You’ve probably heard of fight, flight or freeze—the brain’s primal response to threat that floods our system with a cocktail of chemicals to help us react and keep safe. More recently ‘flop’ and ‘be-friend’ have been added to this list. Now, that’s a tidy little bunch of ‘f’ words for you!
And here is one more to add to the collection: FURIOUS.
For many children (and adults too) ‘fight’ is the go-to response and anger is the emotion that is automatically triggered. The root cause of anger is often frustrated desire. A child who has not yet learnt to self-regulate can go from zero to one hundred in a split second when something or someone gets in the way of what they want, resulting in an outburst of full-blown fury.
Take a moment to tune into what anger feels like in your body; perhaps a tight ball in your tummy, raised shoulders, clenched fists. Perhaps it is accompanied by a sharp intake of breath and ‘the look’. You know the one. Does anger feel toxic to you? Or do you like that firing up of the adrenals? Whatever your personal relationship with anger, other people don’t seem to like it much when you are angry.
Aggression without internal checks and balances is dangerous to others, and to oneself. Many people come to see, sooner or later, that anger is seldom worth the trail of destruction it leaves. A habit of anger can lead to bitterness and regret, depression and isolation, violence and trauma. Many of our social norms and laws are there to help regulate human aggression. While necessary, external control rarely cuts deep into the territory of truly embodying peace. It is so much more powerful and transformative to do the hard yards of developing self-regulation. And as adults, we have a responsibility to help children and young people develop this essential aspect of emotional intelligence as well.
Here are some solution-focussed ideas for helping children learn to manage anger:
- Let children know that anger is a natural human emotion and we all feel angry sometimes. Don’t make children feel ashamed or guilty about feeling angry.
- Let children see you practise anger management yourself. Children learn by watching the adults around them, so it’s counter-productive to get angry at the child for getting angry!
- Remember the strengths-based, solution-focussed maxim: ‘The problem is the problem, the person is not the problem.’ So … the child is not the problem, the response to anger is the problem. (And the child is not the anger either.)
- Let children know that it is exciting, fun and really useful to have some tricks up their sleeve for helping them manage anger.
- Encourage children to get curious and ‘notice’ things about anger—noticing helps create distance or ‘externalises’ anger so that it becomes something they can get to know and get super-clever with.
- Encourage children to make up a name for anger like ‘Growly Tiger’ or ‘Stormy Cloud’. Bingo! You have an ‘externalising metaphor’. Then you can ask things like, ‘What would help Stormy Cloud to float away across the sky? (Please see the book Kids’ Skills for a method of working with children to turn problems into skills to be learned. One of the steps is naming the problem.)
- Let children know that their bodies are very smart. Their ‘body signals’ are their ‘early warning signs’ and can let them know when anger is about to visit them. Ask them, ‘What happens to your fists, shoulders, tummy and jaw when you are angry?’ (The Body Signals cards with colourful meerkat characters are a great resource for teaching children to recognise their body signals.)
- Teach children to recognise signs of anger in others. Invite them to make a face to show an angry expression. This helps develop empathy, and also teaches them how to stay safe. ‘What should you do when someone is angry?’
- Just as aggression is a learned response to anger, assertiveness can be learned as well. Teach children the consequences of aggression. Why doesn’t it work a lot of the time? Teach them other, more effective ways to ask for what they want or say what they need to say.
- Kids can learn to lengthen that tiny split second of choice that is present before they react. It’s often referred to as ‘impulse control’ or ‘getting in the driver’s seat’ of how we respond to our body signals and emotions. The car is a great metaphor for working with children who are angry because you can talk about crashing cars as well as cars that decide to take another road. (Please see Cars ‘R’ Us.)
- Anger can arise as a response to anxiety. Teach children lots of fun, simple strategies for calming down and de-escalating anger and anxiety, such as breathing, counting, movement and tapping, creating a ‘remote control’, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy techniques (CBT) and mindfulness exercises. (Please see Anxiety Solutions for Kids.)
- Anger can arise through feeling disempowered. People can then try to assert control over others (‘power-over’) in a misguided attempt to wrestle power back to themselves. Create a culture in your classroom or family where kids are noticed, celebrated and praised for putting their strengths and skills into practice. Notice and encourage sharing, negotiation, co-operation, fairness, problem-solving and other skills that build relationships and ‘power-with’. This helps children begin to understand that exercising internal control is an expression of true inner power. (See Strength Cards for Kids.)
True inner power—the essence of connectedness with ourselves and others, and the mark of a healthy relationship with our emotions, including anger.
Managing Editor, St Luke’s Innovative Resources