Transforming Children's Anger

How Empathic Connection Can Reduce Sibling Rivalry and Family Conflicts

By Inbal Kashtan

What parent has not experienced a surge of protectiveness when your older child hurts their younger sibling? Our cultural training calls on us to immediately take two roles: the judge, determining who did what wrong and what the consequences will be, and the police officer, enforcing the consequences. These are thankless jobs that usually result in frustration, resentment, pain, and separation between parent and child and between the children themselves. Sadly, our actions do not really contribute to our deepest yearnings: peace, connection, trust and love in our homes.

Nonviolent Communication (NVC) invites us to explore a different paradigm when we face challenges with and between our children: a paradigm of connection and compassion for all, of mutual care and the possibility of contributing to everyone’s needs. Perhaps most importantly for our troubled times, this paradigm supports children with models and skills for making peace in our world.

How does this paradigm shift work in real life families who practice NVC? Here is a story from one mother of three boys, who participated in BayNVC’s family camp in 2004:

“My 13-year-old son, David, was really angry one day and about to hurt one of his twin younger brothers as they sat near each other on the couch. So, I did what I now do whenever physical violence is about to happen between them and got in the middle of the two. David was breathing heavily and had his fists clenched as he sat in a chair next to me. His brother was on the other side of me on the couch. I went with habit and started to tell David about anger management and how he needed to go for a walk or go to his room until he cooled off. He continued to breathe heavily and clench his fists.”

Then his brother said something like, “David did you just want to be included?” I realized then that what David needed was empathy and started guessing, too. My first guess simply echoed what his brother already guessed: “Are you needing to be included?” I saw David’s fist relax just slightly. I guessed again: “Are you needing to feel that you belong?”  His fist relaxed even more and his breathing began to slow down some.

Then I guessed that his need for belonging had been unmet for a really long time with his twin brothers. David’s fist relaxed more along with his body. Then I guessed that maybe if his need for belonging were met his need for love would be met, and tears began to roll down his cheeks.

I will be forever grateful for the tools of NVC for allowing me to get to this place of awareness and healing with my son.

I celebrate this mother’s honesty about her struggle to remember to turn to connection. Like most of us, she has habits that point in another direction. Yet she is willing to be awakened by her son’s initiative and remembers to return to the focus on the heart. This reinforces my trust in the possibility of transformation for all of us. We can always be reminded and can always choose to return to connection.

I also celebrate this mother’s modeling for her sons. It’s her dedication to trying, again and again, to focus on holding everyone’s needs with compassion and care that made it possible for her son to do the same when she could not.

My heart abounds with hope when I hear stories like this — and I hear them from many parents. In August, I started a program called the Parent Peer Leadership Program, for participants from the U.S. and Canada who are learning to integrate NVC into their lives and to share NVC with others as peer leaders. These parents will be starting empathy and practice groups in their communities this winter. I celebrate how this work will now reach many more people and continue to support families to live with compassion, connection, and peace.

Inbal Kashtan is author of Parenting From Your Heart, and serves as the director of the CNVC Peaceful Families, Peaceful World project. A mother of an 8-year-old son, Inbal facilitates workshops and retreats, co-leads an NVC leadership program and creates NVC curricula.