Anger in a child may occur for many different reasons. It might stem from a condition like ADHD, ODD, anxiety, various different developmental difficulties or perhaps frustrations over experiencing specific learning difficulties at school. Anger can also occur just as part of the typical emotional regulation development of the growing child. Whatever the source of the anger, teaching the brain in a child to stay calm can be a challenge; I often wonder if the person who came up with the phrase “the joys of parenting” ever had any dealings with children. Did they ever see a toddler tantrum or a teenage mood swing?
Let’s face it, parenting is not always joyful and working with angry kids in any capacity can be downright difficult at times. You may have read every guidebook on the planet already. And you may know that while parenting or teaching may be the most important and rewarding job that you’ll ever do, at times, it feels very much like that — a job. When your child is feeling angry and acting out, you may be hurt, offended, bewildered, or even angry yourself. This doesn’t make you a bad parent or teacher. It makes you human.
Psychologist Karen Webster Stratton reports that emotions are responses to situations in which people feel strongly. She further notes that these responses are felt on three levels: neurophysiological, behavioral, and cognitive. This means that there is a physical response in the person’s body as well as an intellectual understanding of what is happening. In addition, there is also an overt behavior exhibited as a result of the person’s response to the stimuli. So your child’s responding may not be as simple as what you see on the outside. Your child may be responding to events on a single level or on all three levels. Whichever is the case for your child, here are some top tips based on psychological research that will help you manage the situation when your child is angry and carry you through those times when parenting or teaching is far less joyful an experience.
Remind kids that they are capable of managing their emotions.
In early childhood, kids begin to talk and reflect on the emotions that they are having. This helps them understand and regulate what they are feeling. By middle childhood, they realize that they can have conflicting and difficult feelings but that they may not always act on them. So while they may love and respect their parents and teachers, they begin to understand that they can still be angry with them. By the time they reach adolescence and all of the hormonal flux that comes with this period, they become very skilled at hiding emotions that are unpopular or that might get them into trouble. So remind them that it is entirely normal to feel angry sometimes, but that it is within their power to make space for uncomfortable feelings and still move forward in life. Intense feelings may seem unmanageable at times, but with practice, even the most difficult thoughts and feelings can be worked out.
Balance schedules with periods of activity and down time.
Kids that are overstimulated or overtired will often misbehave. Adequate physical and cognitive stimulation will keep their brains and bodies active, but also ensure that there is enough down time to allow them to process what they are learning and allow them space so that they don’t feel completely overwhelmed by what is going on around them.
Model emotional regulation.
Even in early infancy, babies use social referencing (Klinnert et al 1996) to guide their emotional reactions. This means that even before the age of one, babies will look to the adults around them if they are unsure of how to respond to a stimuli or unfamiliar situation. So if you want your baby to respond with calm, you need to model this for them. Start early so that calm and measured responses become the norm, not the exception. Then continue to do this as your child gets older. If you find that your child (or student) seems to regularly over-react, it is a good idea to let them see you making some mistakes and responding in a flexible and balanced manner. The more this behavior is witnessed, the more it will be the norm. If they see you making some mistakes and still being able to manage yourself, they will see that there are options besides anger when things don’t go the way they expect them to.
Role-play emotional regulation.
If modeling alone doesn’t seem to be effective in toning down your child’s emotional responses, you may need to role play some example situations. This can be done easily in classroom settings as there are many games that you can play whereby each child gets to act out what it looks and feels like when things go wrong. You can have kids act out various different responses and then discuss which would work best in real life. You can also do this at home with just yourself and your child or with siblings or friends. The point is to set up situations that might be difficult in real life and play out the different responses. This gives kids a chance to think it out before it happens to them and allows them to see that they have a choice in how they respond. There are some great examples of games and activities for this type of role play in books like “Anger Management Games for Kids” by Deborah Plummer or in “What to Do When Your Temper Flares” by Dr. Dawn Huebner.
Teach the difference between having feelings and acting on them.
People often think that they are their thoughts, taken completely literally. Of course, just because we have thoughts doesn’t mean that every single one of those thoughts is true. It also doesn’t mean that we have to buy into or act on every single thought that we have. In fact sometimes our thoughts are completely unhelpful and sometimes our mind tells us to do things that just don’t work. For example, even though I’m a grown-up, I sometimes feel like throwing myself on the floor and flailing my hands and fists about in rage when things don’t go my way. Do I do this? Of course not! I know that this type of behavior doesn’t bring me places that I want to go to and it doesn’t solve my problem. This behavior simply doesn’t work for me the same way it may have worked for me (on some level) when I was a toddler. There are lots of different therapeutic techniques for defusing us from difficult or unhelpful thoughts so that we don’t get into the trap of believing all of our thoughts or of feeling that we have to act on every single thought.
In Dr. Steve Hayes’ book called “Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life; The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy”, he describes a multitude of defusion strategies in an easy to read self-help format that can be used with kids too. One exercise is to imagine that you are watching leaves going down a quickly moving stream. For each thought that you have, imagine that it is written on one of the leaves and then watch that thought roll away down the stream. You can do this also by imagining that each thought is attached to one of the cars on a freight train that you are watching go through a railway station too. The point is that you notice that you are having the thought and you watch the thought. You don’t have to act on it; you just notice that you are having it. This act of imagining the thought outside of yourself has the very powerful effect of separating us from our thoughts. In other words, we can have the thoughts and not be them. We can choose not to act on them. We can train our brains merely to notice the thoughts and notice that they are just that — thoughts.
