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Angry outbursts, unreasoned rage

Parents and teachers are so concerned with a child's future that they often lose sight of the present. S. ANANDALAKSHMY writes of the need to train adults to avoid the flashpoints of trouble at home and in school.

G.R.N. SOMASHEKAR

Catch `em young ... the policy applies equally to parents and teachers too.

A powerful, bellowing voice says, "Get out of the house, this minute. I never want to see you again!" The voice is the father's, the person addressed, his 14- year -old son. This is an excerpt from a domestic setting, where the father has a regular job and makes an effort to see that his children have a good future. The son attends a school in the neighbourhood and has quite a good academic record. Should this not be the average "happy family"? What is happening here? Where has the happiness disappeared?

We can make our own hypotheses, even inferences. Let us consider one scenario of what could have preceded this episode. The boy was caught surfing a pornographic website, when his father returned from a frustrating day at the office. Justifiably, the father expressed his anger and his authority. But the tirade continued for several minutes, the decibel level going up and the language getting out of control. Anger builds on anger, reinforced by self-righteousness and then becomes an unreasoned rage.

What has the child learnt? That he should not pursue his adolescent inclinations on the web; but even more clearly, that his father has a tendency to "lose his cool", and it is best not to get caught by him. The boy may not be banished from the house at the time, but the threat will stay. There are hundreds of children who run away from the wrath of parents. How do well-meaning human beings get themselves into these situations?

The last two centuries have seen a domination of the intellect and a focus on rational thinking in man. The human species is termed "homo sapiens", translated roughly, as thinking man, or wise man. In this period, the great leap in knowledge, especially of the sciences, has further reinforced the concept of a rationally thinking species. However, what may have been ignored is the central role of emotions in the human psyche. In essence, the new message from brain research is to harmonise head and heart.

Today's employers, whether in corporate houses or frontier science institutions, are also beginning to look for emotional intelligence in the people they recruit. The constituents of emotional intelligence are identified as knowing one's emotions and managing them, motivating oneself, recognising other people's emotions and handling relationships.

One of the emotions that some people cannot seem to manage is anger. Anger has a tendency to escalate into rage; when that happens, people can no longer think straight. A parent may be angry when his child does something "wrong", but if he shouts and rages, failing to keep his anger in check, his effort is pointless. The child will cower in fear, feeling intimidated but confused. The scolding is often, totally out of proportion to the seriousness of the act. The parent may justify losing his temper at the child as "letting off steam", a kind of catharsis. It does not work that way. The explanation has advanced beyond the pressure boiler model. People, who are hot-tempered, actually get habituated to losing their temper and flying into a rage. They can be described as slaves of passion.

When anger turns into rage, it is no longer amenable to reason and can easily erupt into violence. We can probably recall instances when parents have been unduly enraged at acts, from that of a child bringing back someone else's pencil in his school bag, to playing truant from school and going to the cinema. The parent, who wants to bring up his children well, may go into an excess of righteousness and become violent. This is a common type of metamorphosis: an apparently reasonable human being turns into a red-eyed monster!

Anger is often a function of power and the need to dominate and control. A number of factors correlate with power: age, male gender, hierarchy, status, money, caste and superior knowledge. For this discussion, let us consider parents and teachers. Both these sets of adults are concerned with the child's future and with guiding his present conduct in ways that will be beneficial, in the long run. The operative phrase, in their thinking, is "the long run". There is such a strong concern for the future, that the importance of the present moment is often forgotten. The word "now" drops out through an invisible hole in the ground. Parental ambition for the future of their offspring (mainly their success and prosperity) dominates the relationship between parents and children. Love, laughter and tenderness are sacrificed in the process.

Let us look into a classroom, where there is an angry teacher, getting angrier by the moment. The episode that triggered off the rage is trivial and even negligible. While the teacher was writing on the blackboard, one student at the back of the class opened her tiffin box, to see what her mother had packed for lunch. She then felt tempted to taste it, just a little bit, before the teacher turned. The timing was off by a split second. And then the storm broke.

o one in class could figure out why the teacher magnified the act into a crime. As the teacher's hot words mounted, she convinced herself that she was sacrificing her best years, for these "undeserving brats." After that, there was no stopping her; there was only the heaving of self-righteousness and the mounting of blood pressure.

If the teacher had paused for a minute and counted to 10, she might have smiled and just dropped the matter. Or made an announcement in a matter of fact way, that it was mandatory for all students to have a proper breakfast and to eat their lunch only at lunch hour.

Many people justify their severe punishments of the children in their care, by making references to their own childhood, when they were dealt harsher punishments. They say, "What's wrong with me? I've done well in life"! Yes, but if they had been spared the harshness and had known wise parenting, they would have been more human, developed the ability to be flexible, and to have a sense of humour.

One hears of courses for awareness, personality development, and enhancement of managerial skills for personnel in the business and corporate sector. Parents are expected to be kind, wise and good, merely by having gone through the biological experience of having children. Teachers, on the other hand, are given a training course before they begin teaching, which is expected to serve them for their whole professional life. The training course itself is in need of upgrading, even radical revision, since the earlier focus was largely on techniques of handling the subject matter. There is no reference in the training course to inter-personal skills and the intelligent handling of emotions.

To dream up some of the new course titles that will be offered: "Cultivation of Compassion", "Diffusion of Anger", "Deflation of Egoism", "Spontaneity and Creativity" — one could keep adding to this list of in-service courses for teachers and continuing education for parents. These would help in the mature handling of problem situations and avoid the flash point in school and home. Surely, children will thank us!

The writer is a consultant in child development and education.

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