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Coping with Angry, Resentful Step-Children

Anger is a normal, healthy emotion. As your step-child's parent, however, you are an influential adult in his or her life. As such, you have an immense opportunity and responsibility to help your angry step-child learn to cope with anger and express those feelings in ways that are positive and healthy.

Before we look at specific ways to manage aggressive and angry outbursts in step-children, several points should be considered:

• Anger and aggression do not have to be dirty words. In looking at aggressive behavior in step-children, we must be careful to distinguish between behavior that indicates emotional problems and behavior that is normal.

• In dealing with angry step-children, the step-parent’s actions should be motivated by the need to protect and to reach, not by a desire to punish. Step-parents should show the child that they accept his or her feelings, while suggesting other ways to express the feelings. Also, ways must be found to communicate what we expect of them. Contrary to popular opinion, discipline is not the most effective way to communicate to step-children what we expect of them.

• We should distinguish between anger and aggression. Anger is a temporary emotional state caused by frustration, whereas aggression is often an attempt to hurt a person or to destroy property.

Here are some things that step-parents can do to help their angry step-children:

1. Anger is good for identifying problems – but not good for solving them. One of the problems people face is the guilt they feel after they’ve gotten angry. This further complicates the situation. We are emotional beings and emotions are helpful for giving us cues about our environment. Anger, in particular, points out problems. It reveals things that are wrong. Some of those things are inside of us and require adjustments to expectations or demands. Other problems are outside of us and need to be addressed in a constructive way. Helping step-children understand that anger is good for identifying problems – but not good for solving the – is the first step toward a healthy anger management plan.

2. Appeal directly to the step-child. Tell him or her how you feel and ask for consideration. For example, you may gain a step-child’s cooperation by saying, “I know that noise you’re making doesn’t usually bother me, but today I’ve got a headache, so could you please find something else you’d enjoy doing?”

3. Be proactive in teaching step-children about frustration-management, anger-control, rage-reduction and releasing bitterness. Model, discuss, read and teach your step-children about anger. There are several good books on this subject available, which are written for step-children at various age levels. Talk about examples of frustration and anger seen in step-children’s videos. Talk about appropriate responses. Work together as a family to identify anger and choose constructive solutions.

When anger problems seem out of control or you just don’t know what to do, get help. Sometimes a third party can provide the helpful suggestions and guidelines to motivate your family to deal with anger in a more helpful way. Step-children can begin to develop bitterness and resentment in their lives – and need help to deal with it. Unresolved anger can create problems in relationships later on. Step-children do not grow out of bitterness, they grow into it. Professional help may be needed.

4. Be ready to show affection. Sometimes all that is needed for any angry step-child to regain control is a sudden hug or other impulsive show of affection. Step-children with serious emotional problems, however, may have trouble accepting affection.

5. Build a positive self-image. Encourage step-children to see themselves as valued and valuable individuals.

6. Catch the step-child being good. Tell your step-child what behaviors please you. Respond to positive efforts and reinforce good behavior. An observing and sensitive step-parent will find countless opportunities during the day to make such comments as:
  • “I appreciate your hanging up your clothes even though you were in a hurry to get out to play”
  • “I like the way you come in for dinner without being reminded”
  • “I like the way you’re able to think of others”
  • “I’m glad you shared your snack with your sister”
  • “Thank you for telling the truth about what really happened”
  • “You were really patient while I was on the phone”

7. Choose a better response. After the step-child has settled down from an anger episode, it’s time to decide on a more appropriate response to the situation. Step-parents who address anger in their step-children often respond negatively, pointing out the wrong without suggesting alternatives. There are three positive choices:
  • get help
  • slow down and persevere
  • talk about it

Simplifying the choices makes the decision process easier. Even young step-children can learn to respond constructively to frustration when they know there are three choices. These choices are actually skills to be learned. Step-children often misuse them or overly rely on just one. Take time to teach your step-children these skills and practice them as responses to angry feelings.

8. Deliberately ignore inappropriate behavior that can be tolerated. This doesn’t mean that you should ignore the step-child, just the behavior. The “ignoring” has to be planned and consistent. Even though this behavior may be tolerated, the step-child must recognize that it is inappropriate.

9. Ease tension through humor. Kidding the step-child out of a temper tantrum or outburst offers the step-child an opportunity to “save face.” However, it is important to distinguish between face-saving humor and sarcasm, teasing, or ridicule.

10. Encourage step-children to see their strengths as well as their weaknesses. Help them to see that they can reach their goals.

11. Explain situations. Help the step-child understand the cause of a stressed situation. We often fail to realize how easily young step-children can begin to react properly once they understand the cause of their frustration.

