Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent, you play an essential role in your child’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-child relationship and growing your child’s skills to manage anger provides a perfect opportunity.
Children ages 5-10 are in the process of learning about their strong feelings. They do not understand the full body take over that can occur when they are angry. Feeling out of control because of anger can be scary and add to the length and intensity of their upset. Learning how to deal with anger without suppressing it, beating it down, or expressing it by hurting others and/or themselves is critical. And, your support and guidance as parents matters greatly.
Research confirms that when young children learn to manage their emotions, it simultaneously strengthens their executive functions.1 They are better able to use self-control, problem solve, and focus their attention. This directly impacts their school success. However, the opposite is also true. Those children who do not learn to manage their emotions through the guidance and support of caring adults have attention issues and difficulty in problem solving.
Yet, we all face challenges in managing anger. Your child 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 has kicked another child on the playground. Anger may cover hurt, humiliation, fear, and stress. It may also mask guilt, shame, grief, or envy. Or it could be the tip of an iceberg with a mass below 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 needs are met. The steps below include specific, practical strategies along with effective conversation starters to prepare you to help your child work through their roughest, most intense emotional times in ways that build up their resilience.
Whether it’s your five-year-old melting down in frustration over trying to get shoes on by themselves or your ten-year-old staying up late angry that a friend refused to play with them, learning how to deal with anger and its many accompanying emotions can become a regular challenge if you don’t create plans and strategies for managing them.
Today, in the short term, learning to manage anger can create:
- a sense of confidence that we can help our child regain calm and focus;
- trust in each other that we have the competence to manage our big feelings; and
- added daily peace of mind.
Tomorrow, in the long term, your child:
- builds skills in self-awareness;
- builds skills in self-control and managing emotions; and
- builds assertive communication to communicate needs and boundaries critical for keeping them safe and ready to deal with peer pressure.
This five-step process helps you and your child manage anger. It also builds important skills in your child. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are best done when you and your child are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Child Thinking by Getting Their Input
You can get your child thinking about ways to manage their most upsetting emotions constructively by asking them open-ended questions. You’ll help prompt your child’s thinking. You’ll also begin to better understand their thoughts, feelings, and challenges related to managing their intense emotions so that you can address them. In gaining input, your child:
- 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 informed decisions (and understanding the reasons behind those decisions) about critical aspects of their life.
- Be curious about your child’s feelings. You might start by asking:
- “When do you feel angry?”
- “What time of day?”
- “What people, places, and activities are usually involved?”
- Use your best listening skills! Remember, what makes a parent angry can differ greatly from what angers a child. Listen closely to what is most concerning to your child without projecting your own thoughts, concerns, and feelings.
- Explore the mind-body connection. In calmer moments with your child, ask, “How does your body feel now?” See how descriptively they can list their physical signs of wellbeing. Now ask, “How does your body feel when you are angry?” For every person, their physical experience will be different. Find out how your child feels and make the connection between those symptoms and the normal feelings they are having.
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 anger occurs as we go about our daily lives, we may not consider its role and impact on our children, though it can have a major influence on our day and our relationship with them. Learning about what developmental milestones a child is working on can help a parent know when their ages and stages might be contributing to anger or frustration. Here are some examples:2
- Five-year-olds are working hard to understand how things work, so they appreciate explanations and ask lots of questions. They are working hard to understand rules and want to help, cooperate, and follow them. They may be upset or disappointed when they do not understand a rule or struggle to show competence. They may get angry if they break a rule or if they see others breaking a rule. But, they are also beginning to test rules as they move from five to six which can prompt a parent’s anger.
- Six-year-olds can feel anxious as they want to do well in school and at home. They may be highly competitive and criticize peers while being sensitive to being criticized themselves. They care about friendships and may have upset related to those relationships.
- Seven-year-olds need consistency and may get angry and feel out of control when schedules are chaotic and routines change. They may be moody and require reassurance from adults. They take school and homework seriously and may even feel sick from worrying about tests or assignments. They can take academic failure personally and get angry and push away or neglect their work to avoid more failure.
- Eight-year-olds have interest and investment in friendships. Peer approval can create upset when they are rejected by friends. They have a greater social awareness of local and world issues, so they may be concerned about the news or events outside of your community.
- Nine-year-olds can be highly competitive and critical of themselves and others. They may worry about who is in the “in” and “out” crowd and where they fit in friendship groups. They may tend toward excluding others in order to feel included in a group, so it’s a good time to encourage inclusion and kindness toward a diverse range of others. They are just beginning puberty. They will be experiencing growth spurts and the associated clumsiness and awkwardness. Anger can be generated from rejection or judgment from peers.
- Ten-year-olds have an increased social awareness and try to figure out the thoughts and feelings of others. With this awakening comes a newfound worry about what peers are thinking of them (for example, “He’s staring at me. I think he doesn’t like me.”). They can become angered if they feel judged even if they are not making accurate predictions of peers’ feelings. They are also seeking more independence from parents so they can get angry when parents either treat them as they were treated in younger years or make them feel dependent (taking some of their power away).
