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Children who have trouble managing anger
Children lack strategies for thinking through the situations that are troubling them. They may find
it difficult to know what is making them angry or to talk about their feelings. Talking with children in supportive ways about angry feelings helps to teach them effective ways of managing anger and builds positive relationships.
It is best to wait until the child is calm and relaxed to talk about angry feelings. When angry feelings
are running high it is very hard for children to listen and think coolly. Parents, care givers and school staff can help by encouraging children to explain their points of view and listening sympathetically.
Being able to talk about angry feelings allows children to feel understood and supported. It helps them to think more calmly and find better solutions.
How to talk through children’s angry feelings
The following example shows some possible ways a parent or carer might talk with Dylan, who has come home from school grouchy. He is rough with his younger brother and gets angry when he discovers that a toy is missing. Then he gets angry when his mother asks him to help. Here his mother persists, gently but firmly, with getting Dylan to say what he is really angry about. She talks to him about ways he could manage his feelings and deal with the problem.
Acknowledge anger and encourage the child to explain what it’s about: “Are you sure you’re not angry about something? You seemed really angry when you got into the car.”
Empathize with the feeling – but don’t excuse aggressive behavior: “So, you were upset because your friend blamed you for losing his football. You must have been really mad to treat your brother like that.”
Ask about the effects of angry behavior – on others and on himself: “How do you think your brother felt when you yelled at him?. How did you feel after you behaved like that?”
Teach or reinforce ways of managing angry feelings: “What could you do to cool down your angry feelings so you can think it all through?"
Discuss ways of solving the problem that has led to angry feelings: “How can you sort it out with your friend? What could you say that would help him understand how you feel?”
Support your child’s efforts to solve the problem: “How did it go? Would you like me to help with...?” Notice and praise efforts to manage anger: “I like the way you kept your cool with your little brother when he took your stuff.”
When children get caught up with angry feelings it can be quite difficult for them to calm down. This is because the body gets ready to fight when we are angry and can take some time to return to normal. Teaching children steps to cool down their anger can help.
1. Rate your anger
Using a rating scale to notice how angry they are helps children become more aware of their angry feelings so that they know when to use calming strategies. Draw a thermometer to show the scale points of between zero and 10. Add some words that describe low levels (eg 0 = calm; 2 = a bit irritated), medium levels (eg 5 = quite cross), and high levels (eg 9 = extremely angry, ‘losing it’). Talk about the body signals that accompany each level. Ask children to rate their anger and watch it to see if it changes. This encourages them to look for the signs of angry feelings and to see if they can lower their
anger levels. It is much harder to change anger when it is high, so when the rating goes above 6 it is usually best to teach children to move away from the situation. They can move to a special quiet space or ask an adult for help.
There are lots of ways to relax. Some useful ways to teach children to use relaxation strategies to calm their angry feelings are:
Slow deep breathing has a very helpful calming effect. Getting children to practice breathing in deeply and breathing out very slowly, can help to calm down angry feelings.
Have children visualize a very relaxing scene in their minds. For example, they might imagine themselves floating on an air bed in a swimming pool. You can combine deep breathing with visualization. For example, ask children to imagine a candle in front of them. As they exhale, ask them to imagine making the candle flicker but not go out.
Robot/rag doll technique
The robot/rag doll technique is useful for helping young children release muscle tension. Ask children to tense up all muscles in the body and visualize themselves as robots. Have them hold this tense state for approximately 15 seconds. Then ask them to release all the tension and visualize themselves as rag dolls, with all muscles very loose, and stay relaxed like this for 15 seconds.
3. Use coping self-talk
Using coping self-talk involves saying things to yourself to calm down. Children can be encouraged to say things to themselves like:
Take it easy
Take some deep breaths
It’s okay if I’m not good at this Chill out
Don’t let him bug me
Time to relax!
Try not to give up
To teach children to use coping self-talk, it is helpful to model it yourself. For example, you could make a point of saying out loud, “I need to relax”, “I’m going to cool down” or “I won’t let this get to me”. You can also use coping statements to coach children through stressful moments. Asking older children what they could say to themselves when they need to cool down their anger helps them learn to use coping self-talk for themselves.
This is best practiced before children get angry.