Graphic of Anger Iceberg

Beneath the Surface of Your Child’s Anger

By Kathleen Sisti, MSW, LMSW

When a young child has an angry outburst or temper tantrum, it can be emotionally draining and taxing for their parents. Parents may find themselves with a shorter temper and blaming themselves for their child’s behavior. While on the outside a child might present with angry behavior, rather than reacting, it can be important for parents to take a step back and dig a little deeper. As a therapist, I like to share the “Anger Iceberg,” a concept first developed by psychologists Julie Gottman and John Gottman of The Gottman Institute.

The Anger Iceberg is a tool to help you and your child better understand their emotional reactions. Like an iceberg, what is in plain view is just anger, but beneath the surface there are often other feelings occurring including sadness, confusion, fatigue, anxiety, frustration, fear, or hurt. I often recommend that parents draw a picture of this iceberg with the word “anger” above the surface and a list of other emotions below, then place it on the refrigerator or their child’s bedroom wall or even on an index card to carry on-the-go. Using a tool like the Anger Iceberg allows you to work with your child as a team of detectives to discover what feelings are going on underneath their angry behavior.

When angry behavior surfaces, you can use the picture of the iceberg to ask what else they are feeling that might not be showing. This can help you both identify those hidden emotions. But now that you’ve identified those emotions, what can you do? There are several skills that may be helpful. First, validate your child’s feelings. A simple statement like “I understand that you feel sad and tired. That must be really hard” let’s them know you hear them and that their feelings are real. Now what? This is the perfect time to work with your child and help them learn how to manage these feelings. Remember, they are newer to this than you and need guidance and support. For instance, if your child identifies their underlying feeling as sadness, validate their feeling and talk about it. Ask what is making them sad? Incorporate mindfulness tools such as asking them where they feel the feeling of sadness in their body. You might encourage them to draw their feelings by having them choose one color for a feeling. You can also teach them to use 3-3-3 breathing where they breathe in for three, hold for three, and blow out for three. This is also a great time to help them to practice problem solving skills. For example, if your child identifies hunger as the underlying cause of their angry behavior, try planning with them to keep snacks on hand to avoid getting “hangry.” If they say it is because they are tired, help them strategize how to get more rest.

You’ve rocked all these steps, so what comes next? Circle back when your child is calm and help them reflect on what happened. “Remember how you told Mommy you were sad, confused, and hungry? How did you feel after you colored and ate a snack?” This is empowering for your child, helping them better understand their emotions and ways they can manage them.

By the way, the Anger Iceberg can also be a great tool for adults, so both you and your children can use it to explore and manage those feelings beneath the surface. And remember to show yourself some grace. Parenting does not come with a handbook, but resources and support are available to you when you feel stuck.

Kathleen Sisti   Kathleen Sisti, MSW, LMSW is a Clinical Therapist at JCS.

Jewish Community Services (JCS) provides programs and services for people of all ages and backgrounds, helping them achieve their goals, enhance their wellbeing, and maximize their independence.  To learn more, visit jcsbalt.org or 410-466-9200.

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