They are simply trying to get what they need. Children with ODD often don’t understand the best way to get what they need.

A third way I establish a connection of trust with a child is to tell them how happy I am to see them. When a child gives me a stunned expression, I know that I may be the first adult in their life to tell them that they make someone happy, that their presence is valuable. I tell a child I am happy to see him for two reasons. Firstly I am creating within the child the foundation of self-confidence and self-worth necessary for the work of self-change. I am also teaching a core value of mindfulness – the notion of non-judgmental attention. When I say to a child who is code red, “I’m happy to see you even when you’re code red,” I am communicating a child’s value to that child. I am separating what the child feels (temporary) from the child’s worth. Too often we criticize children at the very moment when they need our kindness. What is most remarkable about communicating this is that the child will begin to conform to my expectation of him. He will drop out of code red more easily and put more effort into calming himself down in my presence. My unconditional acceptance of who he is makes it safe to change mental states. He doesn’t need to defend himself from me. I become a neutral background to his own process of self-change. Please note: I never tell a child that I am happy to see him if I am not. Children can sense emotions in adults and will know immediately if you are lying. This will backfire.

After I have children share what they notice about anger (code red), I have them pay attention to other mental states and actions. Again I praise their participation. I ask children who are angry to notice the temperature in their bodies, the way their muscles feel and any other sensations. If a child is able to sit still in code red (rather than act out their rage eg: by hitting someone) I praise that even if they can’t yet calm themselves down. I might say, “I see you’re able to sit still and watch the temperature in your body and that is such a beautiful thing to see.” I’ll tell them that if they want to continue watching the temperature in their bodies, that’s okay but if they can, to try to watch their breath and notice if it changes the temperature in their bodies. This triggers their natural curiosity. For children who have developed a life-long habit of rage, shifting mental states will be very difficult. Any adult who is mindful when angry can easily recognize how difficult it is to let go of this emotion. Curiosity is the best antidote to a child's resistance to self-change.

Those children who can watch their breath will notice that the temperature in their body cools but don’t tell them that. Let the children teach you. Don’t give away the answers or it will be another meaningless lecture rather than a direct experience of truth. For those children who watch the temperature only, their anger will become more painful. They may start to hit themselves or react against another person. To avoid that, tell the class, “for those of you who do not want to watch your breath, try to notice if code red gets more or less painful.” When children say “It gets more painful” I’ll praise them again. “Great! You noticed that. Now try to see what happens to code red when you watch your breath.” Through this exercise, children have the chance to see that anger is actually painful. Something they thought was defending them from pain is actually exacerbating it. Once children articulate that “ah-ha” moment, you will then have an optimal foundation to introduce experiments with kind behavior. Without giving away the answers, ask the children what they think kindness feels like compared to anger. Before the experiments, children will often say that anger is power and kindness is weakness. To which you can reply, “Wow, I’m so glad you shared that with me! Over the next week, try to be kind either to someone in class or someone at home and notice the different codes kindness makes you feel.” Children can use the basic green-yellow-red code I've written about in an early blog or create their own unique color code. Before they do the experiment, children may say “I feel code yellow” and I’ll remind them gently that they won’t know how kindness makes them feel until they’ve actually tried it and observed how they feel after they are kind to someone else.

Once children learn how to experiment with behavior and notice their codes, they will begin to apply this game to potentially every area of their life. One student asked me, “Is there a way to watch TV mindfully?” I said, “Yes – we can be mindful of anything. Notice what code you are before you turn on the TV and what code you think you will become by watching TV. Then turn on the TV and notice what code you are when you’re actually watching TV. Notice if your code changes when you turn off the TV.” The student anticipated the result of watching TV by saying, “I’m going to be code green (happy, calm)!” but the next week reported that he was surprised to observe that he felt “code yellow” when he watched TV (yellow being an unpleasant emotion of some kind that is not rage or extreme upset). I asked him why he felt code yellow and he answered that he felt bad that no one was helping his mom. He decided to turn off the TV and go help his mother which he was surprised to notice made him feel “code green.” This child who had received countless lectures about the benefits of being good had finally discovered those benefits for himself.

Ellen McCarty is a mindfulness instructor in the San Francisco Bay Area. Learn more at or follow her status updates on Facebook at "Ellen McCarty, Mindful Youth." Copyright 2011 by Ellen McCarty