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Tempering Tantrums

Tempering Tantrums

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Kids get upset a lot. Adults do too. In fact, miserable feelings are a gift from G‑d, a signal that something is wrong and needs to be fixed. For instance, G‑d has given us feelings of fear to keep us safe. If we didn’t panic at the edge of a cliff, perhaps we’d just walk off it!

Feelings of sadness prompt us to attend to a loss. These feelings arise out of attachments we have to significant people, places, things, and even ideas. Sadness urges us to replace whatever is now missing. For instance, the pain of missing home prompts us to rebuild our home wherever we are, and the pain won’t dissipate until we do.

And anger—the emotion we’re exploring here—prompts us to act, set boundaries, fight for what we want. Kids get upset a lot. Adults do too.For instance, a feeling of anger might arise when someone is taking advantage of us, crossing a line or betraying our trust. In these cases, our anger motivates us to stand up and set things right. It helps us adjust situations in order to create healthier outcomes. If we were to feel absolutely no irritation when someone repeatedly mistreated us, we might perpetuate a highly dysfunctional relationship indefinitely.

Feeling Angry

Anger is like a timer on an oven. When the timer goes off, it makes a loud piercing sound. We turn off the timer, then turn off the oven, then take out the cake. Like the timer, anger is a signal. As soon as we’ve heard the signal, we need to turn it off, turn the temperature down (calm ourselves) and begin to deal with the issue at hand.

It is essential that we turn anger off promptly. Our sages tell us that letting it run causes all sorts of spiritual harm. With anger, they say, the soul departs, leaving a vacuum that is filled by dark energies. We look, sound, feel and are inhabited by negativity.

Keep in mind that there is always the potential for anger. Think of it as a small pile of kindling wood sitting in the vicinity of our heart. If someone throws a match there (triggers us), that pile can burst into flame. But what happens to that fire depends on what we do next.

We can throw more logs onto the fire by thinking inflammatory thoughts: “How dare he!” (log number one); “How COULD he?!” (log number two); “He ALWAYS DOES THIS!” (log number three), and so on. Each thought releases a fresh batch of adrenaline (fight-or-flight chemistry) into the bloodstream, causing the fire of anger to grow bigger and bigger.

But we also have another option. Once we feel ourselves starting to burn with anger, we can quickly put out the fire. We can take actions that signal to our body that the emergency is over: we can sit down (no one sits when there is a fire), drink or eat (no one drinks or eats when there is a house on fire), breathe slowly and calmly, keep our body still (during a fire we’d be running around flapping our arms), and either stop talking completely or talk very slowly, in a whisper (during a fire people would be screaming). By engaging in all of these non-emergency activities and behaviors, we are signaling our bodies to stop sending emergency hormones into the bloodstream, and we start to calm down.

Choosing Our Response

Our anger is most often triggered by a loved one. (At least, he or she was a loved one before triggering our anger!) Acting as a signal to correct a situation, once we have turned off the anger signal, we can begin to think of an appropriate plan for dealing with the situation. Until the anger has been turned off, we don’t respond to the situation at all, because while the emergency chemistry is running, our cortex—the logical, thinking and planning part of the brain—is offline. We are temporarily out of commission, in no shape to handle any kind of situation properly.

One way to deal with the anger signal effectively is to assess where we are on the 10-point anger scale. If we are between 8 and 10 (experiencing rage or outrage), we need to turn off the signal and then take some time to see what is so triggering about the event. Sure, a child didn’t listen, but why is that a 9 for us? Taking time to work with the anger can help reduce future vulnerability to it. Exploring feelings from the past, current feelings of inadequacy or other issues can help make us more trigger-proof. Use an effective intervention, like EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique), journaling, focusing, or any strategy you’ve learned for working with your emotions.

If you find yourself between 4 and 7 on this scale, you aren’t ready to deal with whoever threw a match in your direction. You are too emotionally aroused. Go do something else, and take the time to calm down completely. This place on the anger scale is vulnerable; you can be too easily triggered into a fresh release of adrenaline.

When you are at 0 to 3 on the anger scale, your brain will be working well enough to make a good plan. Our anger is most often triggered by a loved oneYou can think about an appropriate intervention when you’re at these levels, and you can even carry it out, depending on the amount of anger that the other person is feeling. If the person who triggered you is between 8 and 10 on the anger scale, you should do nothing other than make sure that everyone is safe. Say and do nothing until the storm has passed. If the other person is between 4 and 7, you can name the feelings that you identify. (“I know you don’t think that it is fair. I understand that you are upset with me.”) If the other person is between 0 and 3 on the scale, you can now carry out your intervention.

