- Association of Certified Biblical Counselors - https://biblicalcounseling.com -

Counseling Angry Children

Dale Johnson: This week on the podcast, I have with me my dear friend, Sean Perron. He has an M.Div from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He serves as an associate pastor at First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida. He’s an ACBC-certified counselor with a specialization in marriage counseling. He’s the author of three books: Letters to a Romantic, a whole series, one on dating [1], one on marriage [2], and one about the first years of marriage [3]. He’s also doing a Ph.D. here at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Biblical Counseling, and I cannot wait; I’m not going to reveal today, but I cannot wait until my brother is done and we’re working together. He is driving this ship on a phenomenal topic that I cannot wait to unveil, and that all of our listeners are going to be hearing more about in the days to come. And I’m just so excited about the work that you’re doing there. Let me tell you a little bit more about him. He’s married to Jenny. He’s been married to her for 10 years. They have two children, and he’s most passionate about the work of pastoral ministry, his family, and hot tea. He’s blessed by the sincere Christians of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville and their passion for the Scriptures.

And Sean, as we talk about this issue of counseling angry children, this is not an easy one to discuss. It’s very, very difficult and complex, yes, certainly because there’s a lot of factors that weigh in here, but it is definitely difficult when you’re dealing with children, you’re seeing them hurting so much and then even acting out in so many different ways to know how to navigate. And so, I’m glad that we’re going to tackle this topic today. So, I just want to start just helping us to understand sort of the landscape when we’re dealing with children particularly who are struggling with issues of anger, and we’re seeing this a lot more and more today. And I don’t want to miss the fact that, you know, the breakdown of the family in our society is certainly contributing to this on so many levels. But I want to talk about some of the factors, what are factors that counselors should be aware of when they’re dealing with children who are exhibiting angry behavior consistently.

Sean Perron: Yes, so there are numerous, it would actually take a while to unpack every possible one, but let me give you a few that are at play here. So, no particular order you have pressures that the child is experiencing. This could be pressures from the home. The Proverbs talk about how when you’re around an angry man, you pick up that anger; when you’re around angry parents, you pick up their behavior, and there can be pressures in the home, there could be dysfunction, home brokenness, conflict, rage, and all that’s taking place, but then you don’t have just the pressure of home, you’ve pressure of school. Most children are in some sort of school system that is public in nature. And you have all kinds of different parenting backgrounds that come into the kids that are at play there. And you have bullying that takes place. You’ve abuse that takes place, you have ridiculed, you have mocking, you have general conflict that just happens as little sinners get together and they play and learn and study and all that works itself out into influences.

Then you have time, you have a time issue that’s at play, so I remember counseling this one boy who is dealing with anger and I asked his mom what their schedule was like at home and he would go to school all day. He would come home, he would eat and it was unclear about whether or not that was a family event, and then he would go and he would play video games for three straight hours. And he did this every day and that has an impact. So, that’s time that is not being spent with parents, that’s time that’s not discipleship which is something important and that’s time where he’s online gaming with other angry children. So you have time issues and their schedule. Another factor is heart issues. So this is actually the heart. No pun intended, is the heart of the matter, out of the abundance of the heart comes our actions. So, in fact, Mark chapter 7 talks about how foolishness comes out of the heart. Anger comes out of heart, rage, and that is where our hearts are in need of a new birth. Our hearts are in need of Jesus Christ to come and put love in our hearts instead of hate in our hearts, and when our hearts are squeezed by the pressure and the time constraints and bad parenting and bad influences, all of that comes out in an angry rage or cold rage. Those are just a few of the factors at play. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, well said. Those are things that we should be paying attention to and looking for. I also want to mention, I’m sure you’re going to get into this, as we talk through. You know, when I’m dealing with children, whether it be issues of anger or other issues. I’m also engaging the parents as well. I think that’s so important. As we think about the way, God has designed the family to operate in the biblical system that God has granted. And we often see change affected that way. Now this is not to say that all the problems are blamed on the parent. That’s not what I’m saying, the parents are certainly influential, maybe even contributory to some of this. There probably is some personal responsibility that they need to take, but we also recognize that that child is a moral agent. They are making choices and decisions. Yes, they’re being influenced. Yes, there are a lot of other variables, but they are a moral agent, and we want to address them clearly. So I’ll get your thoughts on that in a second. I just want to make that distinction.

I think it’s really important that we see this child in the unit, the family unit that God has given, and operate in the structures that are God-ordained and helpful, and healthy. I want to move on to this issue of ways to give biblical instruction. We have to be cautious, certainly, depending upon maybe the degree and level at which this child is exhibiting different styles or types of anger. But what are some of the ways that we give biblical instruction to angry children that are memorable and relevant to the child?

