As parents, we often seek to mollify, quell — even extinguish — our children’s anger. Life is busy, we’re moving fast. Anger slows us down. It stresses us out. But the disruptive quality of anger is exactly what makes it a powerful agent for social change, says Rebecca Traister in her new book, “Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger.” Hers is one of two books out this fall that explore the intersection of gender and rage. I went to hear Traister speak at my local library and left wondering if my desire for peace in my home was eroding my daughters’ potential to create peace in the world.
The other book, “Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger” by Soraya Chemaly, looks at the extensive research on our gendered relationship with anger. There is little difference in how boys and girls experience and express emotions, says Chemaly, but there is substantial difference in how we respond. Girls are rewarded for being pleasant, agreeable and helpful. By preschool, children believe it is normal for boys to be angry, but not girls.
“We are so busy teaching girls to be likable that we forget to teach them that they have the right to be respected,” Chemaly told me. And the effects of that carry into adulthood. She says research shows that, just like girls and boys, “women and men experience anger the same way, but men are much more likely to express that anger verbally, while women tend to keep it to themselves.” In doing so, says Chemaly, “We lose our ability to defend ourselves.”
One study found that in 75 percent of cases of everyday discrimination women think of responding assertively, but they actually say something less than 40 percent of the time. The #MeToo movement is committed to changing that in the world.
I am committed to changing that in my home, with my girls, ages 6 and 11. Here’s my six-point plan.
“Girls learn very early on that anger might break bonds in relationships, and that the most important thing in their lives is bonds and relationships,” says Chemaly. But Traister and Chemaly say that anger actually has an incredible potential to deepen connections.
“It can bring people together and make them audible and visible to each other,” says Traister.
“Saying ‘I am angry’ is a necessary first step to ‘Listen.’ ‘Believe me.’ ‘Trust me.’ ‘I know.’ ‘Time to do something,’” writes Chemaly in “Rage Becomes Her.”
“When a girl or woman is angry, she is saying, ‘What I am feeling, thinking and saying matters,’” says Chemaly. “If you are in a relationship where you can’t say, ‘Hey, this is important to me,’ what good is that?”
Parents need to honor girls' feelings, including anger. “Anger is an uncomfortable emotion,” says Katie Hurley, a child and adolescent psychotherapist in El Segundo, Calif., and author of “No More Mean Girls,” “It triggers us. Your instinct [as a parent] is, ‘I don’t want to feel this right now, I’ve got to stop this.’”
Instead, Catherine Steiner-Adair, an expert in girls’ development and author of “The Big Disconnect,” recommends being open to your daughter’s anger, and don’t take it personally. Between fourth and 11th grades anger can be very physical and overwhelming for kids, says Steiner-Adair. “They say bad things, like ‘I hate you.’ ‘You’re the worst mother in the world.’ You have to get over that and help them get to a place of self-regulation," she says. “Let your daughter know you see her anger and you want to hear why she is angry.” (Later, when both of you are calm, you can let her know your feelings about what was said or done.)
Steiner-Adair helps women and girls learn how to express anger effectively using these five steps.
1. State your commitment to your relationship with the person you are angry with. With a grade-school buddy it could be, “You and I are in fourth grade now, we’re going to be in school for a long time, and I really want us to work well together.”
2. Use an “I statement” that shares how you are feeling: “I was upset, I was confused, I was angry when you did X, Y and Z.”
3. Ask if there was something you did that might have contributed to the situation.
4. State what you need to move forward. “Here’s what I need, want or hope going forward.”
5. Ask if there is anything the other person needs, wants or hopes from you.
“The girls who really get this have people in their lives who work with them from an early age,” says Lyn Mikel Brown, a professor of education at Colby College in Maine and the author of “Powered By Girl.”
When Chemaly’s kids were little, she often role-played scenarios in which someone was “mean, threatening or said something rude to them.” Then she would walk them through “what it’s like to be angry without being mean or cruel or demeaning to people.”
Keep in mind that their self-assurance can wane with time. “Girls tend to lose their confidence and competence for addressing disconnects in relationships at the end of elementary school,” says Steiner-Adair, which is when they can fall prey to the “mean girl” stereotypes.
“At a pretty young age, speaking your mind or having strong feelings gets all mixed up with the ‘mean girl,’ ‘bitchy’ thing,’” says Mikel Brown. “Not because girls are innately bitchy or mean — that’s a cultural myth, but because girls are taught to act in bitchy ways,” says Steiner-Adair. “Boys are taught to go right up to a person and say, ‘Hey, what’s up with that?’ Girls get a very confusing message that if you directly confront somebody, that’s ‘not nice,’ so girls are taught to tell everybody else other than the girl they are upset with.”
Steiner-Adair recommends talking to your daughter about the messages popular media sends them. She used to watch “DeGrassi High” with her daughters and then talk with them about “the misogynistic through lines when female protagonists express their anger and how they are responded to.”
“To help girls identify what is upsetting to them, we have to not be afraid to stick up for ourselves in front of them and role model that,” says Mikel Brown. It could be as simple as saying to your child, “This is the kind of thing I find upsetting. It’s not fair, and we should be doing something about it.” Or, it could be as hard as telling your best friend that they hurt you, instead of just venting to your partner over dinner.
Of course, you can’t control how people will respond. We are all navigating the same cultural waters and making change often means swimming against the stream. But there too lies a powerful message. “Keep trying — even if other people aren’t ready to accept your point of view yet,” says Hurley. “Because if you give up, that’s one less person in the world learning how to express her emotions.”
Kate Rope is a mother and the author of “Strong as a Mother: How to Stay Happy, Healthy and (Most Importantly) Sane From Pregnancy to Parenthood.” Find her on Twitter @katerope.