When We Get Mad At Children

The real preparation for education is a study of one’s self.
— Maria Montessori

“Do you ever get mad at your students? I'm always trying to control myself, but sometimes it's like I just can't keep it together … How do you deal with emotions and overall stress?”

This question was recently emailed to me by a listener of The Montessori Education Podcast, but it is far from unique. I’ve received many others over the years from both teachers and parents who were in similar situations.

Most of us who work with children and/or have children of our own know well that little boys and girls are not the only ones who can find it challenging to handle anger and stress. We can too, of course.

To begin the discussion of better understanding and dealing with our own emotions as adults, here is my reply to the individual who wrote me:

Many teachers (and parents) aren’t even able to voice this question to others, though virtually everyone I’ve ever worked with has experienced the feeling of anger with a child.

I can say this briefly: Allow yourself to feel anger, regardless of if it’s justified or not. It is never healthy to beat yourself up for any emotion. Feel it fully, don’t push it away. Good teachers get angry. I get angry. Everyone gets angry. It’s what you do about that anger that counts.

I’m not sure what age you work with, but it’s quite all right to share your feelings with children. You can even say, “I’m feeling a little angry right now, so please give me a minute.” Ultimately, it’s up to us to figure out *why* we got angry and if it was justified. In my experience with children, most of our anger comes from an inability to get a child to do something we want him to do (listen, do an assignment, stop bothering another child, etc.). In my personal teaching experience, it took a long time for me to question whether or not I was justified in wanting the child to do it, or if maybe I should have found creative ways in which he would *happily* do it, so without my prodding, nagging, etc.

Thank you for listening to the show, and please know that you are not at all alone in your sometimes getting angry at a student — not even close.

That was my brief written response, along with a recommendation of the book Between Parent and Child, by the late Dr. Haim Ginott, which offers great insight into effective communication when someone (an adult or a child) is worked up. But in this article we’re going to dig a little deeper into what can cause strong emotions in the first place and ways we can effectively deal with them.

A significant challenge when being around children can be stress. That stress has many different sources, but I’ve found that it usually stems from two: a lack of understanding about children, and a lack of understanding about ourselves.

For instance, on the first point, parents are expected to know how to deal with children even though they have virtually zero experience working with them. No wonder they’re stressed! And newer teachers are often in similar situations.

But it’s the second point — a lack of understanding about ourselves — that I’m going to primarily focus on, and specifically in relation to successfully dealing with stress and anger. There is a lot to say on the topic, but here are three practices that can be used straightaway:

1. Acknowledge your own strong emotions (without acting on them).

Just as we try our best to acknowledge children’s emotions, we need to allow ourselves to feel any and all emotions, and to do this no matter how “bad” they supposedly are.

When a child gets angry at a friend, I don’t say to her: “Now stop that! We do not get angry at others!” Instead I might say something like, “Wow, you’re really upset … you almost look enraged.” I start by acknowledging emotions; I do not try to stop them or push their feelings away, or tell the child that she should be feeling some other way. Likewise, I try to use this same approach *with myself* when I’m feeling something intense. We too must allow ourselves to feel anger, stress, etc. — and I mean really feel these emotions.

The following may be tough for some of our sensitive ears, but maybe if you’re a teacher and you’re really losing your cool, you could even say to yourself: “Goddamn it! I am so angry right now! I seriously feel like just booting this child out of the school!” Or if you’re a parent, maybe you could say something to yourself like: “Ahhh! I want to ship this kid off to Grandma’s for a freakin’ month!”

The idea here is to give inner-voice to what you’re feeling. Do not censor yourself. Do not push away these “bad” thoughts and feelings. You have to get them out. (In your mind of course; it should go without saying that shouting these things at a child would be inappropriate.)

The overall point: let yourself really feel what you’re feeling — big time.

2. Share with the child how you are feeling, in an appropriate way.

What not to do

What not to do

Let me start here by saying explicitly that you don’t want to just unload on a child. That is not helpful for anyone in the long run. Similarly, it is not helpful to guilt children with our stress, e.g. “You see how angry you got me!” So no unloading, no guilting.

Sharing our emotions in an appropriate way can be as simple as this: “I’m really frustrated right now. Please give me a minute.” Incidentally, think of the teaching power of a simple comment like that. When we say it, not only do we get a bit of release for ourselves, but we also are modeling for a child how to act, how to share his own feelings. In that moment, we are truly being guides. Further, when we genuinely share how we’re feeling with children, in an honest and non-accusing way, they often respond really well.

