Helping Our Kids Express Healthy Anger | Marty Wolner

Mothers of Misfits00:01

Welcome to the Mothers of Misfits podcast. Join me for conversations about how to advocate for our kids in a one size fits all world. Be sure to subscribe, so you never miss an episode!

Emily Melious00:17

Welcome back everyone to Mothers of Misfits. We are always, always so glad that you are here to join us every week. I so appreciate you. And today we're going to talk about a topic that I'm not sure we've covered before, and that is the topic of anger and helping us understand that today is Marty Wolner.

He is a healthy anger coach. And over the last 17 years he has helped hundreds of people understand, manage and heal from their trauma and stress. Marty, welcome. Thanks for coming on.

Marty Wolner00:53

Oh, thank you, Emily. So grateful to have this conversation and inspired by being here with you today.

Emily Melious00:59

Oh, thanks. Well, it goes both ways. And

What is Healthy Anger? (1:03)
Emily Melious01:03

I want to start out with your title because I find it really interesting that you call yourself a healthy anger coach. And I'd love for you to explain for us the difference between healthy and unhealthy anger.

Marty Wolner01:20

Well, anger is a natural emotion, like all other emotions. And, for some people, their history and experiences, anger is, mostly in a negative way and the expression of anger and how people show their anger. Many times comes out in less than healthy. Ways that perhaps for the person getting angry makes them feel, bad, regretful, some sort of feeling later on and their thinking back and also may cause a lot of disconnection in relationships.

And so our beliefs and for certain people, their understanding and thinking patterns and emotional responses when in that angry space can perhaps head towards negative expression. But as it turns out,as it's an inevitable emotion. It can be expressed in different ways. And for most people it's a choice of how they express their anger. The challenges are there's a lot going on in the brain and body when we get angry. And so sometimes our thinking patterns. Are impacted by that. And so are making choices and in the heat of the moment in the heat of the angry moment, especially with children and family situations, things can kind of spark up quickly. But the principle and the takeaway is it is ultimately a choice, and there is a space that we can empower people, empower ourselves with tools to be able to make better choices and be able to express our anger in healthier ways.

Emily Melious02:44

So the anger itself is not bad or wrong. It's how we choose to express it. That can be healthy or unhealthy.

Marty Wolner02:53

Yes, it is rather inevitable. We're going to feel a certain something we're going to get into situations that are going to press our buttons and get under our skin and sometimes even again inside the brain and body, activate our stress response system. I mean, sometimes things are happening that we're not in the subconscious and in our bodies that we're not even thinking about it in the moment. But that understanding and that awareness again, can empower people to do some things and develop some tools, to be able to advocate for themselves, to have a better emotional, healthier, emotional response, and hopefully make better choices as to how to express their anger.

Physical response to anger (3:30)
Emily Melious03:30

So let's talk about that physical response, because there is something about anger as opposed to joy or happiness. That causes us to lose control very easily. It can feel so all consuming and overwhelming in ourselves and our kids that unlike other emotions, it does lead us to do things that we wouldn't otherwise.

If we were calm or had more happy, positive emotions. So talk us through what's actually happening in our body that causes us to just, again, sort of lose it. If you will?

Marty Wolner04:04

So we generally feel it in our bodies first. And so many times our heart will start beating faster, or maybe start to perspire, get some muscle tension, even nausea or butterflies in our stomach. Something's happening with our body sensations when we feel any intense emotion, but certainly with anger and so really attuning to ourselves and our bodies and understanding.

Cause as sooner we can catch it and connect to it and understand it. The sooner we can start doing things for ourselves. But the other thing, Emily is there's a lot going on in our brain. And so what you described and the different types of emotions are impacting the chemistry, the chemical release, the neurochemicals that are being released in our brain. And so when we experience things like joy and happiness, the neurochemicals perhaps are more like dopamine and serotonin and oxytocin, and that's going to help us, comfort us and make us feel, and really like a warm blanket. Our bodies are going to react to those chemicals that are being released in our brain. Unfortunately, when we're feeling angry or other intense negative emotions, the neurochemicals are more like cortisol and adrenaline and epinephrin and what's happening is, our brains and bodies are programmed for survival. And so when we get into that state where our brain states are dropping to the survival, that fight or flight part of our brains and the chemistry, the chemicals that are being released at that time are again, preparing our body for survival that can present itself in different ways, especially through parenting or other relationships. The way we present ourselves, when we're in that survival state can actually then exacerbate the emotion and can kind of whip everybody into a bit of an angry or dysfunctional or even dysregulated kind of sensation.

