Cathi Cohen, LCSW
Anger is a natural emotion, but a complicated one. For kids and adults alike, anger often comes at a cost. Gone unchecked, anger can hurt others and damage relationships. But, anger can also be a helpful emotion because it’s a signal that something is wrong and needs to change. Expressing anger productively may take years to develop. And, for some, may never happen.
Anger becomes destructive when there is too much of it, or it is expressed inappropriately – in either an uncontrolled or an over-controlled manner. How can my child “over-control” his anger, you might ask? Isn’t that a good thing? Unfortunately, the longer an individual sits on a lot of anger without verbalizing it, the more likely it is that he will blow his top. Over-controlled kids and teens are like powder kegs waiting to explode.
The first step in helping kids and teens manage their anger is helping them to understand its roots and how the body exhibits anger. Then you can move on to helping them express anger appropriately.
Step One: Maintain Your Own Emotional Calm
The first step in helping your child express emotions effectively is by knowing yourself and what pushes your own buttons. For example, if you know that too little sleep makes you vulnerable to a lower frustration tolerance, make sure you get enough sleep!
You’ll be much more capable of helping your child if you are your best self. This means you are aware of your stress level and are actively taking steps to manage it. Let your child know how you are feeling. Children can sense when they need to handle you with kid gloves, so don’t be afraid to communicate honestly with them about your needs.
Try Saying This:
“Hey, guys, I’m in a REALLY bad mood today because I didn’t sleep well last night. So I’m asking you to do your best to get along today. OK?”
Step Two: Stay on Top of Stinkin’ Thinkin’
Parents lose control almost always as a result of negative, escalating thoughts. If you think your child’s behavior is intended to provoke you, you will respond differently than if you assume your child’s behavior is more goal directed.
Try Thinking This: My child needs something from me right now.
Instead Of: He is purposely trying to make me angry.
Step Three: Let your child know you understand anger
First and foremost, kids need to know that it’s okay to feel angry. You need to help them understand the difference between “the feeling” and “the action”. There are many ways that you can let your child know that you understand his anger. This doesn’t mean that you are encouraging unacceptable expressions of anger.
Try Saying This: “Ronnie, I know you get really frustrated sometimes during homework time, but you still can’t throw your pencil.”
“Honey, you’ve made it clear to us that you don’t appreciate when we kid with you. How can you let us know you are hurt without screaming at your Mom and me?”
You might need to discuss and define for your child the line between unacceptable and acceptable expressions of anger. Most kids are certainly aware that hitting, kicking, and pushing are off limits. But they may be less aware that name calling, screaming, and sarcasm are also unacceptable expressions of anger. Give some thought to what you consider positive expressions of anger and communicate them to your child.
Step Four: Foster Open Lines of Communication
Communication – both verbal and nonverbal – is a back and forth dialogue between you and your child. Effective communication means that the receiver of information correctly interprets the message that the sender intends to communicate. So often, anger occurs because communication is misinterpreted or responded to defensively without first listening fully to what the other person has to say. Active listening is a skill that requires constant practice, even into adulthood. Promote active listening by encouraging your child to repeat back a solid understanding of what you are trying to say. And do the same for your child. Reflective listening and perception checking are the backbone to healthy communication. So much anger would be avoided if these two skills were in constant play.
Try Saying This:
“What I heard you say is…..Is that right?”
“You are feeling pretty discouraged right now. Am I right?”
“You think I’m coming down on you too hard.”
“You are telling me that you failed your math test because….”
Step Five: Help Your Child Know What Pushes His Buttons
Helping your child know what triggers anger, helps him gain control in many ways:
- Avoid situations that will anger him in the future
- Come up with solutions to deal with anger ahead of time
- Soothe himself when confronted with an anger-provoking event
Step Six: Recognize Your Child’s Red Flags
It’s especially difficult for kids to reign themselves in once they’ve become angry. You are the expert on your child. You can identify early anger warning signs in your child, sometimes before he can. Once you are aware of the signals, you can intervene before it’s too late, and your child has “lost it”. You may need to help your child tune in to his body to notice his own bodily red flags. Here are some common ones you may observe in your child:
- Face turns red
- Fists are clenched
- Jaw is clenched
- Body starts to quiver
- Eyes well up
- Voice gets higher or louder
Once you’ve identified your child’s idiosyncratic way of communicating escalating anger, together figure out how you can help him cool down. You may want to choose a code word or use a hand signal that only you and your child are aware of to help signal him to disengage from the anger producing situation.
Step Seven: Develop an Individual Action Plan
Now that your child has a better idea of what makes him angry, you can begin to help him express anger differently. It’s not enough to tell your child that his behavior is unacceptable. You need to help him learn and practice skills to replace old ways of managing anger.
Coping Strategies for Kids
- Take a self-imposed cooling off time
- Create distance between self and button pusher
- Express feelings to a confidant
- Talk to myself. Say things like, “I’m OK.” “This will pass.”
- Take a deep breath
- Think it through before I reach
Be on the constant lookout for the little victories. Gaining control over anger is a long-term process that won’t be achieved overnight. Along the way, offer your child praise for effort, not just results.
If you are interested in In Step’s anger management services, please contact us