One of the most vivid memories I have from childhood centers on emotions. My brother was angry often, and my mother always chalked it up to him simply being male. However, if I dared show anger about anything, I was told it wasn’t ladylike. Similarly, if he showed anything resembling weakness in her eyes, i.e. crying, he was told to stop acting like a girl and suck it up.
What it taught me was to choke down my anger, no matter how righteous. And him, to swallow his tears no matter the pain.
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.
There is little difference in how boys and girls experience and express emotions, but there is a substantial difference in how we respond. We reward girls 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 they have the right to be respected. And the effects of that carry into adulthood. 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, 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.
We can change this within our homes as well.
Share the positive power of anger
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. However, anger actually has an incredible potential to deepen connections.
It can bring people together and make them audible and visible to each other.
When a girl or woman is angry, she is saying; What I am feeling, thinking, and saying matters. If you are in a relationship where you can’t say, ‘Hey, this is important to me,’ what good is that?
Listen to your daughter
Parents need to honor girls’ feelings, including anger. Anger is an uncomfortable emotion. It triggers us. Your instinct, as a parent, is, ‘I don’t want to feel this right now, I’ve got to stop this.’
Try being open to your daughter’s anger. Between fourth and 11th grades anger can be very physical and overwhelming for kids. 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. Let your daughter know you see her anger and you want to hear why she is angry. When everyone is calm, then you can discuss other ways of handling those feelings, or just express how it made you feel. But be sure to listen to her side, too.
The girls who really get this have people in their lives who work with them from an early age. Try role-playing, where the scenario involves someone who is mean, threatening, or says something rude. Then walk your children through what it’s like to be angry without resorting to cruel or demeaning speech.
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, which is when they can fall prey to the “mean girl” stereotypes.
Help them smash stereotypes
At a pretty young age, speaking your mind or having strong feelings gets all mixed up for boys and girls. Girls get labeled as ‘mean girls’ or ‘bitchy’; While boys who show emotion are labeled ‘sissies’ or ‘weak’.
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.
Girls are taught it’s okay for them to cry when they’re sad or angry, while boys are told to suck it up or man up. Sadly, this causes boys to internalize their feelings and popularize the ‘stoic man’ mindset. What it really does is buy into toxic masculinity.
Encourage your children, regardless of gender, to feel what they feel, so they can build a framework to respond appropriately.
Express your own anger and emotions directly
To help children 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. 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. Because if you give up, that’s one less person in the world learning how to express their emotions.