Emily Melious05:52

On that note,

What does anger have to do with trauma and stress (5:53)
Emily Melious05:53

what does anger have to do with trauma and stress?

Marty Wolner05:57

So trauma and stress lives in our central nervous system. And so it lives in our body. So when we feel intense emotions in the current time, our bodies react, our experiences are actually stored in our brains and our bodies. Our bodies remember everything, and so if we've been through traumatic experience or deal with a lot of extreme stress, or even the stress, we've all dealt with over the past 18 to 20 months with COVID in the pandemic. I mean, that was layers of stress and trauma on top of a lot of other stressors that were out there, but it's all impacting and connecting and perhaps even triggering for some people that have previous traumatic experience. What's being stored in the body? So when we feel that anger or any other intense emotions, It's connecting with already stored in each of our individual bodies and depending upon for what individual, what, they've experienced and their social support, what kind of relationships they have around them that will determine how current stress and then that in the moment, emotional dysregulation, how our brains and bodies react can be all about the memories.

And what's happened to us previously in previous experience.

Emily Melious07:10

That's so interesting that this is a not only an in the moment issue, but a longstanding development issue and social issue. You said something that was fascinating to me that is

Healthy anger is different for different aged kids (7:25)
Emily Melious07:25

healthy anger looks different for different aged kids. Can you talk us through that?

Marty Wolner07:32

Well, yes, and just backing up in general, a lot of parent responses change as kids grow and develop. And so, you know, as parents, we think we got it down for some and we feel confident, empowered, and then our kids grow and they change and they go through a different stage and a different age. And again, it can be looked different for different families in terms of support and how many caretakers are involved. But certainly then when we get to anger and how parents express their anger, understand their own anger, and then hopefully understand what's happening in their children as they grow and develop in their own brains and bodies and how they're processing emotional situations.

That can be very different for instance, for toddlers and then for early young age, school children, and they move into middle school and then teenagers and anger response and interaction between parents and kids can change as children grow and develop. And that can be, again, there's a hopeful message there, but also challenging to realize like other parenting tools. We constantly have to be open to new information and understanding and awareness. Because many times, again, when we think we got this, our children just grow and develop and they develop new needs and they become new people. And again, their brains and bodies are developing, which makes their needs.

And then our parenting responses change and anger just goes along and anger expression and interaction goes along with a lot of the other parenting changes that are required as well.

Emily Melious08:58

Parenting is most definitely a very humbling experience because as soon as you think I've got this, you know, stuff changes on you and you realize, oh, I, I don't know that I've got this. I need to keep working. so give us some examples of what does a healthy anger response look like in a toddler versus a healthy anger response in a high-schooler for example.

Marty Wolner09:21

So again, the difference there, um, just to start out in a simple fashion is the development of the brain. And so for a toddler for a two year old year three-year-old or a old, the brain develops from the bottom up. So they're in the bottom, the survival part, the sensory part of their brain, maybe some emotions, not a lot of thinking.

Certainly they can develop walking and talking and using utensils and there's parts of the cortex and the thinking part of the brain that are developing. But most for toddlers and young kids, they're in the lower parts, that's where that brain is developing. So they don't have the ability yet to actually emotionally regulate.

