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Tuesday 10 December 2019
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Have we taught kids to deal with anger?

Investigating Cussgate

A couple of weeks ago I was part of an investigating team into Cussgate, a WhatsApp video chat involving my ten-year-old son and a group of his classmates. Obscenities that ranged from the S and B words, to the F word and a screenshot of my boy showing the middle finger. Of course, none of them would admit to who started it and the blame was tossed hither and yon, so it took some NCIS-type interrogation to try to get to the bottom of it. Eventually, though, the matter was sorted out and I put measures in place to beat the odds of him being involved in similar acts, at least before he becomes a teenager.

I was simultaneously ashamed and livid when I was called in by his teacher to address the matter. Ashamed that my child, who I raise to respect himself and others, could be involved in something as lewd as this. Livid because he should have known better. You see, that type of language is not something that he hears at home. Sure the occasional "sh.." and "damn" may escape my lips in moments when I lose my cool, and the F word is reserved for extra special lose-cool moments, with the latter never being uttered within his earshot or directed at people. So I was prepared to rake him over the coals for his role in the saga. But when we got to talking about it, I realised that I too should be raked along with him.

"I cursed Don and Amanda (not their real names) because they got me angry. I keep telling you I have anger issues but you don't listen," he said with tears streaming down his cute, little face when I asked him why he did it. "But I always tell you there is nothing wrong with feeling angry. How you deal with it is what matters," I responded. Then he blew me over with his response to my response. "But did you teach me how to deal with? No! When you are angry you shout. Do I have to shout too?" his tears mixed with snot as his tone became high-pitched and his words decipherable only by his mother.

Science has taught us that human beings are ruled by their emotional right brain and their logical left brain. Understanding how to integrate the use of both sides is an invaluable tool that helps us to live a more balanced and emotionally stable life. "Use the logic of left brain to make sense out of feelings in the right. Simply telling our children to "calm down" or "stop crying" is not an effective way to help them through emotional tsunamis. Demanding our kids be rational when they are operating under the influence of their irrational right brains is a mis-attuned effort often made in vain. Instead, offer your child empathy. Acknowledge that they are feeling bad, scared, frustrated etc, and express that you are sorry they're in pain. As they become calmer, ask them to explain what upset them and help guide them through their story, while investigating what triggered the meltdown," an article from Psychology Today advises.

My son is as emotional as they come and I cannot tell you how many times I have erred during his tantrum years by trying to appeal to his logic, giving threatening ultimatums, or, at times, completing losing it myself. Now that I understand what was going on in his little brain back then makes me regret how I dealt with it. I wish I had known then how to teach him effective tools for coping with his tumultuous emotions. I wish I had known then how to deal with my own. But life is all about learning, right? And as dramatic and frustrating as it can be, the plan is to learn to use his angry outbursts, frequent arguments, fear, anxiety, sadness, his every emotion as an opportunity to teach him how to integrate his brain.

Immediately following his tearful accusation, I began suggesting ways in which he could channel his anger elsewhere. "That boxing bag that aunty Rhianna and Jimmy gave you for Christmas, why don't you use it when you feel angry? Or have you ever considered writing down your feelings? It helps, trust me." I explained to him that his feelings, including the way he was feeling there and then, come and go. That feelings of all types build up in us until finally they reach breaking point, explode and subside. "We can't always choose the feelings we have, but we can choose how to deal with them. Remember, they won't last forever," I reassured him.

Over the years he has had his share of mildly traumatic experiences. Mean classmates who've ridiculed him to tears, teachers who may not have taken a liking to his loquacious trait, hysteria when he thought he had lost me in a store. Helping him get through it without emotional scars took some time and effort, beginning with validating his feelings. But I'm realising that encouraging him to talk about it, trying to help him make sense of it all is just as important — integrating his brain.

Following Cussgate, I admitted to him that I had, over the years, dropped the ball by validating his anger but not guiding him in ways in which he could have better channelled it. Sometimes as parents we are reluctant to say sorry when we make mistakes because our egos get in the way. Instead, we sometimes overact because we feel angry or embarrassed. I have seen first-hand how this can play out. I shout when I'm angry, he shouts when he's angry. I acknowledge when I'm wrong and I apologise, he learns to apply the same principle when in a similar situation. And he did. He apologised for his role in Cussgate and calmly accepted the consequences — no membership in group chats until further notice, only absolutely necessary and emergency access to his phone until further notice, and a PS4 ban until after term test, when, I suspect, his phone access will be reinstated and more closely monitored.

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