Helping Your Child Manage Anger

Child screaming

Helping your child with anger: Photo courtesy of Mindaugas Danys

Many children have problems coping with anger. In fact, research suggests that nearly half of all children referred for counseling have anger management issues. Anger is a powerful emotion that can be difficult for children to control. Expressing anger appropriately can be learned in much the same way that a child learns to play the piano, throw a baseball, or learns to read. Teaching children the skills they need to cope with anger empowers them to resolve difficult situations with confidence. Parents play a vital role in how children learn to manage anger. Before we tackle steps for teaching your child how to manage anger, let’s take a look at four common myths about anger.

Myth #1: Anger is bad.

Anger might make us feel bad, but the emotion itself is not bad. Anger is a natural response to a perceived threat. Anger can be very healthy and prompt responses such as standing up for ones’ self or fighting social injustices. According to the American Psychological Association, most people feel a little angry at least a couple times per week. As many as one-third of all people feel angry daily. It is important that children are taught to view anger in healthy ways so that they learn to deal with it constructively.

Myth #2: Venting anger, physically or verbally, helps you get it out and feel better.

Research does not support venting anger as a long-term strategy for managing it effectively. In fact, it tends to escalate the problem and may lead to increased aggression.

Children are frequently taught to hit their pillows or a punching bag in order to calm down. Research suggests that it far more productive to engage in a self-calming technique, such as counting to 10 or taking a walk, in order to allow the intensity of the anger to pass.

When confronted with a situation that evokes anger, the brain processes this as a threat and shifts gears. Sometimes this is referred to as the “fight or flight response.” The brain stem (towards the lower back of the brain) is responsible for handling this response. Normal thinking and reasoning takes place in the frontal cortex. The brain stem helps make decisions quickly when there is imminent danger. However, most situations that evoke anger require that frontal cortex to kick in so that rational decisions can be made. Pausing long enough to allow the initial rush of emotion to subside is important so that the brain can resume normal thinking and reasoning. Venting anger does not promote a solution. However, it is helpful to learn constructive ways to talk about anger and resolve conflict.

Myth #3: Ignoring anger makes it go away.

Most people do not like feeling angry and would prefer the emotion to go away. However, ignoring it is not the answer. Anger is a natural response to certain situations and unless the situation is resolved, it is unlikely that the anger will go away on its own. Unresolved anger can lead to passive-aggressive behaviors, relationship problems, stress, and health problems (i.e. digestive problems, headaches, difficulty sleeping, high blood pressure). Ignoring anger can have very negative consequences on the overall quality of life.

Myth #4: Men have more problems with anger than women.

Surveys of both sexes indicate that males and females tend to experience feelings of anger about one or two times per week. However, men tend to report more intense feelings of anger that pass quickly while women report holding onto anger for longer periods of time. In American culture, it is generally more acceptable for boys to exhibit anger while girls are often taught not to express anger. As a result, the sexes have different issues when it comes to dealing with anger, but neither sex is angrier than the other.

5 Steps for Anger Management

Having an accurate perception of anger, what it is and what it is not, helps you as the parent to be able to teach your child how to manage anger. Sometimes kids are told, “It’s okay to be mad, but it’s not okay to be mean.” While this is a great statement letting children know that anger is a normal part of life, children may need a little more explicit direction in how to manage their anger. Here are five steps to teach your child anger management skills.

Step 1: Know your triggers

When children know the things that set off, or trigger, their anger, they can learn to avoid situations or cope with them in more constructive ways. Talk with your child about the particular things or people that trigger her anger. Being aware of the things that are likely to make us angry is the first step to being able to manage our anger. Here is a list of common things that make children angry. Ask your child to identify which ones are her triggers. You child may have additional triggers that are not included in this list.

  • Being teased
  • Being told what to do
  • Certain noises
  • Not getting what I want
  • Having to wait
  • When things don’t seem fair
  • My brother or sister
  • A particular subject in school
  • Certain rules/chores

Step 2: Know your body’s warning signs

Some children have a hard time recognizing their body’s warning signs of anger. You may be able to detect this in your child if he seems to go from calm to furious without stages in between. The sooner children are able to recognize that they are starting to feel angry, the better they will be able to use strategies to manage their anger. Teach your child to pay attention to his warning signs so that he knows when he is starting to get angry.

Explain to your child that our bodies express our feelings in different ways. Have your child identify his specific warning signs. Some children may not know what their signs are. If your child doesn’t know, make it a point to help him identify his warning signs of anger over the next few weeks. Here is a list of some of the ways our bodies tell us we are feeling angry. Your child may have additional warning signs that he may want to add to this list.

