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Catholic Activity: Mastering a Temper



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Through your example and advice, help your child to learn how to control his temper.


As a child grows older and reaches the point where he can deliberate and consider certain of his weaknesses objectively, it helps him to be given some simple means of dealing with them. The effectiveness of this depends largely on the rest of the family. We have had, as I say, some pretty grim tempers in our family. One boy in particular was given to such magnificent displays that when the rest were sitting around with nothing to do, they were not above "egging him on" until he finally blew up. It was a form of rainy-day entertainment for a while. This sort of thing will not do, obviously, and we had to make it clear to them that they were as responsible as he if they deliberately tried to make him angry. But it was their brother who needed help most.

As a very small child he was the kind who, denied something, reprimanded for something, couldn't get his sweater off, his shoe on, would throw a horrendous fit and also the shoe. Now not all children will do this. Some will come and ask for help. Others will just whine. Others will wander off without their shoes. But not — — . And we were properly discouraged. Whenever we would reprimand him for a display of temper, he would shriek: "All right, then I don't love you any more!"

After it was all over and forgotten, he would line up with the rest for hugs and kisses at bedtime and it was when he was calm and old enough (between three and four) that we began to get somewhere with him. Why did he, of all people, want to be hugged and kissed?

"Because I love you."

"But you said you didn't."

"Oh yes, I do."

"Well, why did you say you didn't?"

"I don't know. I didn't mean it." And this is where you move in.

"If you didn't mean it, you really shouldn't have said it. How do you suppose your Guardian Angel feels, standing around and watching you hop up and down and scream that you don't love your mother? And how about Blessed Jesus inside your soul? You know you don't do these things just in front of me. Our Lady sees them, all our angels, the Holy Trinity, probably everyone in Heaven. You know something? You have a pretty bad temper and it makes you do things you don't want to do, and say things you don't want to say. Now tonight, when you say your prayers, think about it and ask God to help you keep your temper. Tell Him what you did today and ask Him to forgive you for losing your temper."

So he started including the struggle with his temper in his daily prayers, and when it was clear a storm was brewing, we tried to help him before he got lost in it. "Be careful now. You'll be losing your temper if you don't watch out. Don't say something you don't really mean."

And having decided that he really did love us, mad or no, he substituted: "All right, then I'm going some place else to live!"

Now all children say this, and all sorts of advice is given about it. Some of the experts caution us never to pretend to take them up on it; it leaves them fearing you really don't care if they do leave. We have one child who, when he threatens to leave, we instinctively respond to with, "Oh, come — you don't mean that. You know you don't want to go off and live somewhere else." But this peppery boy seemed to call for a real show-down. (And the best reason I can give for this is simply maternal instinct.) So one raw November day, after threatening for weeks, we said, All right, if he really wanted to, he could leave. He got his things on and we packed some toys in a bag (one must save face, of course; so he was very cheerful about the whole thing), and off he went in the teeth of a gale. After about forty minutes of roaming around in the yard, he was banging on the door to come in.

"But you said you wanted to go away."

"Now I don't."

"Then why did you say you did?"

"I don't know. I didn't mean it."

Pretty silly. He admitted it. Losing his temper this time nearly did him out of a lot of dearly loved creature comforts.

The next threat was a considerable surprise when he screamed from the middle of a rage, "All right, then I'll hit myself on the head with a hammer!" This because a hammer was on a chair nearby. Everybody howled. He is one boy who is not given to the enjoyment of physical pain — and of course we hastily removed the hammer. Poor lamb. I have never seen such embarrassment as his that night at prayers when, examining his conscience, he muttered, "I got mad and said I'd hit myself on the head with a hammer."

The following fury hit an all-time high in nonsense with: "All right, then I'll cut the ends off my shoelaces!" And we proposed he do exactly that — only remember, he'd have to slop around with his shoes untied ever after. He retreated in grand confusion.

All this was very long drawn-out, but trying to help a bad-tempered child is tedious business. He was slowly learning to walk softly with his "mads" and came the day when he ran in from digging holes in the driveway to announce: "Hey, I threw my bad temper away."

His temper, need I say, has not been entirely thrown away, but it is not especially outstanding any more and what there is of it will probably be forever. One doesn't get rid of a temper as one does a diseased appendix. But he has had enough experience in his few years of growing to know that praying does help and that there is such a thing as learning to try to control a weakness. It is a great step to be able to be detached enough to admit you have such a weakness. A more perfect detachment will come when, older, he begins to understand that temper in the raw can be transformed into the kind of dynamic drive that helped the saints defy the devil. It has a use.

One of the great blessings is to know that the saints had these same weaknesses as we, and children love to hang on hard to some saint who had a bad temper, told lies, and stumbled into the same kinds of trouble. St. Peter qualified for just about everything we have trouble with in our family, and to know that he was made head of the Church, instead of St. John whose love was so flawless, is a great comfort to all.

There is another form of temper tantrums — brutality with other children. Hitting, kicking, biting, spitting — all the rest, are quick vicious tantrums, and the same approach works with the same slow effect. Here, however, there is the business of apology added to the struggle. Spiritual directors tell their penitents that during aridity to make the body go through the postures and attitudes of reverence will help the act of the will and drag the emotions and imagination in line. This works, too, with children and their apologizing. A child who mutters "I'm sorry" because his mother is standing back of him waiting to hear it doesn't learn a thing from it and probably isn't very sorry. But if he has a minute or two to talk it over with his mother, to return to consider Christ Whom he must see in his playmates, and then faces his victim and says: "I'm sorry I pounded you and I won't do it again. Please will you forgive me?" the fact that he has had to say out loud "I pounded you" makes it quite clear why he is apologizing, and the "Please will you forgive" is the only way to ask forgiveness. A sincere act of contrition has to have that element of "please" in it or saying "I'm sorry" is nothing more than expediency.

Usually the astonished victim has to be prodded into saying, "Yes, I forgive you," but once the routine is established, not only in a family but in a neighborhood, grudges disappear more quickly, and it will have a gradual effect of weatherproofing the common affection.

We have added one more detail to this, though not a public one, and that is an act of contrition. The whole neighborhood doesn't have to know that so-and-so is in the house saying an act of contrition, but it ought to be part of the aftermath of any brawl. Children will even learn to say it without prompting (that's the truth). One of my sons lifted my sagging spirit one day by returning from his act of contrition to say: "I said something else too. I said, please gimme some grace."

This will nourish you for days. If we can just hang on and keep at it, and if they will just learn to ask for, please, some grace, we won't have to fret too much over the snail's pace of progress. The thing that counts most is that there is Someone Who can make it all work out eventually, and He is busy all the time giving grace.

Activity Source: We and Our Children by Mary Reed Newland, Image Books, 1961