gingerbread man cookie cutter

Gingerbread Man Parable (Anger/Pain Management)

Randy Hyde, PhD introduced me to an explanation of anger when I was in residency at Preferred Family Services in 1993. Over 20 years in community mental health, I used, revised, and added concepts to this model to fit my own therapy style.

I needed a way to talk to kids about anger that was in the language of a child. The model had to be quick in delivery and easy to understand.

The model was designed to be presented in one 50 minute session with parents present. Parents need to be involved in a child’s therapy so that they can reinforce the concepts in the home.

Including the parents came with a surprising result. They not only embraced the model to understand their children, they applied the concepts to understand themselves.

Because they could see the relationship between pain and anger in their own lives, they could
support their children to apply the concepts.

Children remember concepts best when delivered in a way that is exciting and easily presented
with evidence of its usefulness. Success with the model in individual (collateral therapy) led to using the model in family therapy as well.

The purpose of the allegory (intervention) was to help children and family members understand the nature of anger.

Anger can be a tool (signal of pain) rather than just a negative or destructive emotion.

Gingerbread Man Parable (Anger/Pain Management)

Anger is a secondary emotion that is triggered by other primary emotions. I will attempt to present this information as I would with a child and his family in session.

I drew a picture of a “gingerbread man” and stated to the child, “This is you.”

The picture was very rough on purpose.

Children and parent came up with a wide range of responses that covered humor (positive) to disgust (negative).

I followed the statement with a question directed toward the child, “How much are you worth?”

It was surprising, or maybe not so surprising, that the majority of responses were negative. Even parents were more negative in their responses than I expected.

However, I set the parents up. I turned to the parents and asked, “How much is your child worth?”

Of course, parents would almost universally respond with something like “so much” or “they are worth everything.”

I responded by drawing a large diamond inside of the gingerbread man asking the child, “How much is a diamond this big worth.”

Gingerbread Man Parable (Anger/Pain Management)

Younger kids emphatically respond, “It’s worth a dollar,” with older kids and adolescents stating “millions.”

I presented, “This diamond represents your worth or the worth of your soul.”

There is no dollar amount that can be placed on the value of a child. Parents or children often make the point that they are “Priceless.”

If they don’t, I do. Then I follow up with a question to the child, “Do you always feel priceless?”

This question is almost universally answered, “No” with frequent silence or even tears. Children and parents are allowed some time to process the concept and associated emotions.

I ask the child “why don’t you feel priceless?”

Their response is usually comments about painful experiences. With each experience the child or parent relates, I draw marks (using a pencil with eraser) on the diamond.

Gingerbread Man Parable (Anger/Pain Management)

I keep adding scribbles on the diamond until they stop giving examples.

I then start stating other painful experiences (sometimes using my own) while scribbling on the diamond until it is almost completely covered.

I comment with each statement that the scribbles represent pain.

I then say, “how does this person feel now?”

Children and parents acknowledge that they (child and parent) often feel that they are not worth while.

I comment, “where is the diamond?”

The child frequently states, “It’s gone.”

I remind them that the diamond is still there, it is just covered up.

Their worth never is diminished even if painful experiences leave them feeling of less value.

I point out parts of the diamond that are still visible and say, “Look the diamond is still there…It’s just covered in garbage-trash.”

Discussion turns to realizing that negative experiences do not tarnish our value.

We are children of our Heavenly Father and He does not make garbage.

I ask, “How can we remember that we are priceless even when things are extremely painful?”

After discussion I ask, “What can we do to feel better or recognize our worth?”

Gingerbread Man Parable (Anger/Pain Management)

I take my eraser and erase marks on the diamond while saying, “I am not bad, I am loveable, I made a mistake but it does not mean that I’m bad, I’m not responsible for the mistakes of my parents or siblings…etc.”

I comment that easing the marks is like getting rid of the garbage on our diamond or our way of managing our pain.”

Many of the source of pain are the result of garbage or mistruths that Satan uses to discourage us and make us miserable.

Time is allowed for them to process and make comments about pain in their lives and where it comes from.

I ask, “Do you like feeling like this with all the pain covering your diamond?”

The response is almost universal-“No!.”

I follow with, “So, what do you do?”

Gingerbread Man Parable (Anger/Pain Management)

I then start drawing a circle abound the covered diamond and repeat the circle over and over until it creates an obvious boundary around the covered diamond.