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child 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 or hurt is an important message from ourselves to pay attention to. It means our emotional, social, or physical needs are not getting met or necessary boundaries (rules, values) are being violated. It’s important to ask: “Why am I feeling this way? What needs to change in order to feel better?”
- Understanding 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 — or amygdala. 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, author of Emotional Intelligence, 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 of the door is often not constructive, safe, or practical. Creating a plan (as you will be guided to do in the tool that follows) 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.
- Understanding this often misunderstood emotion is key to helping our children better understand themselves and learn healthy ways to manage their intense feelings.1
- Anger is not bad or negative. We should not avoid or shut down the experience of it. There’s good reason for it. We have all experienced someone in our lives who has lost control and acted in ways that harmed themselves or others when angry. However, we know that every emotion, including anger, serves a critical purpose. Anger provides essential information about who we are, what emotional or physical needs are not getting met, and where our boundaries lie.
- Expressing anger such as 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. We can churn through worrying thoughts in our minds repeatedly but those thoughts go nowhere and, ultimately, are unproductive. So too venting, whether we are listing off our complaints to another or talking to ourselves, tends to reinforce our 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 the emotion – like any other emotion – 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 emotions over time.
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 can offer them a powerful tool to use anytime, anywhere when they feel overcome with heated emotions.
- Model behaviors (and your children 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 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 notices, and take the following steps.
- Breath 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. If you’ve practiced yoga, try using ujjayi breathing (or “ocean breath”) in which you breathe 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 young child 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 does help 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 re-evaluate 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 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 really needs it. Here are some ideas from the author of “Coping Skills for Kids,” Janine Halloran:5 imagine your favorite place, take a walk, get a drink of water, take deep breaths, count to 50, draw, color, build something.
- Work on your family feelings vocabulary. Yes, at times, parents have to become a feelings detective. If our child shuts down and refuses to tell us what’s going on, we have to dig for clues. Though your five, six, seven, or even ten-year-old has been speaking fluently for some time now, they take longer to develop their feelings vocabulary. That’s because they hear feelings expressed in daily conversations much less frequently than thoughts or other expressions. In fact, it’s necessary to be able to identify our emotions to become more self-aware and successfully manage our emotions.
Though at times it can feel like it, there are no “bad” emotions. All emotions have a positive intention. In fact, every feeling we have is a vital message from our ourselves quickly interpreting what’s happening around us. Because feelings are merely that – an instant interpretation – we always have the opportunity to reinterpret our circumstances and particularly our response to our feelings.
Play feelings guessing games with the family. At a meal, share facial expressions showing a range of emotions and guess which they are. Or ask each family member what they did today and see if you can guess their feeling from their expression.
When you are reflecting on your child’s feelings, you can think about unpacking a suitcase. Frequently, there are layers of emotions that need to be examined and understood versus just one. Anger might just be the top layer. So after you’ve discovered why your child was angry, you might ask about other layers. Was there hurt or a sense of rejection involved? Perhaps your child feels embarrassed? Fully unpacking the suitcase of emotions will help your child feel better understood by you as they become more self-aware.
- Create a calm down space. During a playtime or time without pressures, design a “safe base” or place where your child decides they would like to go to when upset to feel better. Maybe their calm down space is a beanbag chair in their room, a blanket, or special carpet in the family room. Then, think through together what items you might place there to help with the calm down.
- Teach your child how to stop rumination. If you catch your child uttering the same upsetting story more than once, then your child’s mind has hopped onto the hamster wheel of rumination. In these times, it can be difficult to let go.
- Talk to your child about the fact that reviewing the same concerns over and again will not help them resolve the issue, but talking about them might help, calming down might help, and learning more might help. Setting a positive goal for change will help. Practice what you can do when you feel you are thinking through the same upsetting thoughts.
When you notice the same upset running through your mind, say “Stop!” out loud. Then, try out one of your coping strategies to help you feel better and let go of those nagging thoughts. Encourage your child to try it.
- Reflect on your child’s anger so you can be prepared to help. Ask yourself,
- “What needs is my child not getting met?” Their needs can be emotional needs like: we need a friend to listen or give us their attention, we need some alone time, or we need to escape a chaotic environment.
- “Can the issue be addressed by my child 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 first. But then, guiding them to communicate their need is key.
- Help your child to repair harm when needed. A critical step in teaching your child about managing anger is learning how to repair harm when they’ve caused it. Mistakes are a critical aspect of their social learning. We all have our moments when we hurt another. But it’s that next step that they take that matters in repairing the relationship.
- Find small opportunities to help your child mend relationships. Siblings offer a regular chance to practice this! If there’s fighting, then talk to your child 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 to supply answers and you may be surprised at how many options they come up with. Support and guide them to follow through on selecting one and doing it.
If you tell or even command your child 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 of the opportunity to learn the skill and internalize the value of repairing harm. Instead, ask the child how they feel they should make up for the hurt they’ve caused and help them implement their idea.
- Teach assertive communication through I-messages. When you or your children 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, and from child to child. 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: “I feel frustrated and angry when you keep playing and don’t seem like you are listening because I feel like you are ignoring me and I believe what I have to say is important for both of us.”