And so you'll see tantrums, temper tantrums are a perfect outward behavior of a dysregulated toddler where the emotion has overcome that toddlers ability to figure out what's going on. So all they have, the only option they have is to go on the floor and meltdown. And so for parents to understand that I've worked with a lot of, uh, here in Pennsylvania, I'm certified with the program and deal with the Head Start program across the state, just to empower preschool teachers and also parents of preschoolers to understand where their children are in the brain development. And so when they have these, what can be very explosive, startling, and surprising emotional responses, whether it's at home or out at the grocery store, in the car, on a car ride and in some really challenging situations, but to understand what's happening for that two year old or three year old or four year old, but then the brain starts to develop, and hopefully we start to help them. We co-regulate and help develop regulation tools and help a child understand their brain and body and what situations they may get in that they're more emotionally, activated by and children need to go through some levels of stress to build up resilience. And so parents, we can help them understand that, that we don't always want. You know, I think they described it as the helicopter parent. Who's always getting in there and trying to have their, avoid their children, dealing with stressful situations. Well, at some point, those stressful situations help a child learn and help them regulate and get them prepared. For even bigger, stressful situations. And so again, we'll go through, you mentioned the teenagers. So now we're going through the brain's developing and we're seeing a child have different needs as they get through elementary school. And then in the middle school, when all of a sudden behavior changes and my 12 year old was one way and now their 13 and the behaviors are changing and they're just going upstairs after dinner and slamming their door. And they don't say good night anymore. And, and that can certainly make us feel a certain something. And then the teenage brain just expands as a new explosion when they become teenagers. And there's a lot of risk-taking and a lot of backtalk and independence, kind of a flex muscles and freedom.

And that can look a different way emotionally, depending upon families and setups and support.

So all of those ages and stages of development of kids can press our emotional buttons and really make us feel a certain something. And then also Emily, you brought up trauma. It can also remind us that when we were that age as kids. And so as our children go through different ages and stages, it can connect with our own memories. And how we dealt with some of their struggles and some of their challenges and stressful situations, and perhaps the anger that we showed to us at the time and how our adult caretakers were expressing their anger.

So it's very complex. And again, it does change, but the hopeful piece is with new awareness. Self-awareness is the first step to healing and to being able to change to healthier anger. Cause once we make that beliefs switch, parents can then become more emotionally intelligent in terms of connecting with who their children are and then modeling for their children, how to handle their anger and emotional dysregulation in much more healthy ways.

Emily Melious13:24

That is a perfect segue into my next question for you. Because I want to look at first parents and then kiddos, and I want to get into the nitty gritties, the practical strategies and tips that we can employ in our homes to deal with anger in the moment. So let's start with us as parents, because man, we've all been there where we were so frustrated and we got to the end of our rope and we yelled.

You know, we did things that we regretted after the fact like, oh, I just hated that reaction that I had. I lost a little bit of control in that moment.

Practical strategies and tips for parents (13:59)
Emily Melious13:59

So talk us through as the parent, how do we first keep ourselves from getting there, but in those instances where it happens, and again, we shout or we lose our cool, how should we be dealing with it after the fact to be those good models in our household of aww man, sometimes we mess up, but here's how I'm going to respond.

Marty Wolner14:23

Well, certainly, yeah, moving into that conversation. That's an important piece in terms of starting with the parents first and, and their self-awareness Emily, really, we try to lock a parent into understanding. We actually have anger logs. So my first suggestion is to really take a situation where a parent has gotten into an angry situation and perhaps one or two have handled that much differently.

They feel bad later. They feel disconnected with their child. So then let's kind of put it into a bit of a Petri dish and let's look at it somewhat. And that may take some time, may take a couple of days later, you know, the emotion needs to dissipate, and we want to try to look at this as neutrally and objectively as possible.

But I've worked with a lot of parents and the first place we start is to take an angry situation and to really slow things down and, what was happening and what was the environment and how was I feeling? And what was I thinking at the time and what did I do when my anger went from zero to 60 quickly, because something that was said or something that happened and to really slow that down and then be able to find tools, to be able to disrupt the process. And so what we find is, with this anger log there's similarities in terms of how parents, when they get into that heat of that angry moment, there's a similarity to their thinking patterns, their emotional response to behaviors, immediate behaviors. And when they start to see that, when you actually see it on paper and you put it in a log... Things start to make sense in a different way.

If you're looking at it neutrally and objectively, I mean, we try not to. We don't want to relive the angry situations and go back there as we're trying to, you know, analyze it. So it does take a bit of a timing. People have to be in the right mindset to be able to look at something objectively. But the empowering piece is that once we understand our own individual anger process with each child and two children in the same family may be completely different.