It is necessary for everyone to learn how to work with the powerful energy of anger. We use fire daily to make our delicious meals, keep us warm, light our homes and run our world. But, unmanaged, fire can destroy physical property and human life. Similarly, unrestrained anger can cause the greatest harm in our lives. And yet, the motivation provided by a tiny, measured dose of anger—just the signal to correct—can help us move forward in healthy ways.

Sarah Chana Radcliffe is the author of The Fear Fix, Make Yourself at Home and Raise Your Kids Without Raising Your Voice. Sign up for her Daily Parenting Posts.
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Helen Dudden August 27, 2015

I watch one of my grandchildren who likes the use of no, even when she means yes. Strange, how we have to learn to use yes and no in the correct way. When we are upset, even as adults, we return to the situation of yes and no in reverse.

She is only 2 years old, so a little more time to learn. Reply

Dina August 26, 2015

Thank you! Great article, lots of good words to open discussion with kids (or adults) who are struggling with anger. I very much appreciated the Chassidic wisdom of NOT keeping the anger, though it may run contrary to popular psychology.

Looking forward to sharing this with my children in conversation! Reply

Arye York, pa August 26, 2015

I draw the line at disrespect I can pretty much handle my kids through empathy, compassion, and understanding, but I draw the line with disrespect. I am a man of self-respect and demand the respect of others. That is my problem. I get livid when an adult disrespects me, how do I feel when my 8 year old son does it? It hurts more coming from him because there's a lot of love going on between us. This article reinforced things that I already knew and it's been a struggle dealing with my anger since I stopped smoking and became ill. When my kids disrespect me I try not to get angry since I know that they're probably just tired or that they're displacing their anger upon me. I just manipulate them into taking a long hot bath and when they get out, they're new people. My wife is another story entirely! Reply

C. Browne Carrollton, TX August 25, 2015

Very insightful, having already raised a young man (24) with a 9, 8 and 5 year old still in the home it is a pleasant reminder of why we should take stock of why we are angry, especially with young ones. They don't intentionally offend or insult us, so our response to their attempts to find their voice or character should always be met with maturity and shalom. Reply

Anonymous Florida August 25, 2015

I benefitted from the helpful advice on anger Although my children are grown and living on their own, I found the article on anger very helpful in dealing with other people. Reply

yochanan August 24, 2015

again an excdellent article. My girlfriend has borderline personality disorder. At first i thought it was just her being angry but after a while i knew there was a problem and this is because i was a counsellor in palliative care.

The article approaches those who do just get angry and get into the habit of it and as it is suggested people can help others or themselves with this advice.

So what about those who have it as a mental problem. There are many levels and only a doctor can evaluate this, but let me tell you davening prayer nearly always begins a healing no matter how ill the person. i have seen it and G-d does help every person they just need some help and that help is Davening.

Tzedakah isn't just generosity but it is also Davening. We give with our prayers and because G-d is involved and this is what G-d is all about rachamim, when we Daven we are truly serving G-d. Reply

Anonymous August 24, 2015

combining mental and physical prevention can be helpful.
some of us also need to watch our blood sugar levels even if not Type 1 diabetic , as this can alter your mood unpredictably.
I found that physical ways of releasing stress is also necessary because it is invisible and incremental. e.g. A daily Brisk walk.
Getting up an hour or two before everyone in the house can give you a peaceful - alone time, if you're an introvert who has to live like an extrovert.

If all of this fails, and you're about to blow-up , imagine the Rebbe or the Jewish TV Rabbis and Rebetzins watching you (or someone you respect ).
I 've found this actually works.
(the idea is from a video / shiur on anger management at Jews for Judaism). Reply

Lisa Aubert Long Beach, CA August 23, 2015

in no shape to handle any kind of situation properly. So much wisdom coming from this article. Thank you for sharing this. Since becoming more engage in Torah for a while, I have become so cool and calm that people questioned my state of mind for being so calm instead of angry. Especially when they were so sure what they had to say and do would make me angry. I was never one to be confrontational. And I don't necessarily let people get away with doing wrong. But I learned since I was a child that to be effective in trying to control a situation, and trying to have a good outcome out of it, I need to have control of myself. Reply

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