I state, “This is what most of us do with pain—we create a forcefield to keep ourselves from getting hurt or at least from being hurt worse.”

I follow with “what is the forcefield? or how do we respond to pain?

Answers are rare.

I introduce that we protect ourselves from painful experiences by getting mad or angry. Anger becomes our shield-our defense against pain.

I have the child tell what they do when they are hurt.

They have no problem identifying getting mad or upset and lashing out.

I suggest to them that Anger is not just mad, it is a spectrum. It is not either there or not or black and white.

I draw a line.

On one end of the line I write, too angry and on the other end I write not angry enough.

Gingerbread Man Parable (Anger/Pain Management)

We then talk about the extremes on the dimension of anger and how ineffective they are in resolving pain.

Then, I draw a middle point along the line and label it Assertive.

Gingerbread Man Parable (Anger/Pain Management)

The discussion continues with understanding that we have to have enough energy, motivation, and assertiveness to respond to situations appropriately.

A certain amount of anger is necessary to resolve problems.

To be passive or not respond to pain does not help, nor does a justified tirade.

Emphasis is placed on demonstrating the ineffectiveness of anger in it’s extremes.

The discussion also involves recognizing and developing appropriate coping strategies including assertive management of pain.

We discuss that using anger as a forcefield to protect us from pain also keeps the pain inside and unresolved.

Internalizing pain leads to debilitating anxiety and depression.

Discussion turns to identifying pain and recognizing the source of the pain.

Pain has three main sources:

a) Pain we cause ourselves,

b) Pain caused by others, and

c) pain caused by Fate.

Effective pain management begins with accurately identifying the source of pain.

We then talk about each source of pain and I use their experiences or make up experiences to clarify.

I draw the following boxes:

Gingerbread Man Parable (Anger/Pain Management)

Self: Change

Others: Influence, Accept, Adjust

Fate: Accept, Adjust

We start by identifying pain that the child inflicts upon themselves.

For example, one child blamed his mother for getting a poor grade in math.

Her response was, “My mother didn’t make me do my homework (this is a real example by the way).

I comment or question, “You do not like getting bad grades?”

The child responded, “I get grounded and cannot play on my phone.”

Oh, “You don’t like losing the privilege to play games on your phone.”

We begin a discussion on who is the source of pain.

This child tried very hard to blame her mother.

However, it was the child’s behavior that resulted in losing the privilege.

I ask the child, “Who caused the pain.”

Resistance is the most frequent response but after comments from everyone, she reluctantly accept that the choice was hers.

I ask the child, “How can you assertively manage your pain?”

They frequently want to defend themselves or argue, but ultimately come to the conclusion that they are the source of pain.

I ask, “If you do not want this pain, what can you do about it?”

Rarely do they give an answer.

I give a ridiculous example, “If I keep poking myself in the eye and it hurts (demonstrating and pretending) what should I do?”

Most children respond, “Stop poking yourself in the eye.”

I make a big deal and say, “Oh, you mean I should just stop poking myself in the eye?”

They usually make the connection.

Then we talk about how to manage self-inflicted pain. The nice thing is that self-inflicted pain is the easiest source of pain to manage. Control lies with the child.

The child needs only to change.

Discussion continues in support of helping the child to see that they have control over their behavior and they can change producing a more desirable outcome.

I put in the Sources of Pain Box under Self the word “Change”.

Gingerbread Man Parable (Anger/Pain Management)

I then bring up an example of a source of pain that is caused by the behavior and choices of others.

For this discussion (a frequent problem) I will use divorce as a source of pain inflicted by others.

I ask the child, “Did you cause the divorce?”

Surprisingly, many children respond “yes” followed by anger or tears.

We then discuss how parents are responsible for their own behaviors. The choice to divorce belongs to the parents and their decision causes pain to the child.

The child is asked, “So, how do you manage the pain if you did not cause the pain? Can you change the situation? Can you make your parents get a long?”

You can imagine the wide variety of responses that are worked through in discussion.

I teach them, “You cannot change someone or force someone to change.”

This concept often creates tangential yet important discussions from the parents.

One discussion often involves the parents’ reluctance to accept that they cannot force a child to change their behavior.

I often remind them that we cannot take away a child’s agency.

