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Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you play an essential role in your child’s/teen’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-child relationship, and growing your child’s/teen’s skills to manage anger provides a perfect opportunity.
Children ages 11-14 are still in the process of learning about their strong and changing feelings. They do not fully understand the physical and mental takeover that can occur when angry. While striving for more independence, the sense of a lack of control that anger can produce can frighten them adding to the length and intensity of their upset. It might also humiliate them if they are mad in front of respected others like teachers, siblings, friends, or relatives. Learning how to deal with anger without suppressing it or expressing it by hurting others and/or themselves is critical. And, your support and guidance matter greatly.
Research confirms that when children/teens learn to tolerate, manage, and express their feelings, it simultaneously strengthens their executive functioning skills.1 They are better able to use self-control, solve problems, and focus their attention. This directly impacts their school success. However, the opposite is also true. Those children/teens who do not learn to manage their feelings through the guidance and support of caring adults may have attention issues and difficulty in problem solving.
Yet, everyone can face challenges in managing anger. Your child/teen may slam the bedroom door as they refuse to tell you what is happening and why they are so upset. Or, you may hear from a teacher that your child/teen has been aggressive or said something hurtful to another student. Anger may cover hurt, humiliation, fear, and stress. It may also mask guilt, shame, grief, or envy. Or, it could be the tip with an iceberg of a submerged mass of frustration.
The key to many parenting challenges, like managing anger, is finding ways to communicate so that both your needs and your child’s/teen’s needs are met. The steps below include specific, practical strategies along with effective conversation starters to prepare you to help your child/teen work through their anger in ways that grow their resilience.
Whether it’s your eleven-year-old breaking down in frustration over trying to get math homework accomplished or your thirteen-year-old yelling after not being allowed to attend an unsupervised party, anger and its many accompanying feelings can become regular challenges if you don’t help your child/teen create plans and strategies for dealing with and expressing their anger.
Today, in the short term, learning to manage anger can create
- a sense of confidence in your child/teen that they can regain calm and focus;
- trust in each other that you and your child/teen have the competence to manage a range of feelings; and
- added daily peace of mind.
Tomorrow, in the long term, your child/teen
- builds skills in self-awareness;
- builds skills in self-control and managing feelings; and
- builds assertive communication to communicate needs and boundaries critical for keeping them healthy and safe.
This five-step process helps you and your child/teen manage anger. It also builds important skills in your child/teen. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are done best when you and your child/teen are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Child/Teen Thinking by Getting Their Input
You can get your child/teen thinking about ways to manage their anger constructively by asking them open-ended questions. You’ll help prompt your child’s/teen’s thinking. You and your child/teen will also begin to better understand their thoughts, feelings, and challenges related to managing their anger so that you both can address them. In gaining input, your child/teen
- has the opportunity to become more aware of how they are thinking and feeling and understand when the cause of their upset is anger related;
- can think through and problem solve any challenges they may encounter ahead of time;
- has a greater stake in anything they’ve thought through and designed themselves, and with that sense of ownership comes a greater responsibility for implementing new strategies; and
- will be working with you on making decisions (and understanding the reasons behind those decisions) about critical aspects of their life.
- Be curious about your child’s/teen’s feelings. You might start by asking questions.
- “How do you know when you are angry?”
- “What are some common things that make you angry?”
- “How can you tell when someone is angry with you? And, what happens for you when someone is angry with you?”
- Use your best listening skills! Remember, what makes a parent angry can differ greatly from what angers a child/teen. Listen closely to what is most concerning to your child/teen without projecting your own thoughts, concerns, and feelings.
- Reflect or paraphrase back what you hear. For example, if your child/teen says, “I’m so mad at my friend, he picked all my friends but me for his team.” You could say, “So I hear that he picked all your friends but not you, and I imagine you felt left out.”
- Make guesses about other deeper feelings if your child/teen gives you some evidence for your guesses. Remember these guesses are based on them, not you. You are naming something your child/teen is not saying. For example, you could say, “I imagine not feeling picked made you feel hurt as well. Is that right?”
- Help your child/teen make the mind-body connection. Ask your child/teen, “What clues did your body give you that you were angry?” You can also say, “What are you feeling in your body now as you talk about it?”
Be sure you talk about anger at a calm time when you are not stressed or upset!