12. Identify the early warning signs of anger (e.g., clenched teeth; increased intensity of speech or behavior; noises with the mouth like growls or deep breathing; pouting; restlessness, withdrawal, unresponsiveness, or being easily provoked; squinting, rolling the eyes, or other facial expressions; tensed body; unkind words or the tone of voice changes to whining or yelling, etc.). Step-children often don’t recognize anger. In fact, many times they act out before they realize what happened. Identifying early warning signs helps step-children become more aware of their feelings, which in turn gives them more opportunity to control their responses to these feelings. Learn to recognize the cues that your step-child is beginning to get frustrated. Look for signs that come before the eruption.

Once you know the cues, begin to point them out to your step-child. Make observations and teach your step-child to recognize those signs. Eventually step-children will be able to see their own frustration and anger and choose appropriate responses before it’s too late. They’ll be able to move from the emotion to the right actions, but first they must be able to recognize the cues that anger is intensifying.

13. Manipulate the surroundings. Aggressive behavior can be encouraged by placing step-children in tough, tempting situations. We should try to plan the surroundings so that certain things are less apt to happen. Stop a “problem” activity and substitute, temporarily, a more desirable one. Sometimes rules and regulations, as well as physical space, may be too confining.

14. Model appropriate behavior. Step-parents should be aware of the powerful influence of their actions on a step-child’s behavior.

15. Never try to reason with a step-child who is enraged. Sometimes step-children become enraged. The primary way to tell when step-children are enraged is that they can no longer think rationally – and their anger is now controlling them. Unfortunately, many step-parents try to talk their step-children out of anger, often leading to more intensity. The step-child who is enraged has lost control. Anger is one of those emotions that can grab you before you know what’s happening. The intensity can build from frustration to anger to rage before anyone realizes it. Whether it’s the 3-year-old temper tantrum or the 15-year-old ranting and raving – don’t get sucked into dialog. It only escalates the problem. Talking about it is important, but be sure to wait until after the step-child has settled down.

16. Provide physical outlets and other alternatives. It is important for step-children to have opportunities for physical exercise and movement, both at home and at school.

17. Say “NO!” Limits should be clearly explained and enforced. Step-children should be free to function within those limits.

18. Teach step-children to express themselves verbally. Talking helps a step-child have control and thus reduces acting out behavior. Encourage the step-child to say, for example, “I don’t like your taking my pencil. I don’t feel like sharing just now.”

19. Teach your step-child to take a break from the difficult situation and to get alone for a few minutes. One of the healthiest responses to anger at any of its stages is to step back. During that time the step-child can rethink the situation, calm down and determine what to do next. Frustrations can easily build, rage can be destructive, and bitterness is always damaging to the one who is angry. Stepping back can help the step-child stop the progression and determine to respond differently. The size of the break is determined by the intensity of the emotion. A step-child who is simply frustrated may just take a deep breath. The step-child who is enraged probably needs to leave the room and settle down.

20. Tell the step-child that you accept his or her angry feelings, but offer other suggestions for expressing them. Teach step-children to put their angry feelings into words, rather than fists.

21. Use closeness and touching. Move physically closer to the step-child to curb his or her angry impulse. Young step-children are often calmed by having a grown-up come close by and express interest in their activities. Step-children naturally try to involve adults in what they are doing, and the adult is often annoyed at being bothered. Very young step-children (and kids who are emotionally deprived) seem to need much more adult involvement in their interests. A step-child about to use a toy or tool in a destructive way is sometimes easily stopped by a grown-up who expresses interest in having it shown to him. An outburst from an older step-child struggling with a difficult reading selection can be prevented by a caring adult who moves near the step-child to say, “Show me which words are giving you trouble.”

22. Use physical restraint. Occasionally a step-child may lose control so completely that he has to be physically restrained or removed from the scene to prevent him from hurting himself or others. This may also “save face” for the step-child. Physical restraint or removal from the scene should not be viewed by the step-child as discipline, but as a means of saying, “You can’t do that.” In such situations, a grown-up cannot afford to lose his or her temper and unfriendly remarks by other step-children should not be tolerated.

23. Use promises and rewards. Promises of future pleasure can be used both to start and to stop behavior. This approach should not be compared with bribery. We must know what the step-child likes, what brings him pleasure, and we must deliver on our promises.

24. Use discipline cautiously. There is a fine line between discipline that is hostile toward a step-child and discipline that is educational. DO NOT use physical discipline.  Use time-out instead.

25. When emotions get out of control, take a break from the dialog. Sometimes step-parents and step-children are having a discussion about something and tempers flare. Mean words often push buttons which motivate more mean words and anger escalates. Stop the process, take a break and resume the dialog after people have settled down.

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