Another discussion involves the child recognizing that they do not have control over other people. All
need to accept that pain caused by others is not something that the child can control.

The child and parents have to accept that the other person or people are responsible for their own

So, “What can you do?”

I write in the Other Box the word “Influence”.

Gingerbread Man Parable (Anger/Pain Management)

We then talk about things that the child can do or say to influence whoever is causing the pain. The discussion frequently gets stuck with “you cannot force another to change.”

I ask, “as you try to influence the other person, what do you ultimately have to do?”

No one likes this question or the inevitable answer, which is put into the Other Box under Influence—”Accept.”

I get comments, especially from parents, “I cannot accept that behavior.”

Ultimately, they have to come to grips with the fact that they cannot change another person.

We talk about always trying to influence and help others improve but ultimately the child (and parent) has to accept the source of pain is in another’s control.

They frequently ask (frustrated), “then what can you do?”

Discussion turns to the concept of adjusting.

The child makes choices to protection themselves from further pain.

The unfortunate outcome is a recognition that when the source of pain is not self (child or parent) the person in pain has choices to make.

These choices inevitably involve adjustments that are not pain free.

The child has to learn to realize that others can inflict pain and the child has to make adjustments that are in and of themselves painful.

For example, the parent who decides to divorce has to accept that the outcome includes consequences—some positive and some negative even though necessary.

The word “Adjust” is added to the Other Box under Accept.

The question is posed, “What about fate?”

Some pain is caused by events or situation over which no one has control.

I ask, “What are some sources of pain in your lives (addressing child and parents) that are caused by fate (No source).”

Gingerbread Man Parable (Anger/Pain Management)

It’s not hard to come up with painful losses or catastrophes in their lives.

They are asked, “who is the source of pain.”

Often, not surprising, the blame is placed upon God.

It seems that we have a need to be able to hold someone accountable.

The discussion that follows takes many directions.

Ultimately I ask the child, “Can you fix fate.”

The answer is no by definition. Fate just happens.

I ask, “can you change fate or influence fate?” the answer-“No.”

I ask, “Can you accept fate?” the answer –“Yes.”

Further, “Can you adjust to Fate?” the answer –“Yes.”

Discussion includes recognizing the pain of having no influence over fate and the pain that must be endured through acceptance and adjustment. (President Neilson’s concept of “Think Celestial” is a great recognition of the management of pain caused by fate).

I then tell the child that I now understand why people get so frustrated (a form or anger).

If a child assigns pain to an incorrect source, they will be frustrated by the results.

You do not take your car to a doctor to have the engine rebuilt.

It is impossible to manage pain that is incorrectly assigned.

The discussion includes the fact that no child can fix their parents or save themselves the pain of divorce by being a better child or changing their behavior.

No parents can take away the pain of an adolescent who choses to engage in destructive behaviors.

The source of pain must be acknowledged and then managed in a way that is consistent with the model.

I recognized long after developing this model that it is consistent with the Serenity Prayer from the 12 Step Addiction Recovery model: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

I end with encouraging all to change their perspective of Anger from a negative and destructive emotion to a useful tool.

Anger, within self or expressed by others, can be viewed as a signal that someone is in pain. Looking at anger as a secondary emotion allows exploration into sources of pain.

Using anger to identify pain can lead to correctly recognizing sources of pain and how to manage pain more effectively.

Emphasizing management of self-inflicted pain as the only source that we have control over helps empower children to improve and feel better about themselves.

Improving our ability to manage pain caused by ourselves is the most effective because we just change.

Recognizing pain caused by others begins with attempting to influence others to change.

However, we must accept that others have their own free agency. We can chose our behavior but we do not have control over the consequences or pain that results.

We must accept their choices while adjusting to protect ourselves and others. Pain caused by Fate requires acceptance and adjustment.

There needs to be a recognition of the purpose of pain.

We cannot appreciate joy as fully if we have not experienced its opposite – pain.

Pain is inescapable and necessary.

We need to understand the purpose of trials and challenges and recognize that we need pain as well as joy. (2 Nephi 2:11, President Neilson’s Think Celestial).

Article written by guest blogger A. Kyle Elder, PhD., child psychologist, school psychologist. If you would like to learn more from Kyle or possibly schedule with him, you can contact him:, or 4356509854.

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