Sean Perron: Yeah, I love this question. So a few things, and you’re absolutely right about parenting. So I won’t counsel a child unless other parent or the guardian is involved in the process. When it comes to giving instruction that it’s meaningful and memorable, I think of it like a basketball court. So, as the counselor, I’m the one who’s passing the ball to the parent who is going to slam-dunk it. So, the parents are the ones who are scoring the points. The parents are the most valuable player. The parents are the ones who are really involved in the discipling, which is their responsibility to disciple their children and anything I can do to give a tool or instruction to not just the child, but the parent to teach them that throughout the week, that is where the action happens for transformation and change. So let me give you a couple of examples.

So when thinking about connecting the Bible to a child, I think first and foremost we should not adopt the cultural mindset that children really can’t understand the Scriptures or they really can’t understand difficult things. Children deserve a lot more credit like they can really understand more than we think they can. This is true about young kids, about toddlers, and is true about older kids as well. So I don’t want to dumb down the Bible, we should never do that, but we should also seek to make the Bible pop with relevance in their life, as the Bible is intended to do. One way that I try to think about this is to think about what are some simple texts of Scripture that I can transform into an image that will stick in their mind. Let me give you a few examples. So the theological truth that our heart is the wellspring of life. Our heart is the source of our actions. Well, that’s a big truth, but it’s actually very simple here at our Counseling Center there was a fountain right across the street from where we are and this fountain is every kid knows what the fountain is. You have water in the bottom, and the water comes out the top. And so I would just take a pen or paper or dry-erase marker. And I would sketch out a fountain and say, okay, if I put water in the bottom of the fountain, what’s going to come out the top? Well, water. Well, what if what’s your favorite drink? Is it apple juice? Is it Coke? The Dr Pepper. Now, if I take the water out of the fountain and pour in Dr. Pepper or I pour in apple juice. What’s going to come out of the top? Well, apple juice or Dr Pepper. So whatever’s in the bottom comes out the top, and in the same way whatever is in your heart, if your heart is full of hate, what’s going to come out? Hey, if your heart’s filled with love, what’s going to come out? Love. So that’s just a simple illustration that doesn’t take any formal degree or licensure to be able to do that. All you got to do is just think, okay, how does the Bible talk? and then how can I make that in a memorable way?

Another example and moving to explain the gospel to children. This is their greatest need. In our office, we had a sponge in our kitchen right over here. And so I took a sponge and got the sponge over and I said, okay, so if we spill something on the ground, you can spill something on the ground, what’s the sponge going to do? And I had this one sweet little guy. He said well, It’s going to soak up. It’s going to soak up all the juice. Yeah, that’s right. So when Jesus, when He dies on the cross and God pours out His wrath on His son. Jesus absorbs. He absorbs all the wrath of God so that we can trust in Him and be forgiven, and he responded he says He soaks up all our sin. That’s right, He sure does. So that’s substitutionary atonement just displayed in a just a small visual and there’s countless, countless ways that counselors can have the integrity and the authority and sufficiency of Scripture just pop of relevance in their lives. Those are just two examples, I can give more, but I’ll save it.

Dale Johnson: I love that. And I think part of what you’re describing is the way in which Jesus used parables, where He’s using those for a specific end, He’s trying to help the people who are around, particularly the disciples, and He’s trying to help them to understand an eternal truth with something that’s right around Him in the moment that we can gain some God’s creation. And if we can do that with fountains and sponges, praise the Lord, I think that’s a great way to do it and those things will stick in the mind of a child because they know how those things function. And it brings eternal truths to the hearts of a child. I love that.

What if a child—and this has happened to me on multiple occasions where a child is so bound up in anger, their life experiences, they don’t trust people, they walk into the room, they’re not, let’s just say kindly, they’re not the most thrilled to be there to hang out with you for a little bit and as they come in, they walk in, you can tell in their body language, they’re not super thrilled to be there. So what if you have a child who’s so angry that they just clam up? They sit in the chair. They don’t want to talk at all, and you’re having trouble dialoguing some with them. What are some of the things that you do? 

Sean Perron: Yeah. So with this, I think we need to think back to the fundamentals of methodology that ACBC gives us. So, the same methods that we use for adults, which are biblically informed theological issues, those methods are the same ones we use for children. So I’m thinking of build involvement and gather data. So you’re trying to build involvement, you’re trying to have a real live relationship with this child where you connect, and they trust you, and they can trust what you’re going to tell them. And so how do you do that with the kid? Well, anyway that you do that with a normal adult. So you can ask them all kinds of questions. Like, what’s your favorite color? What’s your favorite food? What do you like for dessert? What makes you happy? What’s a normal day look like? Do you like to read? Do you like to write? Do you like to sing? Do you like to dance? Do you like to draw?