  • Muscles may tighten
  • Hands may clench into fists
  • May scowl (eyebrows contract while corners of the mouth go down)
  • Heart may beat faster
  • Breathing may become faster
  • May clench jaw or grit teeth
  • Face may feel hot or get red
  • Head or stomach may start to hurt
  • May feel shaky
  • May feel like yelling or crying
  • May feel helpless or jumpy
  • Thoughts may feel like they are racing

Step 3: Stop and Calm Down

As soon as your child recognizes that she is starting to feel angry, teach her to stop and do something to calm down. Anger has a tendency of spinning out of control if we don’t do something to stop it. Explain to your child that anger is like a spinning bicycle tire. Imagine putting a stick in the spokes of the tire to abruptly stop it from spinning. This is what we do when we stop our anger.

There are many strategies kids can use to calm themselves down. Your child needs to find several of these strategies that will work for him. By taking a few minutes to calm down before reacting, it allows your child to get out of the “fight or flight” mode and back to using the frontal cortex to make rational decisions. Here are some ideas to help calm down.

  • Take a walk
  • Count to 10
  • Concentrate on taking 10 deep breaths
  • Practice relaxing muscles that feel tense
  • Listen to your favorite song
  • Pet your dog or cat
  • Use positive self-talk (i.e. “I can calm myself down,” or “I can solve this problem”)
  • Draw a picture

Step 4: Think and Act

After your child has taken a few minutes to stop and calm down, she needs to think about what to do. Talk to your child about ways to resolve situations that are making her feel angry. There are some situations that children can fix and others that they cannot. Sometimes children are angry about things that they cannot change, such as a rule in your house or a homework assignment. Other times, children may be angry with a problem that they can fix, such as a disagreement with a sibling or friend. Here are some strategies to teach your child depending on the circumstance.

If this is a problem I can fix, here are some things I can do…

  • Compromise to reach an agreement
  • Try to understand the other person’s point of view
  • Say, “I’m sorry,” if I hurt someone else
  • Use an “I-message” to communicate my feelings to someone else

An I-message looks like this: I feel ____ when you_____. I need you to_____.

For example: “I feel angry when you use my things without asking. I need you to ask me first next time.”

If this is a problem I can’t fix, here are some things I can do…

  • Practice patience

Being patient helps us feel calm even when things aren’t going our way. Learning to be patient means realizing we won’t always get everything we want as soon as we want it…and that’s okay.

  • Change negative talk to positive talk

Instead of: “My parents are so mean because they never let me stay up late!”

Try saying, “My parents won’t let me stay up late because they want me to get enough sleep. Even though I’m mad, I know that they care about me.”

  • Try to understand another point of view

Look at the problem from the perspective of your parent of teacher. The things that adults do may make you feel angry, but there is probably a good reason.

Step 5: Feel good again!

It is important for your child to learn that after he has taken steps to manage anger, he needs to let it go and feel good again. Depending on the circumstance, he may need to forgive someone else. Praise your child for his efforts. Anger is a difficult emotion for many children to handle. Like any new skill, it takes practice. Praise from you will go a long way in reinforcing these steps. Your child should also learn to use positive self-talk after the situation to feel good again. Here are some possible statements to teach your child.

“I did a great job recognizing when I felt angry and stopped the anger from spinning out of control.”

“I came up with good ideas for how to fix the problem that was making me angry.”

“I am getting better and better at calming myself down when I feel angry.”

Things to Model

Children learn valuable lessons by watching how you handle anger. Modeling appropriate anger management techniques for your child is one of the most powerful ways that your child will learn to manage her own anger. It may feel strange at first, but verbalizing what you are doing helps your child learn these skills. For example, you might say, “I’m feeling angry right now so I’m going to stop and take a walk to calm down and decide what to do.”

Try not to have major arguments with your spouse in front of your child. Children are very sensitive to how their parents treat each other. They often feel a sense of insecurity when they witness heated arguments between their parents. However, if your children do see you and your spouse fight, it is best that they also witness a resolution to the conflict. After you and your spouse are calm, it reassures your children to hear you apologize to each other. It also teaches them how to resolve their own conflicts with others.

By creating an environment where your child learns to express and manage anger appropriately, you are teaching your child valuable skills that will help him throughout his life. Anger is a normal emotion that can be controlled!

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One Comment

  1. Lisa Monroe says:

    “After reading the posts on this blog, I feel like I know a lot more about anger management. And based on the number of posts, I see I am not alone. My website, has not been up long, but I would like to refer people back to your website to read the info. Thanks again, Lisa Monroe.”

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