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
Because intense feelings like anger and hurt occur as you go about your daily life, you may not consider their role and impact on your child/teen. Intense feelings can have a major influence on the day and on your relationship with your child/teen. Learning about what developmental milestones a child/teen is working on can help you better understand what your child/teen is going through and what might be contributing to anger or frustration.2
- Eleven-year-olds are trying to assert their independence by imagining themselves in adult roles. They may get angry if they feel that you are exerting control when they are attempting to push away from you. As they grow their social awareness – being able to better see from another person’s perspective – they also increase their worries about being liked, who’s “in” and who’s “out,” and excluding others in order to gain popularity. And, they may get angry when they are excluded or embarrassed in front of peers.
- Twelve-year-olds are gaining confidence and leadership abilities, and they are eager to figure out more serious adult issues and where they stand. With their growing social awareness, disturbing news and social issues could preoccupy them more than ever. They also have a lot of energy yet they need their sleep, so they may have less resilience and find themselves more rundown by stress particularly when they have stayed up late. They may be edgy and moody or anger easily as they deal with that stress.
- Thirteen-year-olds can have worries related to their newly acquired body changes. They can be highly sensitive as they work to define their independent identity while still being dependent upon you. They will feel an ever greater sense of peer pressure, and though they may be pushing you away, they also require your continued support and guidance including needing your approval. These sensitivities can spur anger when they feel misunderstood and desire more freedom.
- Fourteen-year-olds may act invincible and like they know it all. Despite this, they still look to adults to set boundaries, negotiate rules, and listen to their needs. They are gaining interest in others as romantic partners and will have crushes, broken hearts, and worries related to the world of relationships. They could get angry if they are embarrassed or rejected in front of peers and particularly crushes. They may enjoy academic challenges until they feel overwhelmed or underprepared. This fear of failure can lead to anger.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child/teen up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems. This is also an opportunity to establish meaningful, logical consequences for when expectations are not met.
- Learn together! Anger and hurt are important messages to pay attention. They mean emotional, social, or physical needs are not getting met or necessary boundaries (our rules or values) are being violated. It’s important to ask, “Why am I feeling this way? What needs to change in order to feel better?”
- Understand your mind when angry. Anytime you are emotionally shaken from fear, anxiety, anger, or hurt, you are functioning from the part of your brain that developed first — the primal brain. During these intense feelings, there is a chemical that washes over the rest of your brain that cuts off access so that your only functioning abilities are in your survival center. This “hijacking” of your brain, as Daniel Goleman refers to it, serves a critical role.3 In true survival circumstances, you are able to focus on fighting, fleeing, or freezing. If you are being hunted by a tiger, your mind focuses immediately on running away. Your body surges with hormones, such as adrenaline, that give you an extra boost of energy. A high level of anger can quite literally paralyze thinking. Effective problem solving requires logic, language, and creativity, though none can be well utilized when greatly upset. But in family life, fighting with words or actions or fleeing out the door is often not constructive, safe, or practical. Creating a plan (as discussed below) for what each member can do when they are in this state of mind and practicing it can prepare all members to act with emotional intelligence during a crisis, big or small.
- Anger is not bad or negative. You should not avoid or shut down the experience of it. There’s a good reason for it. Everyone has experienced someone in their lives who has lost control and acted in ways that harmed themself or others when angry. However, every feeling, including anger, serves a critical purpose. Anger provides essential information about who a person is, what emotional or physical needs are not getting met, and where their boundaries lie. Understanding this often misunderstood feeling is key to helping your children/teens better understand themselves and learn healthy ways to manage their intense feelings. The following are some ideas to think about.4,5
- Expressing anger by yelling will not dissipate it. In fact, research confirms that the expression of aggression whether it’s yelling or hitting (and that includes parents hitting, yelling, or spanking) exacerbates the anger.2
- Venting such as complaining, ranting, or even mumbling does not get out the upset thoughts and feelings. In fact, venting is to anger as rumination is to worry. You can churn through worrying thoughts in your mind repeatedly, but those thoughts go nowhere and ultimately are unproductive. So too venting, whether you are listing off complaints to another or talking to yourself, tends to reinforce negative thinking. That’s because it does not offer an alternative view of the situation nor does it pose any solutions. Because venting doesn’t change thinking, the feeling persists.
- Avoiding or pretending you are not angry will not make it go away in time. Because anger – like any other feeling – is emerging to send a vital message to its owner, it cannot be avoided or denied. When turned inward, that anger can become destructive in the body. Also, when anger is buried, it can be stuffed down for a time but may contribute to a larger explosion (that may not have occurred otherwise) because of the build up of heated feelings over time.
- Model behaviors, and your child/teen will notice and learn.4 Here are some ways that you can deal with your own upset or anger.