As you know with parenting we need different parenting toolbelts sometimes for different children. We also need different healthy, anger toolbelts for different children as well, but to really lock into what that process looks like and really find space to disrupt it and to change it. And so it's very individualized. So for some people who had initial thinking pattern, they can really magnify and catastrophize what's happening in front of them. And to really try to change that initial, you know, when we look at the anger log, when we really see for that particular individual, just as an example, if we really see the thinking pattern, that initial thought process, and that may be because of memories that are stored in that individual's brain about how others were angry with them as a child or even as an adult. So they have certain things that are stored in individual, in the brain about anger, beliefs, about anger and thinking patterns. Once we start to see that in the log, we can then try to bring tools in to change some of that thinking. And a lot of times it's a process. We measure it on a zero to 10, kind of an anger thermometer. And in terms of if it's a nine and we yell, we screamed or perhaps there was some physical aggression or some sort of discipline, and perhaps avoid doing that again. We don't necessarily bring it down to a two. We could bring it down to an 8. Maybe an 8.5, you know, it's a process of bringing down the temperature of emotional response and it really starts with what we call an anger log, to be able to look at that process.

Emily Melious17:49

A mentor of mine, Dan Sullivan has said that all progress starts by telling the truth. And I think that log is such a great way for us to tell the truth about the factors, conditions, patterns of what gets us in a situation where we're more likely to be unhealthy angry, and that truth has power and it empowers us to be more self-aware and self-regulate.

And that's such a simple action as you're talking, I'm thinking, you know, dinner time in our household tends to be a tense time because there's still lots of complaints about what's being made and how long it takes for people to eat and sitting in your seat or not. And I'm realizing that the fact that that's a consistent frustration, that my mindset, even my body comes into dinner more negatively or more sort of geared up and ready for a potential something. And even that anticipation of a possible negative event might actually create a self fulfilling prophecy of a negative event. So this is very interesting, whereas if I could maybe do some deep breathing or visualize a very healthy dinner activity or meal together, uh and, just think very positive thoughts.

I'm sure I'm even probably projecting in that scenario, positive things. Whereas previous negative things that again are actually playing into the pattern. And I have responsibility in that just as much as my kids do. So that's so clarifying. I'm already having these aha. But let's switch now to our kids and you're so right.

I mean, I even see in my kids a difference of that triggering and also the recovery kids are different as we all know. So

How to help our kids manage their anger (19:46)
Emily Melious19:46

how do we help our kids avoid the ramp-up and also, manage their anger in that moment, or maybe deal with it after the fact, if they have lost control.

Marty Wolner20:02

So, again, what you just shared is very powerful. I hear you changing your anger right here in the moment and really disrupting your process. I, heard a mental anger log and you're really slowing things down and I just, grateful and I appreciate that. But to your point of moving on a couple of principles.

So it's very difficult, according to research brain research and trauma research, it's very difficult, almost impossible for an upset parent to combat an upset child. And so a lot of times parents will get into, or buttons will be pushed and will be in an angry situation. And we'll react so quickly. Not realizing that, perhaps we're exacerbating the stress and emotions are contagious. And so if we get into, as a parent into a situation, we're feeling a certain something and feeling dysregulated, very low chance that we're going to be able to have a positive outcome, and then help our children regulate.

And so if ultimately, to your point, if we're trying to model for our children, healthy anger, and emotional regulation and what we do. And inevitably we're all on getting the situations. We're going to be frustrated and disappointed and angry, and we're modeling for our children how to handle that. And it's the ultimate teaching experience.

And from my view, I'm a bit jaded, but emotional regulation and response. To me to help people develop tools at early ages, especially these children I've helped breeze with three-year-olds and we co-regulate, and we breathe together. But at any rate, I'll get onto that in just a moment, but really to have the parent have tools in themselves in the moment you mentioned breathing and mantras, positive self-talk, those initial thought patterns that may plunge with those dropping brain states and all that cortisol is being released in the brain. We can actually have some quick mantras that we can recall and recite mentally. And she's only eight years old, or, he's just trying to push my buttons or we'll get through this, there's only 15 minutes before we have to leave.

Whatever the situation or it might be very individualized for your child. Anything that can bring your thoughts to a neutral or maybe somewhat hopeful or positive place can change a lot of what's going on in the heat of the moment. But parents and all adults can really be very much more effective if they first regulate first, if they have their own tools.

And sometimes Emily it's a parent time out. I have to walk away. From a situation, there's all sorts of things in, you know, we can go through some other specifics, but each person's different and they have to really develop when they get a parent gets into the heat of the moment to really understand themselves.

