Anger is not a Four Letter Word

Anger is a natural emotion, albeit a complicated one. For kids and adults alike, anger often comes at a cost. Gone unchecked, anger can hurt others and damage relationships. Expressing anger productively may take years to develop. And, for some, may never happen. Expecting your child to consistently handle their anger effectively is like expecting snow in the Bahamas!

Thirteen-year-old Logan has a lot of strengths: he’s an excellent student, a very talented basketball guard, and a caring friend and sibling. But, Logan has one problem that plagues him. He has a wicked temper. Last week, Logan was finishing his homework when his younger brother started nagging him to go out with him and shoot hoops. Logan lost it. He shoved his brother out of the room and slammed the door in his face.

Anger is a normal emotion that all kids feel from time to time. In fact, it can actually be a helpful emotion because it’s a signal that something is wrong and needs to change. As kids and teens learn to feel more comfortable with anger and expressing it in a healthy fashion, they can begin to appreciate its benefits.

Anger becomes destructive when there is too much of it, or it is expressed destructively– in either an unregulated way (as in Logan’s case) or an over-controlled manner. How do children “over-control” their anger, you might ask? Parents of kids with dysregulation issues might argue that this must be a good thing. Unfortunately, the longer a child sits on a lot of anger without verbalizing it, the more likely it is that the child will blow up. Over-controlled kids are like powder kegs waiting to explode. Or they may sit on anger for so long that they run the risk of imploding; becoming depressed, turning the anger inwards against the self.

The first step in helping your child manage anger is by helping him/her to understand its roots and how the body experiences anger. Then you can move on to helping with the expression of anger in a more healthy way.

Step One: Let your child know you get it.

Your child looks to you for reassurance that all emotions are okay. Help him/her understand the difference between “the feeling” and “the action.” Logan’s feelings toward his brother were okay, right up until the point Logan shoved him. Once the intense emotions have subsided, his parents will want to help Logan understand that while anger is a common emotion, he needs to learn to express it constructively. They may say, “I can see why your brother made you angry, Logan, but you know that you can’t shove him like that. Next time you get mad at your brother, tell him. If you told him how much time you needed, he might have stopped nagging you.”

There are many ways that you can let your kids know that you understand their anger. This doesn’t mean that you are encouraging unacceptable expressions of anger.

Step Two: Acquaint your child with his/her triggers.

The first step in managing anger is knowing which types of situations trigger anger. Once kids are more self-aware, they are more able to:

  • Avoid situations that anger them
  • Come up with solutions to express their anger ahead of time
  • Soothe themselves when confronted with an anger-producing event

Common Button Pushers for Kids

  • Not getting what they want
  • Losing a game
  • Getting teased
  • Being mocked (provoked)
  • When things “aren’t fair”
  • Other kids telling them what to do
  • Tattletale-ing

Step Three: Recognize the warning signs.

Even adults have trouble reigning themselves in once they feel really angry. Because you know your child best, you have likely seen the early warning signs of their escalating anger. If you can help your child become more aware of these signs and signals, you can intervene before it’s too late, and your child has lost it. Kids and teens with anger issues need help tuning into their bodies to notice their own early warning signs. Here are some common ones you might observe in your child:

Common Warning Signs of Anger:

  • Face turns red
  • Fists are clenched
  • Jaw is clenched
  • Body starts to shake
  • Eyes tear up
  • Voice gets louder

In Logan’s case, his parents knew that when Logan was getting angry, he began to scowl and then to bite his tongue. If Logan’s brother was made aware of the signals, he may have learned to back off. At the same time, if Logan was aware of his own body, he might have communicated his need for space from his brother. Some parents find it helpful to come up with a code word with their child to help alert them to their increasing anger. The plan might be for Logan to take a deep breath and relax when hears the code word. By using a code word to distract Logan away from his anger, they help him disengage from what’s provoking him. In this way, his parents intervene before Logan is an “emotional point of no return”.

Step Four: Develop a plan-of-action with your child.

Now that your child has a better idea of what is making them angry, you can begin to help them express anger differently. It’s not enough to tell a kid that their behavior is unacceptable. They need to learn and practice skills to replace old ways of managing anger.

Coping Strategies for Kids

  • Take a self-imposed time-out.
  • Distance myself from the person or thing that’s pushing my buttons.
  • Focus on the task at hand.
  • Tell a friend how I’m feeling.
  • Tell myself “Everything is okay.”
  • Take a deep breath.
  • Think it through before reacting

In Logan’s case, he and his parents figured out a plan going forward which allowed for him to take a break from family members when he was becoming angry. The family members all agreed to let Logan have space when he asked for it. Knowing that he had the option to take a self-imposed time-out helped Logan to gain control.

Step Five: Praise effort, not just results.

If you can, acknowledge verbally progress of your child’s movement toward their goal of anger control. If you notice an improvement, write it down so that you won’t forget to communicate it.

Be on the constant lookout for the little victories. Managing the intense feeling of anger is a long- term process that won’t be achieved overnight. Along the way, offer your child praise for effort, not just results.

As a parent, you want to communicate to your child as often as possible that you have confidence in them and their ability to make changes. Highlight progress even when the going gets tough. Healthy anger expression is one of the toughest skills to develop. The more you communicate your confidence in your child’s ability to manage their anger effectively, the better they’ll get at it.