- Create a plan. This is critical so you’ll know exactly what you’ll say, where you’ll go to calm down, and what you’ll do and consider when you are calming down. Then, prepare your family so that they understand your plan, will recognize it when they see it, and can learn from it.
- Recognize your anger. This self-awareness can come from a number of cues. Take note of physical symptoms — when they happen. It can cue you into the need to calm down before choosing your next words or actions. Notice the signs, discuss what signs your child/teen notices, and take the following steps.
- Breathe first. Slowing down your breathing serves a critical biological function. It allows those hormones that have surged from your anger to recede. Your body is able to regain its composure. And, your brain is able to think beyond fight, flight, or freeze. Practice deep breathing audibly. Try breathing deeply through your nose while constricting your throat slightly producing a sound like the waves of the sea. Not only will the sound help calm you, but it will also emphasize and call attention to your breath for your child/teen to observe.
- Use strange calm. Switch into slow motion. Use the burst of energy to become extremely slow and intentional about using your body. Breathe and go within to regain your calm. No matter what chaos is happening around you, you can be assured that you will accomplish nothing – except perhaps to make matters more contentious – by reacting in an angry moment.
- Walk outside. The fresh air helps you breathe better, and the natural surroundings are instantly calming.
- Distract yourself. Research has found that distraction really does work to calm rage. Books, television, or movies can help.
- Write. Writing down your angry thoughts (versus ruminating in your head about them) can offer you a chance to reevaluate your situation. You can reframe it, look at it from another perspective, or search for the silver lining. When you reflect in your writing on what you can learn from the situation, it has a calming effect.
- Brainstorm coping strategies. There are numerous coping strategies you and your child/teen can use depending on what feels right. But, when you are really angry and upset, it can be difficult to recall what will make you feel better. That’s why brainstorming a list, writing it down, and keeping it at the ready can come in handy when your child/teen really needs it. Here are some ideas from Janine Halloran:5 imagine your favorite place, take a walk, get a drink of water, take deep breaths, count to 50, draw, listen to music, and build something.
- Work on your family feelings vocabulary. Yes, at times, parents and those in a parenting role have to become a feelings detective. If your child/teen shuts down and refuses to tell you what’s going on, you have to dig for clues. In fact, it’s necessary to be able to identify your feelings to become more self-aware and successfully manage your feelings.
- Create a chill zone. During time without pressures, design a “chill zone” or place where your child/teen decides they would like to go when upset to feel better. The only way this space serves as a tool for parents to promote their child’s/teen’s self-management skills is if they allow their child/teen to self-select the chill zone. You can and should practice using it and gently remind them of it when they are upset. “Would your chill zone help you feel better?” you might ask. But, if that space is ever used as a punishment or a directive – “Go to your chill zone!” – the control lies with the parents and no longer with your child/teen, and the opportunity for skill building is lost.
- Design a plan. When you’ve learned about what happens in your brain and body when anger takes over, you know you need a plan at the ready so you don’t have to think in that moment.
- Teach your child/teen how to stop rumination. If you catch your child/teen uttering the same upsetting story more than once, then your child’s/teen’s mind has hopped onto the hamster wheel of rumination. In these times, it can be difficult to let go. Talk to your child/teen about the fact that reviewing the same concerns over and again will not help them resolve the issue, but talking about them, calming down, and learning more might help. Setting a positive goal for change will help. Discuss what they can do when they are thinking through the same upsetting thoughts.
- Reflect on your child’s/teen’s anger so you can be prepared to help. When you are reflecting on your child’s/teen’s feelings, you can think about unpacking a suitcase. Frequently, there are layers of feelings that need to be examined and understood, not just one. Anger might just be the top layer. So after you’ve discovered why your child/teen was angry, you might ask about other layers. Was there hurt or a sense of rejection involved? Perhaps your child/teen feels embarrassed? Fully unpacking the suitcase of feelings will help your child/teen feel better understood by you as they become more self-aware. Ask yourself:
- “What needs is my child/teen not getting met?” Their needs can be emotional needs like needing a friend to listen or give them attention, needing some alone time, or needing to escape a chaotic environment.
- “Can the issue be addressed by my child/teen alone or do they need to communicate a need, ask for help, or set a boundary?” One of the hardest steps to take for many can be asking for help or drawing a critical boundary line when it’s needed. You’ll need to find out what those issues are in your reflections with your child/teen first. But then, guiding them to communicate their need is key.
- Help your child/teen repair harm when needed. A critical step in teaching your child/teen about managing anger is learning how to repair harm when they’ve caused it. Mistakes are a critical aspect of their social learning. Everyone has moments when they hurt another. But, it’s that next step that they take that matters in repairing the relationship.