You can help them open up to realize that, oh you’re a real person who cares about them and maybe they walk in with a, I don’t know, Marvel t-shirt. And I like Spider-Man, you can connect and talk to him about that. Maybe one way to get in is to say hey, do you know what? I probably know you’re not thrilled to be here, you know. I don’t blame you. I would be too, and so let me ask you, why do you think you’re here? Why do you think your parents brought you here? How do you feel about meeting with us? It’s okay. If you don’t know me and don’t really want to be here. I totally get that. And I just want to get to know you. I want to hear about what’s going on in your life. And there will be kids where no matter what you do, it’s just not going to work. Then if that’s the case, go back to the parent and say hey, do you know what I think Johnny’s having a hard time opening up but I’m going to work with you as the parent to give you all the same information that I would give the child and so maybe they’re not connecting with me, but I’m gonna help you connect with your child and if you guys can’t connect then there’s something broken in your relationship and we can help with that. And that is bad news that leads to good news. And so those are a couple of angles that I would take try to get to build a formative relationship. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, great advice and essentially, what you’re saying is some of our counselors are going to have to do some homework on Marvel to make sure that we understand what you’re saying. I totally get what you’re saying. We need to enter into the child’s world. We need to understand a little bit about the things that they love and that they’re passionate about and begin that relationship there as we’re trying to build involvement. No, I think that was super well said.

Sean Perron: Maybe Yoda is a better…

Dale Johnson: Yeah, maybe Yoda might be a better illustration, but we want to find out what this kid is passionate about, what they enjoy. You can build a good relationship with them that way, and I’ve seen so many of those things work so well as you’re building trust in that child. And again, part of the reason they’re angry and barrier against people is they’ve been hurt in the past, in some way, shape, or form. And so, they’re not just going to open up and trust you immediately. So we have to do some work there, and that’s great.

Now, as we move into, you know, we get engaged in counseling, and we start working them through some of the different issues that they’re wrestling with, we’re talking to the parents and that sort of thing. What kind of homework assignments are you providing in order to help children who are angry? 

Sean Perron: Yes. So how I think about it is, let’s say I’m only meeting with the child for no more than an hour a week. So counseling sessions with kids are usually a bit shorter, as they should be, and I only got one hour a week or maybe if they’re active in church and they’re coming two or three times a week and I’m involved in their Sunday school class or involved in the kids’ ministry. Maybe I have two or three hours a week. The parents, though, have a lot more time with them. And so all the homework assignments I’m going to give, they’re not optional, they’re crucial, it is critical, so I really stress that with the parents. Like the most important thing is going to happen is if we’re building the foundation here for building a house, I’m laying one brick at a time, and you’re laying all the rest of the bricks the whole rest of the week, and so your role is crucial.

So the homework assignments I give, I give with a few things in mind. One is something that the child can do, the other is something that the parent can do with the child, and then the third is something the parent should do on their own. So, the secret is actually to have more than one counselee. So I’m not just counseling the child, I’m counseling the parent or the parents as well. So three categories, something that a kid can do, something that parents can do with their kid, and then something that the parents should do on their own. I’ll give one concrete example.

Let’s say I’m looking at Romans chapter 12 to talk about anger. Romans chapter 12 is short, easily memorizable, very quick, punchy statements about anger. So do not repay evil with evil, vengeance is mine declares the Lord, and I would have the kid and the parent work on memorizing one of those short passages of Scripture. So, that would be the kid, the kid’s responsibility is to memorize that text, and the parents are obviously going to help them, depending on the age. But then the parent should go, and they should read a text of Scripture together, and there should pick one, maybe one passage that whole week that they read every night before bed, and they could read it together and then they could have the child summarize the text back. So it could be any wonderful biblical story. It could be about Joseph and his brothers, and it could show the effects of anger and effects of jealousy that take place. It could be about how Jesus responded when people mistreated Him and how people were angry at Him, and how He responded biblically, and you can share the gospel in that way. And then I would also recommend something for the parent to do themselves. So this could be as simple as reading Ed Welch’s “A Small Book about a Big Problem,” which is a wonderful, very convicting book about anger, a short one page a day. The parents read that together at night, and they’re learning tools about how to counsel someone or how to deal with their own child with anger issues, but I’m hitting, I’m taking a shotgun approach and not just only having one isolated category. I’m getting a full-orbed picture of the scenario.

Dale Johnson: Brother, this is so helpful, and I’m so grateful we’re addressing this and so many applicable things that we could do even outside of this specific topic of counseling angry children, and so, listeners, I hope you’re encouraged by the things that Sean’s sharing with us and that you’re able to implement these things very soon. So, well done, brother. Thank you for joining us again. I really appreciate it.

Sean Perron: Thrilled to be here. Thank you.

Helpful Resources:

Click here [4] to search ACBC’s resource archive.

Click here [5] for more information about ACBC’s Annual Conference.