Anger displayed by traumatized children differs markedly from anger displayed by non-traumatized children. The anger exhibited by such traumatized children (in comparison with how anger tends to be exhibited by non-traumatized children):
- is more extreme and intense
- comes on more suddenly
- is more difficult for carers of the child to calm
- is more out of control
- has a more ‘primal’ / visceral quality to it
- can give rise to more obvious physiological changes (such as dilation of the pupils and tension of the facial muscles)
Why Does Such Extreme Anger Occur In Developmentally Traumatized Children?
Reasons for such extreme anger responses may occur because :
- it is instinctive and hard-wired into the brain as a DEFENSE MECHANISM / SURVIVAL MECHANISM
- the experience of severe and protracted trauma damages the biological development of the brain leading to extreme impairment of the child’s ability to regulate (control) his/her emotions
- the child’s conscious and unconscious memories of his/her previous traumatic experiences
- the child feels a deep sense of betrayal by his/her parents / primary caregivers
- the child has fantasies of revenge against the parents / primary carers
Anger Is The Result Of Underlying Fear And Need For Self-Protection :
The intense anger that traumatized children show is due to both conscious and unconscious fear. This fear does not only relate to the perceived danger of being physically hurt but also of being emotionally hurt; the latter is frequently linked to fear of rejection or of being over-powered and controlled.
The Pre-emptive Nature Of Intense Outbursts Of Rage :
To those who do not understand the child, his/her explosive outbursts of rage often seem very disproportionate to the precipitating event. However, there are actually logical reasons (even though the untutored observer may view the child’s behavior as ‘irrational’ and ‘illogical’) for the way in which the child reacts and the reasons are these: based both on the child’s conscious and unconscious memories of how s/he has been physically and/or emotionally endangered in the past, s/he is constantly on the alert for signs that further danger may be imminent.
Subtle Indications Of Imminent Danger :
This self-protective state of alert works on a ‘better safe than sorry’ basis which means the child is likely to react angrily / aggressively (and, I stress again, the anger/aggression functions as a defense, summed up by the maxim, ‘attack is the best form of defense’) to even very subtle signs that this danger may exist (such as slight changes in facial expressions or intonation which may be barely detectable to others.
A Desperate Need To Feel In Control :
As already alluded to above, the traumatized child’s proneness to extreme anger may frequently stem from a desperate need to be in control. This acute need is likely to relate to the child’s past experience of his/her parents / primary carers having abused their control and power over him/her in the past, resulting in physical or psychological injury to him/her. Therefore, the child is terrified (on either a conscious or unconscious level) that not being in control will make him/her vulnerable to being harmed yet further.
The Need For Empathy :
Rather than being punished, children who have problems controlling their intense feelings of anger need their parents / primary carers to understand and empathize with the underlying reasons for the behavior and, based upon this understanding and empathy, to respond compassionately rather than judgmentally. Children who have been traumatized very frequently (and irrationally) blame themselves and are wracked with feelings of self-hatred. Their anger is a symptom of their trauma and being punished for it is likely to perpetuate their feelings of worthlessness and psychologically damage them further.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).