Seven-year-old Grace has almost finished her drawing, which she intends to give to her mother as a gift. “She will love it,” thinks Grace, eyeing her work proudly.She has been working for nearly two hours when James, her four-year-old brother, offers to ‘help’ finish it. And so it begins…
Before she can say no, James smears black marker all over the drawing, ruining Grace’s beautiful, brown ponies. Overcome with rage, Grace grabs the marker and starts scribbling furiously on his arm. Terrified of his sister’s reaction, James howls. Hearing the screams, their mother races up the stairs to find Grace and James rolling on the ground, tearing at each other, the beautiful brown ponies completely destroyed.
[quote]Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored that anything on which it is poured. Mark Twain[/quote]
The Anger Tool
Most of the time, anger is a completely normal and helpful emotion, telling your child that something is not right. It is a natural response to perceived danger, an exceedingly useful “fight or flight” defence mechanism for us all. Anger can be a surprisingly helpful tool but often difficult to wield properly. Navigating the unchartered waters of daily life, children may use anger to express difficult feelings (fear, envy, frustration) or to declare their independence.
Let’s take a look at tween anger. As it turns out, tweens can find many things to be angry about. They often feel powerless in front of adults, insecure with peers, and competitive with siblings. They are not allowed to do everything they want or would like to. They frequently fail at most things they try due to the lack of experience, understanding, and necessary abilities. Adults tell them what to do and often have the power to make them do it – at least up to a point.
Seven to ten-year-old children can perceive danger even when it is not present, or simply overreact to at little slights. Like lion cubs that roar or bear their teeth, children try to gain the offensive and protect themselves by demonstrating aggression. However, such aggressive impulses are difficult to control at this age, while their ability to stop and listen to the other side is barely developed. Grace’s response is a perfect illustration.
Anger is a natural impulse; anger management is a learned habit. Simple steps now can have far-reaching influence on self-esteem, social acceptance, and aggressive behaviour going forward. Don’t get me wrong; anger, frustration, and fear are natural and actually useful internal motivation tools. The secret is to teach children how to best use these tools by managing their own reactions.
4 Steps for Your Angry Child
[quote]Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. – Viktor E. Frankl[/quote]
Step 1 – Help Your Child Identify Her “Warning Signs”
Overcome with rage as she saw her beautiful brown ponies destroyed by her little brother, Grace became frightened of her own reactions and feelings. Though she now experiences feelings of empathy and regret for her aggressive behaviour, Grace was still unable to control her anger at the time.
When kids are in the flush of adrenaline, they experience even a small incident as a life-threatening emergency. Instead of choosing ‘flight’ and walking away to calm down, they fight against the trigger that set off their feelings. In order to teach control, we need to help them find the space between stimulus and response.
One way of teaching your child to stay in control is helping her identify her physical warning signs for anger and potentially aggressive behaviour. In most cases, these signs include heavy breathing, a pounding heart, and a feeling of getting warm.
Keep in mind that she is unlikely to be able to recognize the exact emotion she is experiencing, which further causes her to become frightened of her reactions. Once you start noticing signs of her getting angry, you can acknowledge and name the emotion: “I can see that you are angry right now.”
By identifying her feelings out loud, you show an understanding of exactly what she is going through. Note that her expression of anger might be determined by her wish to show that something had upset her, wanting you – the adult – to acknowledge exactly how upsetting everything is for her.
Learn About: Social Intelligence and Emotion Coaching
Step 2 – Give Your Child Ways to Manifest Her Anger
Most children lack the ability to calm down without manifesting a bit of anger. Very few gaming tweens relish turning off Minecraft when their screen time is up. Dealing with potential aggressive behaviours is a challenge, and for this reason, finding alternative ways of manifesting the anger is critical.
You could encourage your son to write about what made him angry on a piece of paper, then let him tear it apart. Stomping his feet, punching the pillows, yelling at the top of his lungs in an enclosed area, they are all effective anger management strategies to prevent overreacting.
You can make a list of constructive ways to manifest anger, and have your child help you do the writing or add pictures. Post the list on the refrigerator, and don’t forget to use it yourself when you are mad. This will give your child a positive example of proper anger management, which slowly teaches him the habit of expressing emotions constructively.
Learn About: 12 Things to Remember When Your Child Gets Angry
Step 3 – Don’t Send Your Child Away to Calm Down
I often used to send one of my angry sons away to calm down by himself. This annoyed him even more, as he was left alone to experience all these big, scary feelings. These emotions were just too much as a tween. Interestingly enough, this has changed over time and, as a teen, he now understands the value of distancing himself from the immediate situation, finding that space between stimulus and response.
I learned to make myself accessible while encouraging him to take the time to regain control before responding. My role was to help him feel less hopeless in the battle to manage his emotions. Offer your support, and spend time with him (most likely in busy silence) until he manages to successfully get the anger out.
At the end, remind him that you will always be there to support and empower him. The result will be positive; as your child will learn that he can always find understanding and love from his parents even when he “deserves it least,” so to speak. He will feel less alone or hopeless, which means that he will increasingly be less likely to throw things and the like.
Health Warning: This takes a long time and a lot of patience.
Learn About: Taking a Break vs. Time Out
Step 4 – Stay Calm and Drink Lots of Water
We all know this one but it is so incredibly hard. Yelling at an angry child will only reinforce the feelings she initially experienced – of fear, loneliness, and danger. Getting angry yourself will make your kids respond aggressively as well. Yelling at them will model a behaviour they will likely copy when they grow up. As a parent, your job is to restore the calm, which will allow your child to understand how she can “do better.”
By staying calm when she gets angry, you are showing your child that mum is not scared of the big, frightening feelings she is experiencing, and neither should your child. The presence of a parent helps them feel safe, shutting off the “flight or fight” response, and allowing the frontal cortex (usually known as the “reasoning brain”) to take over.
My favourite trick to stay calm? A bottle of drinking water. It shuts my mouth, buys me time, and refreshes me. This little tip is courtesy of Diane Dempster of Impact ADHD.
Anger management in children takes patience, persistence and a sense of humour. Those scary feelings are tough on everyone. Her control will definitely improve over time, and his manifestations will become more subtle, hence turning your child into an intelligent adult that can fully manage their own emotions.
Now, I’d love to hear from you. How do you help your child manage anger or frustration? Which one of these tips most resonates with you, and why?
Remember that many parents are looking for inspiration and support so share as much detail as you can below. Your share may be the one that truly helps another person.
Important: please share your thoughts and ideas directly in the comments.
photo credit: Melissa Segal via photopin cc