- If you are helping your child use this in communicating with a friend who has angered them, here’s how it might be used: “I feel angry when you play with Martin instead of me because I was counting on playing with you and now, I have no one to play with.”
- Teach your child to repair harm. A critical step in teaching our children about managing anger is learning how to repair harm whether physical or emotional when they’ve caused it. And they will. Mistakes are a critical aspect of their social learning. We all have our moments when we hurt another. But it’s that next step that they take that matters in healing emotional wounds and repairing the relationship.
- Create a family gratitude ritual. We get plenty of negative messages each day through the news media, through performance reviews at school, at work, or in extracurriculars, and through 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 articulating it. Model it and involve your children. 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
Create a ritual for expressing gratitude so that it actually happens and becomes a family habit. You might say what you are grateful for before each family meal together. Or you might leave a chalkboard up to write down grateful words and statements. Or you can make it a part of your bedtime routine while talking before your child goes to sleep. Consider that ending the day reflecting on the goodness in your lives could just be the best way to send your children off to sleep.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills, Confidence, and Develop Habits
Practice can take the form of pretend play, 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 to internalize new skills. That practice will help make vital new brain connections that strengthen each time your child performs the new action.
- Use “Show me…” statements and ask them to demonstrate how they can use a skill they’ve learned to manage anger. You could say, “Show me how you use your safe base to calm down.” This can be used when you observe their upset mounting.
- Recognize effort by using “I notice…” statements like, “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 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 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 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 practice. Then, look for chances to practice it regularly.
- Teddy bear belly breathing. Balance a teddy bear on your child’s tummy and give it a ride with the rising and falling of their breath. This would be ideal to practice during your bedtime routine when you are lying down and wanting to calm down for the evening.
- Include reflection on the day in your bedtime routine. Begin by asking about worries or problems that your child will surely consider after you leave the room. Listen and offer comfort. Demonstrate that you are allowing and accepting of the uncertainty of unresolved problems. You could say, “There’s no amount of worrying that is going to fix things tonight. So how can you talk about accepting what you have and where you are now and working on it tomorrow?” Then, turn to gratitude. Children may not have the chance to reflect on what’s good and abundant in their lives throughout the day, yet grateful thoughts can be a central contributor to happiness and wellbeing. And, grateful thoughts directly wipe out ruminations. So ask, “What happened today that made you happy?” or “What were the best moments in your day?”
Remember how you typically feel at the end of a long day before bedtime when you’ve gotten really angry with your child or other loved one? You may be internally beating yourself up for your own words and actions. Consider that your child might do the same. End the day with love. Although they need to hear it every day, they need to hear that you love them NO MATTER WHAT on those days in particular. If you do, you can rest assured that making a point of it will add to their resilience and strength.
- Follow through on repairing harm. When your child has caused harm, it’s easier to shrink away in shame and attempt to escape the problem never to return hoping time will heal all wounds. But if real damage has been done – emotionally or physically – then your child needs to take some steps to help heal that wound. It takes tremendous courage, however, to do so. So in order for your child to learn that a next choice can be their best choice, 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 may need to hold your hand through that process and that’s okay! They are learning the invaluable skill of responsible decision making.
Step 4. Support Your Child’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve taught your child 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 fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
- Ask key questions to support their skills. For example, “You are going to see Julie today. Do you remember what you can do to assert your feelings?”
- Learn about development. Each new age and stage will present differing challenges and along with them, stress, frustrations, and anger.
- Stay engaged. Working together on ideas for trying out new and different coping strategies can help offer additional support and motivation for your child when tough issues arise.
- 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 emotions in check. Not only is this good modeling, when your emotions are in check you are able to provide logical consequences that fit the behavior. Second, invite your child into a discussion about the expectations established in Step 2. Third, if you feel that your child is not holding up their end of the bargain (unless it is a matter of them not knowing how), then apply a logical consequence as a teachable moment.
- If there are high emotions in your household most days, most of the time, then it may be time to consider outside intervention. Physical patterns begin to set in (as in depression) that require the help of a trained professional. Seeking psychological help is the same as going to your doctor for a physical ailment. In fact, it is the emotionally intelligent person who seeks outside help when they recognizes it’s time. Though many will not seek it, it may be impossible to go through life without, at some point, needing some mental health intervention. 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 step-families 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
Though adults tend to forget, our attention is our child’s sweetest reward. It’s easy to get caught up in the busyness and business of getting tasks accomplished to get to work and school on time in the morning, for example. But if your child is working hard to manage big feelings, it will be worth your while to call it out. After all, your recognition can go a long way to promoting more of the same positive behaviors and expanding your child’s sense of competence and responsibility. Add to your child’s motivation to work hard with the following actions.
- 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 children are 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 – like articulating mixed emotions – in order to recognize. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. They need to happen along the way. Find small ways your child is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. For example, “We’ll get our business taken care of first with our bedtime routine, and then, we’ll snuggle up to a good book and then, talk about our reflections from the day.” Include hugs in your repertoire of 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. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children 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.