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Ain’t misbehaving: 5 underlying reasons for the rise of anger and conflict during the pandemic

If you have been reacting to an increase in anger and conflict from your children, you’re making matters worse. Many families have told me they are experiencing an escalation of sibling rivalry, power struggles, and people snapping at each other. One high school girl told me she feels like she is becoming an angry, mean monster at home. Beyond the obvious excuse of being cooped up in quarantine, this article will look below the surface to illuminate five underlying causes of these behaviors and what to do about it.

1. What are root beer feelings? When you pour root beer into a mug, you get the actual soda on the bottom with foam on the top. If you keep pouring, the foam ends up spilling over the rim and causing a mess. The root beer itself is the important ingredient here. Metaphorically speaking, the foam is our anger family of feelings: mad, frustrated, angry, annoyed, revengeful. These emotions only cause problems if they are directed at people, i.e. when we ‘foam’ on others. Below the anger, just like below the foam, there are always more important emotions that are causative. I call these root beer feelings (RBF’s). Examples of RBF’s are sad, hurt, scared, disappointed, disrespected, controlled, and embarrassed. Whenever kids get angry, I encourage them to take a quick break and figure out what’s going on below the surface. If they can identify and express their RBF’s in a healthy way, the anger dissipates because it was just a reaction to feeling the more important RBF’s. A client recently told me her younger sister wore one of her outfits without asking and she blew a gasket. She figured out that her RBF in this case was feeling disrespected. I had her express that to her sister and they worked out an agreement about borrowing each other’s clothes. Some common pandemic related RBF’s I have been hearing recently from kids and teens in my counseling practice are fear, sadness and loss, confused, disconnected, lonely, uncertainty, disrupted, anxious, smothered, and controlled. I encourage kids to spend time regularly expressing their emotions through journaling, art, music, poetry, stories, and letters so that they don’t leak out as anger. 
2. Point the finger inward: When it comes to emotions, kids tend to reflect the adults around them. If you have noted an uptick in sibling rivalry or angry outbursts, I’d first check in with yourself. Have you been more on edge, crabby, distracted, or disconnected? When children are around distracted parents, they feel sad, unimportant, not cared about, and unloved. Their response to this is often mischief in the form of anger, power struggles, withdrawing, or acting younger. It’s also important to evaluate your relationship with your spouse. If there is marital discord, kids will feel the tension, anger, and disconnect even if there are no outward signs of fighting or yelling. So, take care of your own feelings and clean up issues in your marriage or they will be reflected in your children. 
3. Is your child overwhelmed? Anger is often a symptom of emotional overload. Little grievances and hurts add up to a state of overwhelm. The emotions have to go somewhere and often leak out as kids snapping at undeserving parents, siblings, or themselves. Instead of focusing on their anger, encourage them to figure out their underlying RBF’s and express those. Better yet, have them prevent the build up by regularly channeling their emotions through the examples mentioned above. 
4. Is your child undergoing a transition? Dr. T. Berry Brazelton used the concept of touch points to describe times when kids were about to undergo a developmental transition; think terrible twos, fearful six-year-olds, 7thgrade girls, high school seniors, college seniors. Just prior to this shift, kids tend to fall apart, feeling restless, out-of-sorts, angry. There develops a push-pull of I want to grow up and I don’t, and out of this ambivalence comes the emotional upheaval. The pandemic has added another layer of fear, uncertainty, and loss for kids undergoing touch points. They need help sorting through their emotions and reframing what’s going on inside of them as a normal part of growth and change. 
5. Are they taking care of themselves? Anger and conflict may be a sign that kids aren’t doing enough self-care. Brainstorm with them ways that they can regularly, preventatively take care of their minds, bodies, and emotions. Girls in my counseling practice have been using exercise, yoga, walks outdoors, time in nature, journaling, artwork, photography, bubble baths, doing their nails, playing games with their family, and online connecting with friends to fill their cups. Prevention is always the best medicine. 

Whenever I see girls in my counseling practice with anger issues, I never focus on their ire. Like me, you can help your kids dive below the surface to figure out the underlying cause of their anger and then handle that effectively. All of the above-mentioned sources of conflict, i.e. root beer feelings, overwhelm, touch points, and lack of self-care also apply to adults. As we progress through the stages of the covid-19 crisis, consciously and regularly practice the self-care necessary to prevent anger and conflicts from taking over your home.

 Tim Jordan, M.D. is a Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrician, speaker, author and media consultant, blogger and podcast.  Tim is dedicated and passionate about serving children, whether it is in his private practice counseling girls 6 – 22 years; consulting with schools; speaking to parents; or facilitating at his weekend retreats and summer camps.  His new book is She Leads: A Practical Guide for Raising Girls who Advocate, Influence and Lead.



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