At times, I have really angry kids.
At times, I can be a really angry mom.
Now I know that anger as an emotion itself is not the problem; but rather, it is how anger is acted upon that can be problematic. I always tell my kids that feeling angry is just fine – we all feel angry sometimes, and those feelings can even be helpful if they allow us to discover and resolve the feelings behind our anger. What matters is how we express our anger – how we react to the feelings we have. Do we lash out at others with hurtful words and misappropriated blame, or do we accept our anger as a warning sign and then try to figure out how to make things better?
I hate the feeling when I don’t understand where my kids’ anger is coming from, and try as I might, I just can’t seem to help them to alleviate their anger. I also hate how much damage uncontrolled anger does to relationships, to fun family plans, to the home environment, to self worth, to success... to joy. Anger can be an enormous joy-sucker, and anger is not a legacy I want to pass down in my family.
My kids are not at the age anymore where I can pacify their anger by swooping in with a bowl of Goldfish crackers or putting them down for a nap. My soothing words and wiping away of tears rarely do the trick either. They are too big physically to move from the source of their anger in our house to another calmer space, and they don’t welcome my hugs or silly jokes like they used to when they were upset. As my sons move into this tween era, it is also getting harder to distract them from the negative thoughts they are perseverating on and transition them to cheerier topics… and doing so does not teach them how to cope with their emotions anyway. Many times I can’t make things right for them on my own.
I am not an expert on dealing with anger, and I have learned in my years of parenting sometimes-angry kids that there is no quick fix for helping to diffuse an individual’s anger when they are stuck in it. There have been many times when I have felt like I've failed my kids by not reaching them before their frustration built up to the point of a torrential outburst, then have stood by helplessly until the storm passed – hurting all of us in its wake. Those are the worst times. Feeling out of control is scary for kids.
However, there are other times when I see one of my sons about ready to yell at the top of their lungs about the unfairness of society and his “mean mom,” and then… cue the Hallelujah chorus… he will pause, catch himself, take a deep breath, and then calmly ask me to help him problem-solve the situation that caused him to feel angry. I am hoping to see more of this in the years ahead, and each instance brings me hope that my kids will someday understand their emotions better.
Here are some lessons I have learned about helping my older kids deal with their anger.
BEFORE THE OUTBURST:
Develop an individually-tailored anger management plan. Each person is unique in what helps him to recover best from his anger. Try meeting with your child during an emotionally neutral time to discuss what strategies he would like to try next time he is just beginning to feel angry. Really listen to your child to hear what his ideas are for minimizing the triggers of his anger. Try to see things from his point of view and work together to develop some coping tools that might be helpful to him. Revisit these tools often and alter as needed.
Some of the coping techniques my kids have used during different phases include the following:
-Asking for a break from the task that is triggering frustration
-Taking deep breaths or counting to 10
-Daydreaming about favorite places or activities
-Thinking about a red stop light as a reminder to stop yourself from progressing any further into anger
-Yoga or stretching positions (A favorite pose is to stretch like a cat by arching your back when on your hands and knees, then relax your back.)
-Positive self-talk (telling the negative voice inside your head to stop and practice saying "I can" statements instead)
-Scribbling furiously on paper or crumpling up scratch paper
-Walking outside and breathing in the fresh air
-Reading a book or watching TV to distract from frustration
-My husband or I praying for them aloud
Consider putting a “calming kit” together and teach your child how to use it. My son used to keep a “calming kit” at both home and school. We used rectangular lunch bags that would fit nicely in his desk or locker at school, and we filled them with the following coping tools:
-Fidgets: Toysmith liquid motion bubbler, Tangle relax therapy, Rubik’s Cube, Wacky Tracks, and Therapy stress balls. (Two newer fidgets I would also consider are the Fidget Cube and the Anti-Anxiety 360 Spinner.)
-Reminder cards about how to cope with frustration. I laminated these printable cards that I purchased from Teachers Pay Teachers and included them in the kit when my sons were younger.
