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Ways to Help Children Handle Anger

Michele Borba, EdD
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 40 No. 2, April-May 2004, pp. 38-39.

It’s hard finding a parent these days who isn’t worried about his or her children’s emotional well-being. And rightly so! In my work as a consultant in schools, one of the biggest trends I’m seeing with all children is an increase in aggression and anger. Whether we care to admit it or not, the steady onslaught of violent images on television, video games, the Internet, movies, music lyrics, and in our newspapers is hurting our children. The result: too many children are becoming desensitized to violence; they may have learned that anger is the only way to solve a problem.

While that’s the bad news, there is some good news and here it is: violence is learned, but so is calmness. I’ve included six ideas from my new book, Parents Do Make a Difference, to help teach your children calmer, more constructive ways to express their anger. These ideas have been presented to hundreds of parents in my workshops and the feedback has been positive. They’re simple techniques and when used consistently they will work. Teaching them to our children is one of the best ways we can prevent the development of aggressive behavior that is tormenting too many children today. Here are six ideas to get you started.

Model Calmness

The best way to teach children how to deal with anger constructively is by showing them through your example. After all, you don’t learn how to calm down by reading about it in a book, but by seeing someone do it. So use those frustrating experiences as “on-the-spot lessons” to your child of ways to calm down. Here’s an example: Suppose you get a phone call from the auto shop saying your car estimate has now doubled. You’re furious, and standing nearby is your child now watching you very closely. Muster every ounce of calmness and use it as an instant anger control lesson for your child: “I am so angry right now,” you calmly tell your child. “The auto shop just doubled the price for fixing my car.” Then offer a calm-down solution: “I’m going on a quick walk so I can get back in control.” Your example is what your child will copy.

Exit and Calm Down

One of the toughest parts of parenting is when children address their anger toward us. If you’re not careful, you find their anger fueling emotions in you that you never realized were in you. Beware: anger is contagious. It’s best to make a rule in your home from the start: “In this house we solve problems when we’re calm and in control.” And then consistently reinforce the rule.

Here’s an example of how you might use it. The next time your child is angry and wants a quick solution, you might say, “I need a time out. Let’s talk about this later” and then exit calmly and don’t answer back. Then, when everyone is calmer, do discuss the situation and feelings involved; show them how to control anger rather than masking or burying negative feelings.

Develop a Feeling Vocabulary

Many children display anger because they simply don’t know how to express their frustrations any other way. Kicking, screaming, swearing, hitting, or throwing things may be the only way they know how to show their feelings. Asking this kid to “tell me how you feel” is unrealistic, because he may not have learned the words to tell you how he is feeling! To help him express his anger, create a feeling word poster together by saying, “Let’s think of all the words we could use that tell others we’re really angry,” then list his ideas. Here are a few: angry, mad, frustrated, furious, irritated, ticked off, irate, and incensed. Write them on a chart, hang it up, and practice using them often. When your child is angry, use the words so he can apply them to real life: “Looks like you’re really angry. Want to talk about it?” or “You seem really irritated. Do you need to walk it off?” Then keep adding new emotion words to the list whenever new ones come up in those great “teachable moment” opportunities throughout the day.

Create a Calm Down Poster

There are dozens of ways to help children calm down when they first start to get angry. Unfortunately, many children have never been given the opportunity to think of those other possibilities. And so they keep getting into trouble because the only kinds of behavior they know are inappropriate ways to express their anger. So talk with your child about more acceptable “replacer” behaviors. You might want to make a big poster listing them. Here’s a few ideas a group of fourth graders thought of: walk away, think of a peaceful place, run a lap, listen to music, hit a pillow, shoot baskets, draw pictures, talk to someone, or sing a song. Once the child chooses his “calm down” technique, encourage him to use the same strategy each time he starts to get angry.

Develop an Awareness of Early Warning Signs

Explain to your child that we all have little signs that warn us when we’re getting angry. We should listen to them because they can help us stay out of trouble. Next, help your child recognize what specific warning signs she may have that tell her she’s starting to get upset, such as, “I talk louder, my cheeks get flushed, I clench my fists, my heart pounds, my mouth gets dry, and I breathe faster.” Once she’s aware of them, start pointing them out to her whenever she first starts to get frustrated. “Your hands are clenched now. How are you feeling?” The more we help children recognize those warning signs when their anger is first triggered, the better they will be able to calm themselves down. It’s also the time when anger management strategies are most effective. Anger escalates very quickly, and waiting until a child is already in “melt down” to try to get her back into control is usually too late.

Teach Anger Control Strategies

A very effective strategy for helping children to calm down is called “3 + 10.” You might want to print the formula on large pieces of paper and hang them all around your house. Then tell the child how to use the formula: “As soon as you feel your body sending you a warning sign that says you’re losing control, do two things. First, take three deep slow breaths from your tummy.” (Practice this with your child. Show her how to take a deep breath then tell her to pretend she’s riding an escalator. Start at the bottom step and as you take the breath, ride up the escalator slowly. Hold it! Now ride slowly down the escalator releasing your breath steadily at the same time.) “That’s three. Now count slowly to 10 inside your head. That’s 10. Put them all together, it’s three plus 10 and it helps you calm down.”

Final Thoughts

Teaching children to deal with their anger constructively is not easy—especially if they have only practiced aggressive ways to deal with their frustrations. Research tells us learning new behaviors takes a minimum of 21 days of repetition. So here’s my recommendation: Choose one skill your child needs to be more successful and emphasize the same skill a few minutes every day for at least 21 days. The possibility your child will really learn the new skill will be much stronger, because he’s been practicing the same technique over and over, and that’s exactly the way you learn any new skill. It’s also the best way to stem the onslaught of violence and help our children lead more successful, peaceful lives. You do make a difference!

Reprinted with permission. © 1999 by Michele Borba. Borba, M. Parents Do Make A Difference: How to Raise Kids with Solid Character, Strong Minds, and Caring Hearts. Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1999.

Michele Borba, EdD, is an internationally recognized consultant on increasing children’s self-esteem and achievement and is the author of 24 publications including Parents Do Make A Difference: How to Raise Children with Solid Character, Strong Minds, and Caring Hearts. A former classroom teacher and parent of three sons, she has presented keynotes and workshops to over half a million participants worldwide and is a frequent guest on radio and television talk shows. This article is adapted from an article by Dr. Michele Borba. As a speaker at the 2003 LLLI Conference in San Francisco, California, USA, Dr. Borba was very well received and attendees felt her presentation was extremely timely and helpful. For more information, see Michele Borba’s Web sites at www.MicheleBorba.com or www.moral-intelligence.com.

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