- Find small opportunities to help your child/teen mend relationships. Siblings offer a regular chance to practice this! If there’s fighting, then talk to your child/teen about how they feel first. When you’ve identified that they had a role in causing harm, brainstorm together how they might make their sister feel better. You might ask, “What could you do?”
- Allow your child/teen to supply answers, and you may be surprised at how many options they generate. Support and guide them to follow through on selecting one and doing it.
- Teach assertive communication through “I-messages.” When you or your child/teen are in the uncomfortable position of disagreeing or arguing with another, it can be difficult to know how to respond in ways that won’t harm yourself or others. That’s why teaching and practicing I-messages can provide a structure for what you can say. This statement works effectively from partner to partner, from parent to child/teen, and from child/teen to child/teen. Here’s an example: “I feel _____________(insert feeling word) when you____________ (name the words or actions that upset you) because________________.”
- Here’s how it might sound if a parent is using it with a child/teen: “I feel frustrated and angry when you keep playing your video game and don’t seem like you are listening because I feel ignored, and I believe what I have to say is important for both of us.”
- If you are helping your child/teen use this in communicating with a friend who has angered them, here’s how it might be used: “I feel angry when you pick all of our friends for your team but me because I was counting on playing with everyone, and now I am on a team with others I don’t know.” Practice the wording together with your child’s/teen’s specific issue.
- Create a family gratitude ritual. People are inundated with negative messages each day through the news media, performance reviews at school or work, and challenges with family and friends. It’s easy and often feels more acceptable to complain than to appreciate. Balance out your daily ratio of negative to positive messages by looking for the good in your life and stating it. Model it and involve your child/teen. This is the best antidote to a sense of entitlement or taking your good life for granted while wanting more and more stuff. Psychologists have done research on gratefulness and found that it increases people’s health, sense of wellbeing, and their ability to get more and better sleep at night.6
Deep breathing is not just a nice thing to do. It actually removes the chemical that has flowed over your brain so that you regain access to your creativity, language, and logic versus staying stuck in your primal brain. Practicing deep breathing with your child/teen can offer them a powerful tool to use anytime and anywhere they feel overcome with heated feelings.
If you tell or even command your child/teen to make an apology, how will they ever learn to genuinely apologize with feeling? In fact, apologizing or making things right should never be assigned as a punishment since then the control lies with the adult and robs the child/teen of the opportunity to learn the skill and internalize the value of repairing harm. Instead, ask your child/teen how they feel they should make up for the hurt they’ve caused and help them implement their idea.
Though at times it can feel like it, there are no “bad” feelings. All feelings have a positive intention. In fact, every feeling a person has is a vital message quickly interpreting what’s happening around them. Because feelings are merely that – an instant interpretation – you always have the opportunity to reinterpret your circumstances and your response to your feelings.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills and Develop Habits
Practice can take the form of cooperatively completing the task together, or trying out a skill with you as a coach and ready support. Practice is not only nice, it’s necessary in order for children/teens to internalize new skills. Practice makes vital new brain connections that strengthen each time your child/teen performs the new action.
- Use “I’d love to see…” statements. When a child/teen learns a new ability, they are eager to show it off! Give them that chance. Say, “I’d love to see how you use your chill zone to help you.” This can be used when you observe their upset mounting.
- Recognize effort. You could say, “I notice how you took some deep breaths when you got frustrated. That’s excellent!”
- Accept feelings. If you are going to help your child/teen become emotionally intelligent in managing their biggest feelings, it is important to acknowledge and accept their feelings — even ones you don’t like! When your child/teen is upset, consider your response. You could say, “I hear you’re upset. What can you do to help yourself feel better?”
- Practice deep breathing. Because deep breathing is such a simple practice that can assist your child/teen anytime, anywhere, it’s important to get plenty of practice so that it becomes easy to use when needed. Here are some enjoyable ways to practice together!4
- Hot Chocolate Breathing. Pretend to hold your hot cup of cocoa in both hands in front of you. Breathe in deeply the aroma of the chocolate. And then blow out to cool it in preparation for drinking. Do this to the count of five to give your child/teen practice. Then, look for chances to practice it regularly.
- Ocean Breathing. Practice making the noise of the sea waves while breathing deeply from your diaphragm. Close your eyes with your child/teen and imagine that your anger is a fiery flame waiting on a sandy shore. And as you breathe life into the ocean waves, they grow closer and closer to the flame to extinguish it.