-A few favorite Yoga Pretzels cards
-Paper and pencil to communicate nonverbally
-Rescue gum (I don’t know that this actually works, but it seemed to at least have a placebo effect for my son. Maybe it’s all in the name!)
Keep an eye out for your child's anger triggers to help avoid an outburst. It is best to reach out to your kids with a coping technique before they get to the point of 'flying off the handle.' Sometimes a child's anger can even be eliminated if parents can recognize what he is feeling and acknowledge the source before he can realize it on his own, for example, “You are feeling frustrated because your brother has screen time left and your time is up.” Naming the feeling and showing empathy and compassion are key to helping your child avoid an outburst. You will get to know your kids’ triggers after a few times of witnessing their anger.
DURING THE OUTBURST:
My anger does not help their anger. When my kids are angry and I am visibly and/or audibly angry, I add fuel to their fire, I don’t model the coping techniques I want them to develop, and I always regret it later. I have become much better than I used to be at displacing my feelings and remaining (or at least appearing) relatively calm during my kids' angry outbursts. As hard as this can be, I try not to get caught up in their emotions. I fight against seeing their words and actions as a personal attack, even when they intend them to be. Instead, I attempt to see them as children who need help but can’t ask for it themselves at the moment. I try to take a deep breath myself and realize that there is no need to treat their anger like it is an emergency. This type of response to kid anger has taken much intentional practice on my part, but my kids' outbursts are briefer when I can remain calm.
When a child is already flaming angry, reminding him about the coping skills he has at his disposal is not effective. Instead, the reminders tend to make my kids feel annoyed and infuriated, and it makes me the target of their anger. I find it works better to say nothing, but perhaps hand them a tool from their calming kits that has helped them in the past. Then I let them know that I am available to help or talk to them about the situation once they have calmed down.
Instructing a massively angry child to go to his room does not help him calm down. In fact, this technique almost always makes him angrier and feel lonely, unloved, hopeless, and/or ashamed. Instead, as noted above - I will tell him that I will talk with him when he is calmer, then leave the area that he is in to give him some space to deal with his emotions, provided he is not in a position to hurt himself, others, or others’ property (and these sorts of actions are clear family rules that we have already discussed and set together during calmer times). I remain close by in case he becomes ready to process his emotions and so that he doesn't feel alone. Having an adult hover around them does not help my kids to calm down; just the same – they often don’t want to be entirely separated from family when they are feeling frustrated. At the moment when the angry, raised voice has been replaced by a voice I recognize as being my son’s voice, I let him know that I am listening and am ready to help.
AFTER THE OUTBURST:
Praise successes. Each time your child puts into practice a positive anger coping strategy, praise or reward him! He will feel good and be more likely to repeat the successful strategy.
Forgive quickly, but forget even more quickly. When your kids are ready to apologize, listen attentively and praise them for considering your and others' feelings. Even if they aren’t ready yet to apologize but at least have calmed down enough to move on with regular activities, forget their anger for now and love on them, encouraging them to make things right as soon as they are able to (and circle around the topic periodically to remind them of this until they do apologize). Try to keep your teachings to your children about using more positive anger management strategies short, sweet, and to the point - avoiding a one-sided lecture. Chances are, they already know what they need to work on for next time.
Seek help when needed. If the anger outbursts repeatedly put your child, yourself, or others into unsafe situations, please seek help from a health provider or therapist who is experienced in helping kids develop coping strategies specific to their emotional struggles. In order to be a more effective caregiver, find a way to take a break when you feel overwhelmed from dealing with your child's seemingly constant anger.
Forgive yourself if you fail to stay calm in the face of their anger, and try, try again. Parenting can be so tough at times, and especially during those times when you don’t especially like your kids’ attitudes or actions and you feel like you are making little headway in teaching them the communication skills they need to succeed in life. I am not a perfect parent, and I will fail from time to time - some days more than others. However, I will never give up on training my kids, or myself, to better manage our anger. It’s one fight that is totally worth it.
Wishing you peace within your families,