For instance, a couple weeks ago I was working with a teacher who came to me with a pretty significant problem. She was stressed with a child in her classroom, a 6-year-old, and felt she was going to lose it any day.

We went through a few practical tools for management in the classroom, but the biggest gain for her was when we discussed sharing her feelings with this child. I had said to her, “I want you to get in that girl’s shoes. As a child yourself, did you ever annoy an adult?”

Of course she had. So I asked, “What would you have wanted from an adult in that moment? Punishments? Lectures about how good girls should behave? Probably not.” I had been mentoring this teacher for some time and she had already gained a much greater ability to introspect, so she was able to tell me exactly what she would have wanted: honesty.

And she was right on. Children are often shielded from so much, and sometimes all they want is to be treated with respect, which in this case just meant being (thoughtfully) direct.

The teacher and I talked this through a bit and she decided that the next day in class she would share with the young girl how she’d been feeling and that she genuinely wanted to build a better relationship with her. During the eventual discussion, the teacher wound up getting a little teary-eyed with the girl, because she was being so real. The genuineness of it all had an impact. And since that conversation there have been virtually no problems.

When we respect children, which includes being honest about our feelings where fitting, they tend to respect us back.

A quick caveat on lengthy conversations around emotions. I would not recommend them with a child under ~5 1/2, unless he or she is developmentally there. For younger children, especially when they’re not yet really self-aware, just sharing how we’re feeling is enough. Again, something like, “I’m really frustrated right now. Please give me a minute.” Don’t go into anything deeper than that. So no lectures, no big, blown out discussions.

Interestingly enough, appropriate sharing can even have an impact with infants and toddlers, despite their not being able to fully grasp the meaning of our words. As the late Magda Gerber once said (in her book Your Self-Confident Baby): “Be honest with [a] child. It’s okay to say, ‘I’m tired right now. I’m listening to you, but I’m tired.’ That teaches a child reality. You must listen to your own needs, too. In this way you will also help him learn to listen to his.”

3. “Know thyself.”

This saying was shared by Socrates and other wise ancient Greek thinkers over two thousand years ago, and its importance has continued to be emphasized by great teachers ever since that time, including Maria Montessori, who applied the concept to all of her teachings. For instance, she once even went as far as to say: “The real preparation for education is a study of one’s self.”

This means challenging ourselves with tough questions, rather than hiding from or deflecting them. Related to anger and stress, this might mean asking something like: “What is causing these feelings in me, what’s at the root of it all?” Peel back the onion, as they say. Get further and further away from superficial explanations.

For example, I remember years ago as a teacher thinking that this or that child was just “lazy,” but now I know that that is almost always a cop-out. As the Montessori educator Silvia Dubovoy puts it: “The child is not lazy. We are lazy.”

Through ongoing work, both looking within and without, we can discover the actual reasons we’re getting really angry or really stressed or experiencing any other really strong emotion. Because although it is understandable to be upset if a child does something he is not supposed to do, the fact that it nearly pushed you over the edge, *that* is not about the child. It’s about you. It’s about our own adult issues, not the child’s.

The actual cause of many problems, and therefore the key to solving them, is rarely found on the surface. To succeed, we often need to do inner work to uncover what’s really going on. As the singer Lauryn Hill popularly put it: “How you gonna win when you ain’t right within?”

I’ll give you an example of this. I remember working with a mom who told me she was “losing my mind” about her child not eating healthy food. At first I shared a few practical strategies to end those battles. But it wound up being a much deeper issue than just food.

Her husband was never home and, since he was the “worker” in the family, she was expected to solve all the problems related to the kids. Now since this wasn’t being dealt with, you can imagine the damage and anger the situation was causing in the relationship. Well, since she hadn’t yet shared her true feelings with her husband about this (seriously problematic) arrangement, guess where much of her anger, even rage got directed? Yep, at her child. Or, more specifically, at the “eating problem.” This mother believed it was all about that. In reality though, her child’s refusing to eat healthy foods was far from the only problem in the household.

The point here is that sometimes the issue we think we’re angry about is not really the issue at all, or it’s merely a symptom of a different problem(s).

Incidentally, this is actually why many “parenting programs” and “teacher trainings” wind up being ineffective. They’re like most diets: they work for about a month, and then fall apart after that. They give quick tools to seemingly end problems, like getting a child to eat healthier foods, but they don’t usually delve into deeper sources of stress.

This is not to say there aren’t very practical and relatively easy strategies for aiding children to sit down at the dinner table every night and eat more than merely chicken fingers. There definitely are. But in my experience it is rarely ever *just* food that is the problem. Big anger and big stress is not about the chicken fingers.

