The Negative Emotions
A negative emotional state not only makes a child miserable, it can impact their very biology in a way that leads to lasting harm. One must be extremely careful not only of emotions left by the event itself, BUT OF EMOTIONS BROUGHT ABOUT BY REACTIONS AND ATTITUDES TOWARD IT. For example, a parent who finds out her child was abused or otherwise mistreated and then models a response of anger and hatred is likely to cause her child a lot more lasting psychological harm than the abusive person she's mad at, because she's modeling a response that evokes destructive emotional states. These states will persist long after any particular event is over and done with. There are several destructive emotional states that you want to avoid, both in the experience itself and the response to it:
Anger generally comes from a social hurt, and as such, our minds have a lot to do with its creation. If someone wrongs us, we proceed to assign them sinister intentions: We assume they did it on purpose, that they meant to hurt us, that they're evil, that they knew what the outcomes would be before they acted, that they "chose" to act as they did (as opposed to acting impulsively or imperfectly on account of their own inbuilt quirks or unconscious desires, as we're all prone to doing). We imagine them enjoying our pain, being out to get us, and in the process develop an 'us versus them' mentality. Naturally, thinking such thoughts will only fuel our anger, and pretty soon we've worked ourselves into a self-created destructive mindset. Such feelings, strong as they may be, are nowhere near accurate, as we discuss our book The Psychology of Healing.
Because of this, anger is never correct. No, not ever. It's always a flawed, self-absorbed emotion that distorts our perception to a ridiculous degree. It shuts down our empathy and eliminates any attempt to see things from another’s point of view. As psychologist Martin Seligman (1993, p. 126) notes, "an accurate description of the moral tone of red-hot anger is 'self-righteous' rather than righteous." Biologically, anger was designed to make us aggressive in the short term in response to a threat; preparing us to act in case we needed to fight. It's not a sign of right or wrong, good or bad, merely an indication that we feel threatened. In the real world, in modern times, it has little constructive use in our lives except as a signal of our feelings that must be examined. It's certainly not an emotion to judge by.
Anger is unhealthy for a multitude of reasons. For starters, it's a negative, self-destructive emotion that makes whoever harbors it unhappy and miserable. As John Roger & Peter McWilliams (1991, p. 167) point out, "the irony is that when we punish another, we first punish ourselves. Who do you think feels all that hate we have for another? The other person? Seldom. Us? Always." Anger and hatred makes a person sad, upset, and miserable. It elevates blood pressure, spikes stress levels, and consumes our every thought. It's hard to think clearly or get anything done when angry. This can affect a child's schooling and lead to depression or behavioral problems. Prolonged anger has also been shown to have numerous adverse effects on health. (See our book: Child Maltreatment, A Cross-Comparison)
Reacting with anger blocks reconciliation (and thus, blocks healing) while creating collateral damage. This collateral damage often sets off a new cycle of stress and conflict. (Retribution, retaliation, court dates, and reciprocal hostility that only deepens the hurt.) Furthermore, it deepens a child's own guilt. As Rusk & Rusk (1988, p. 57) point out, "the human spirit thrives on compassion and respect; it withers without it. The well-being of our spirits requires that we treat others with warmth and consideration. It feels wrong to act maliciously, just as it feels wrong to be treated badly." Injuring other people in response to a wrong they did does nothing more than cement each party in their hurt and suffering.
Anger pits a person’s mind against itself. When someone does something hurtful, anger usually leads us to form hostile perspectives and exaggerated beliefs about how horrible their trespass was. "I don't get angry without a reason" a person tells themselves. "Therefore, I must have a right to be angry!" It's this kind of self-absorption that traps a person with their destructive thoughts and beliefs. Anger tricks a person into using the reasoning areas of their brain to reinforce catastrophic thoughts rather than refute them. By attempting to justify their anger, they must continue to immerse themselves in the hurt, and so a person who reacts to adversity in such a manner will never get better, not until the anger subsides. Responding to adversity with anger also models an unhealthy response, one that will be carried over to all of the life issues a child encounters. If children learn they are supposed to seek retribution and retaliation ("justice") anytime someone wrongs them or does something they don't like, you've doomed them to a life of responding to adversity in a miserable way that will only create more conflict.
We can't stress enough that there is no such thing as "righteous" anger. All anger and hatred is a self-destructive emotion, harmful to oneself and the others around them. It doesn't matter how justified you believe your anger to be. Regardless of what someone did to you or your child, if you model anger in response you're only doing more severe harm. (And, in such cases, we would be 'justified' for hating you on account of the harm you're doing your child through hatred. See how easy it is to "justify" hatred?) Modeling anger or hatred in response to an event is the worst thing you could do for your child. It will inhibit your child's recovery, and in many cases cause them more long-term suffering than anything the person you're mad at did. Events mean very little. Beliefs about events can matter an awful lot. Anger traps a child in destructive beliefs about an event, and is so debilitating that it can far exceed any potential abuse that they might endure.