Train mindfulness and meditation.
While we aren’t all yoga experts or self-help gurus, a little bit of mindfulness goes a long way. Increasingly, psychotherapies are using mindfulness and meditation techniques as these have been shown to increase a person’s self awareness. Having a heightened self awareness will help young people catch unworkable thoughts and actions before they hit the self-destruct button. Dr. Russ Harris makes lots of suggestions for how to do this in his book, “The Happiness Trap”, but basically this entails winding down and watching our thoughts and actions as they happen. It entails noticing what is going on around us — even the very small things — and taking the time to slow down now and again and notice all the sights, sensations, and smells of our everyday activities.
Sometimes, parents and teachers might be doing a great job of empowering kids to act in a pro-social way. They might also be modeling appropriate behavior at every opportunity. They might do some excellent role plays and they might also do some stellar work defusing kids from difficult thoughts and feelings. Even still, angry outbursts will occur. When this happens, we need to meet the child where they are at, right then and there. Try to coach them through the same way you would teach them any other skill. Encourage them to act in manner that works for them and one that is consistent with class or house rules.
Do not respond to your child with anger.
You know the old saying, “Fight fire with fire”? It doesn’t apply here — you are the adult in this situation. Even though this young person might be pushing every last button and you might be exhausted and tempted to shout and slam some doors yourself, remember that a child will mirror your behavior. If you are throwing tantrums yourself, you can be certain that this will increase the likelihood of an escalation in your child’s angry outbursts. In the 1960s, Albert Bandura and his team demonstrated many times that children who witnessed aggressive behavior were more likely to act aggressively than were their peers who had witnessed more pro-social actions. If you want your child to respond with calm, you need to remain calm yourself, even though your own physiology might be telling a different story, you need to practice self restraint and show them how it is done.
Acknowledge that what your child is going through is difficult.
There are a whole range of human emotions (anger, sadness, fear, happiness, etc.). All of them are normal, but sometimes the level or intensity of the emotion is not commensurate with the situation. At the same time, it is very important that your child feels that you have heard them. Let them know that being angry is normal and that you understand that they feel frustrated, but that you are concerned with the way they are acting out their frustrations or concerned that their behavior is not working for them in this situation. They are much more likely to engage with what you think will work for them if they feel that you understand them and that you are on their side.
Show your child unconditional positive regard.
This classic Rogerian piece of psychological advice still holds true today. Kids will work harder on their behavior if they think that you like them. This is another reason why you want them to know that you have heard them and that their feelings are valuable. If they recognize that you will keep batting for them even when they misbehave, they will know that you have their back in difficult situations. This also helps them separate themselves from their behaviors. In other words, you love your child always, but you don’t always have to agree with the way they behave and you would sometimes like them to work on those behaviors in a different and more positive way. It is also worth noting that children who misbehave often get into trouble and this can become a very negative cycle whereby they are in trouble so often that they become disheartened and stop even trying to play by the rules.
Impose consequences for inappropriate behavior.
Showing a child unconditional positive regard does not mean that you ignore every act of misbehavior. The real world doesn’t work like that and you need to prepare your child for this reality. Have rules and boundaries and work within them. If your child has trouble with a particular rule, there is no reason why that cannot be discussed in a mature and respectful fashion, but remember that actions have consequences and it is important that young people understand that this applies to them even if they did not mean to lose their temper or even if they are very sorry for their actions.
Be aware of gender, cultural and socioeconomic differences in emotional responding in your child.
Boys and girls sometimes respond differently at different stages of development so be aware that the children in your home or in your classroom may be at different developmental stages. In increasingly diverse classrooms, there may also be different cultural and socioeconomic differences which may come into play in the ways that different children react. So while the home and classroom rules should always be consistent, you may need to apply some flexibility to certain situations to make room for what may be entirely typical for a certain gender, culture, or socioeconomic group at that specific chronological age. This doesn’t mean that you don’t work on behaviors that are problematic — it means you need to be sensitive to where these behaviors may be coming from.
Be aware that people make mistakes.
Sometimes even when you have done your best to adopt these strategies, children will still show high levels of anger. Just be aware that everybody makes mistakes sometimes. Bearing this in mind will help you look at a situation as problematic, rather than looking at an individual child as the problem. Maintaining this stance will enable you to keep persisting with these tried and tested tips so that you don’t undermine your relationship even with children with extremely high levels of anger. So don’t think that you have failed in your efforts because of one or two or even ten angry outbursts. Effecting meaningful and lasting behavior change takes time, patience, and persistence by both you and your child. Celebrate the small victories and learn from the mistakes along the way. These are a necessary part of the learning process too.
Dr. Sarah Cassidy is an educational psychologist, behaviour therapist and mother of three. She provides assessment/treatment for children with learning and emotional/behavioural difficulties in school systems and in private practice. She lectures in educational psychology, child development and early childhood education at National University of Ireland. She is a professional member of the American Psychological Association, the National Educational Psychological Service and founder /Chief Education Officer at RaiseYourIQ.