In thinking about whether our emotions are fitting with the concern at hand, a tool I’ve found helpful is the ‘0-10 Scale.’

0-10 scale.png

If you’re worked up about something — maybe you’re really angry with your son or daughter, or you’re super stressed about a child in your class — ask yourself how big of a problem the actual situation is on a scale from 0 to 10. For instance, an objective 8 or 9 on a situation scale might be something like: You just got a call from your rambunctious three-year-old son’s school and you find out that he ran head on into another child on the playground and both children were rushed to the hospital. That is a HUGE life experience right there. Again, an 8 or 9 probably.

Now imagine that your child, or if you’re a teacher a child in your class, spilled some grape juice on her t-shirt. That’s the other side of the situation-scale, at maybe a 1 or 2.

The question is: How closely do *your emotions* on a 0-10 scale match the situation itself? Say you’re feeling a 7-level stress about some grape juice spilling. Then clearly most of that stress is not really about the grape juice, and some digging is needed.

Usually when we experience strong emotions with children (and just generally in life) we’d benefit from a combination of practical tools to solve actual problems *and* purposeful introspection to resolve more core issues. And that latter work of looking within, of ‘knowing thyself,’ can mean taking an interesting journey through the past, sometimes all the way back to our own childhood.

It’s kind of wild to think about this, but part of each of us was literally created by a child. That includes four or five years of stuff that we, as self-conscious adults now, did not really sign off on. Who knows what that little guy or girl had in store for us! Good, bad, whatever, it’s important to look back as best we can and decide what we want to keep, and what we might want to discard. There’s a great line related to this from the movie The King’s Speech, when a stuttering prince receives meaningful guidance from his mentor: “You don’t need to be afraid of the things you were afraid of when you were five.”

To review, here are three steps for understanding and handling ourselves well around children:

1. Acknowledge your own strong emotions (without acting on them). Let yourself feel anger, rage, stress, jealousy — whatever you’re feeling in the moment. Don’t even be afraid to feel the equivalent of, “I’m done... I just don’t want to see this child ever again!”

2. Share with the child how you are feeling, in an appropriate way. Don’t go overboard here and actually tell a child you never want to see him again, or something equally hurtful. That would not be healthy for anyone. (Remember, your intense feelings are for you to feel internally, not to use as a verbal weapon against others.) Think more of saying something like this to a child: “I’m feeling upset with this situation right now. I’m going to take a moment to think about it. Excuse me.”

3. “Know thyself.” Peel back the onion.

As you can see, these are not quick pills to end all problems in a day. They are practices that take real work, which means you have to spend real time with them.

And please, please fight against the excuse of “I don’t have the time.” I mention this because I recently received some pushback on the three practices above. I was discussing them during a workshop I was giving for a group of preschool/kindergarten educators (the topic was ‘how to get children to happily listen’). We were talking over the importance of taking ‘relaxed note’; that is, making time each day or week to go to a relaxing place and write some notes on the good and the bad (and sometimes the ugly) of that day or week. A teacher then asked me: “But where do we find the time to do that??” I answered bluntly: ~“If you can’t find the time to think about your week in a relaxed place, then that is your problem right there. You gotta start there. Find the time. Make the time. Or really, just quit. Stop being a teacher, or stop being a parent. Because that time — even if it’s just 15 minutes a week to start — is necessary for success. And not just for healthy relationships with children, but also for healthy relationships *with ourselves*.” (Incidentally, the teacher responded really well to this directness.)

Ultimately, there is no replacement for introspection, or “a study of one’s self” as Montessori eloquently put it. If we want to deal with anger and stress and other powerful emotions, we must get at their roots, and the practices above can help immensely with that. No doubt the journey of “going within” can be challenging at times, to put it lightly, but it’s also a deeply rewarding part of growing up — of truly becoming and being a genuine, flourishing adult.

About the Author

Jesse_McCarthy, bio.png

Jesse McCarthy has worked in education for over 15 years, as an elementary & junior-high school teacher, as a Head of School for infants to 8th graders, and as an executive helping to lead a group of over a dozen Montessori schools. He holds a B.A. in psychology from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and an AMI Primary diploma from the Montessori Institute of San Diego (MISD).

Jesse now heads Montessori Education, an organization dedicated to helping parents and teachers raise independent, flourishing children — while enjoying themselves in the process.

This article was published in the Spring 2019 AMI/USA Journal. It is adapted from the podcast episode Do You Ever Get Mad At A Child?