- Follow through on repairing harm. When your child/teen has caused harm, it’s easier to shrink away in shame and attempt to escape the problem hoping time will heal all wounds. But, if real damage has been done – emotionally or physically – then your child/teen needs to take some steps to help heal that wound. It takes tremendous courage, however, to do so. So, in order for your child/teen to learn that a next choice can be their best choice and that they can make up for the harm they’ve caused, they need your guidance, encouragement, and support in following through on those steps. They are learning the invaluable skill of responsible decision making.
- Include reflection on the day in your bedtime routine. Give children/teens the chance to reflect on what’s good and abundant in their lives. Grateful thoughts can be a central contributor to happiness and wellbeing. And, grateful thoughts directly wipe out ruminations.
Step 4. Support Your Child’s/Teen’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve taught your child/teen some new strategies for managing anger so that they understand how to take action. You’ve practiced together. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed by reteaching, monitoring, coaching, and, when appropriate, applying logical consequences. Parents naturally offer support as they see their child/teen fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
- Ask key questions to prompt thinking. You could ask: “You are going to see Julie today. Do you remember what you can do to assert your feelings?”
- Learn about your child’s/teen’s development. Each new age presents different challenges. Being informed about your child’s/teen’s developmental milestones will offer you empathy and patience.
- Reflect on outcomes. You could say, “Seems like you couldn’t get to sleep last night because you were feeling angry about our argument. How did it impact your day at school? What could we do tonight to help?”
- Stay engaged. Working together on ideas for trying out new and different coping strategies can help offer additional support and motivation for your child/teen when tough issues arise.
- Engage in further practice. Create more opportunities to practice when all is calm and you are engaged with each other.
- Apply logical consequences when needed. Logical consequences should come soon after the negative behavior and need to be provided in a way that maintains a healthy relationship. Rather than punishment, a consequence is about supporting the learning process. First, get your own feelings in check. Not only is this good modeling, when your feelings are in check you are able to provide logical consequences that fit the behavior. Second, invite your child/teen into a discussion about the expectations established in Step 2. Third, if you feel that your child/teen is not holding up their end of the bargain (and it is not a matter of them not knowing how), then apply a logical consequence as a teachable moment.
- If there are strong feelings in your household most days, most of the time, then it may be time to consider outside intervention. Physical patterns may begin to set in (feelings of depression) that require the help of a trained professional. Seeking psychological help is the same as going to your doctor for a physical ailment. The following are some resources to check out.
- American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) has definitions, answers to frequently asked questions, resources, expert videos, and an online search tool to find a local psychiatrist. http://www.aacap.org
- American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Healthy Children provides information for parents about emotional wellness, including helping children handle stress, psychiatric medications, grief, and more. http://www.healthychildren.org
- American Psychological Association (APA) offers information on managing stress, communicating with kids, making stepfamilies work, controlling anger, finding a psychologist, and more. http://www.apa.org
- Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT) provides free online information so that children and adolescents benefit from the most up-to-date information about mental health treatment and can learn about important differences in mental health supports. Parents can search online for local psychologists and psychiatrists for free. http://www.abct.org
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
No matter how old your child/teen is, your praise and encouragement are their sweetest reward.
If your child/teen is working to grow their skills – even in small ways – it will be worth your while to recognize it. Your recognition can go a long way to promoting positive behaviors and helping your child/teen manage their feelings. Your recognition also promotes safe, secure, and nurturing relationships — a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.
You can recognize your child’s/teen’s efforts with praise, high fives, and hugs. Praise is most effective when you name the specific behavior of which you want to see more. For example, “You took a deep breath when you got frustrated — that is a great idea!”
Avoid bribes. A bribe is a promise for a behavior, while praise is special attention after the behavior. While bribes may work in the short term, praise grows lasting motivation for good behavior and effort. For example, instead of saying, “If you go to your chill zone when you are angry, I will let you have 10 extra minutes to watch a show” (which is a bribe), try recognizing the behavior after. “You worked hard to calm yourself down without saying something hurtful. Love seeing that!”
- Recognize and call out when it is going well. It may seem obvious, but it’s easy not to notice when all is moving along smoothly. When your child/teen is using the self-management tools you’ve taught them, a short, specific call out is all that’s needed. “I noticed when you got frustrated with your homework, you moved away and took some deep breaths. Yes! Excellent.”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. Find small ways your child/teen is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Build in celebrations like game night, watching movies or shows together, or a favorite dinner. Include hugs as ways to appreciate one another.
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child/teen. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children/teens to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.