And then what works for them. You know, if I'm going to suggest breathing, but they're not going to think about breathing. They're thinking about yelling. They're thinking about projecting energy. Well, then that parent needs something else. And that's the second principle I wanted to share is that behavior is need driven. And so when we behave a certain way or children's behaves a certain way to be able to look past the behavior and to figure out what's going on underneath there and what do I need at this moment? And what does my child need at this moment?

Now that's a lot to think about when we're feeling a certain something and an emotional moment, but if we can regulate ourselves and get ourselves to a somewhat calmer, clearer thinking place somewhat. It may not go 180 degrees, but a somewhat clear thinking. We can start to think about what we may need and what our child may need, especially in a situation like a temper tantrum or a child who's saying, I hate you to their parents are really extreme kind of emotional situation. It's tough. It can be challenging, but we try to encourage parents to look past that behavior and figure out what's the need and even for themselves as well. But then again, for children to help them and develop regulation tools is really what we try to aim for so that when they get into a frustrating situation, that they have ways to be able to handle that we start, Emily was feeling in the body. So I can ask a two-year-old three-year-old I see you're angry. Oh my gosh. This is frustrating. Where do you feel it? I feel like I feel here in my stomach. Where do you feel it right now?

And so even up to teenage years, we can lock into body sensations and then what can we actually do about what's going on in our bodies at that moment? So I've had, young kids that March in place when I feel mad or angry. I like to do wall pushups. We go against the wall and we push up. I had one young child just like to page through a book, and she just doesn't read. She just liked to hold... something about the texture of a book. So we sit down and we act like we're reading a book and that's somehow is regulating. So really to start to find ways to have kids be attuned to who they are and how their bodies are changing and then find different ways. Oprah Winfrey actually, as part of one of her specials did a breathing, a co-regulation and a breathing with two and three-year-olds, and it's, a very powerful clip and it really shows the benefit of parents being intentional about first helping children co-regulate and then helping them develop when they get to situations where parents may not be around whether it's school or a social situation, what can they do on their own behalf at that moment when they get into that... somewhat frustrated or emotional feeling.

Emily Melious25:12

I find it to be so powerful in the calm moments to talk with your kids, kind of that mental log of what happened as you said, how did you feel. How did you act? How do you feel about how you acted? How might you do something differently? And then talking about hypotheticals, you know, if someone upsets you at school, what can you do?

Who can you talk to? Where can you go and playing it out so that they have that game plan? As you said when we get angry, we're not thinking very logically, but if we have this natural fallback or this habit, because habits don't take mental energy, they're more that muscle memory, like you talked about.

It's in and of itself, habits can feel soothing. And I know for my older son, it's go up to his room and turn on an audio book and that's what brings him down. And it doesn't even matter what the content of the book is just like that little girl. It's just that habit, that activity that is a trigger in a positive way to calm down.

My goodness, Marty, we could talk on and on and on. There's so much fascinating, concepts that you're sharing and really helpful strategies that all of us can implement.

Get in contact with Marty (26:23)
Emily Melious26:23

So, I know you have a lot of practical tools and free resources that you can share. If listeners are really interested in getting a hold of you, how can they do that?

Marty Wolner26:32

Well, you can join me at HealthyAngerToolbox.com. There's actually a free parenting anger ebook that they can download there as well and a lot of other tools. But again, it's all about empowering parents to understand their anger and then make that switch to healthier anger expression and hopefully be more assertive rather than aggressive or passive-aggressive.

Emily Melious26:55

Awesome, and for everyone listening, if you have not yet signed up to receive our Episode Insiders, go to mothersofmisfits.com and be sure to do that because in those emails, we give you extra insider information about our guests like Marty, and then any of those special resources and extras and offers... we pack it in there too.

So you'd never want to miss out on those fantastic resources. And so many of our guests are generous in offering that to our listeners. Marty, I really appreciate you coming on again, clearly, this is such an, area of expertise for you. And one of the biggest takeaways I have from this entire conversation is that emotions are contagious.

So thanks again.

Marty Wolner27:41

Oh, so grateful Emily, thank you! And best of luck to you.

Mothers of Misfits27:44

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