Old Anger vs. New Anger in Children

Anger among children is one of the most pervasive and disruptive emotions.  Treating anger is usually a long term process.  What underlies anger is fear, trauma, or anxiety.  Our goal for anger management is not to force the child to stop the anger, but to find and treat the underlying cause.   By doing so, the behavior will not occur as often or naturally go away. In treating anger, it is useful to think of it in terms of old anger and new anger.   Old anger has its origin in fear from the past, which may be triggered by a present stressor.   New anger is usually anger originating in the present, perhaps when a child does not get something he wants or does not get his way.  Old anger is often much more intense and may be violent.  New anger is usually pouty or irritating. It is possible that the new anger can be a trigger for the old anger if the situation escalates.  At the point that this happens, the situation, in his mind, goes from not getting what he wants to feeling threatened or anxious; this is when the old anger gets tapped into.  Often children (and some adults) regress in these situations to a younger age and are not able to calm themselves down, no matter how much pressure is exerted on them or is threatened. An example is the case of Sammy, a 10 year old boy, with a history of severe abuse and neglect as a toddler.  At age 3, he was adopted by his grandparents, who are very loving.   Occasionally, when Sammy gets upset, he will become very angry and has hit both his grandmother and grandfather.  Once he has done this, he will look up at them with a startled look as though he just then realized what he had done.  He immediately begins to cry.  What has happened is that the old anger took over and the object of this deeper anger lies in his fear and anxiety from his past. The therapist taught the grandparents to help him in these circumstances by holding him and even rocking him.  When they did this, he immediately became calmer.  What he needed was support, safety and reassurance, not threats nor consequences.  Now that the grandparents can recognize this and distinguish it from new anger, they are much more strategic and effective in their parenting.   As a result they have not only seen a decrease in the old anger, but interestingly, the new anger as well.