Even as adults, managing our anger can be hard, and we’ve had years of practice. For our children, who are just learning about their emotions, keeping their anger in check can be especially difficult. Kids can easily lash out at people who make them angry or situations that frustrate them: name-calling when they lose a game or throwing the math book across the room. Learning to manage anger is an ongoing process. As parents, we can help by teaching our children to recognize what sets them off so that they too can keep their anger in check.
“It’s important to help your child look at what was happening and what they were thinking that triggered their angry response.”
Children are bombarded with difficult and new challenges on a daily basis – slights from a best friend, a teacher with limited patience, a sibling who picks on her, a math concept he can’t grasp, or a parent that says “no.” And kids have different temperaments. Some children struggle more than others with controlling their temper, even siblings raised in the same house with the same parents.
Fortunately, there is an approach that my husband, James Lehman, and I have found that helps kids effectively manage their anger. It’s an eight-step method that will help you and your child together identify and work on the triggers that contribute to angry outbursts and plan alternative responses they can use the next time a similar trigger fires. Think of these steps as a “menu” of strategies you can use during the ongoing process of helping your kids learn to manage anger. What works for one child won’t necessarily work for another, so different pieces can be employed at different times with different kids.
- Diminish the Potential. As a parent you are probably all too aware of what triggers your child’s anger. Sometimes the best offense is a good defense – avoiding the situation or putting the activity on hold until your child learns better anger management. Of course there are activities like math class that can’t be avoided, but others can be. If playing cards always ends up in an argument for your sons, tell the kids to wait until an adult can join in.
You can also replace a problem situation with a similar but less problematic one. If baseball brings out the worst in your son’s temper, find a less competitive alternative like track. Maybe your teen doesn’t do well after school with her sister. Help her find something she can do outside the house at that time like volunteering, diminishing the potential for an outburst.
- Manage the Situation. As parents we intervene in all kinds of situations to keep our kids safe and happy. Likewise, you can redirect your child and help them diffuse an angry interaction once it’s begun. Think about what cools your child down when they’re heated up. For some kids, it may be a time-out in their room, for others it might be going for a walk, listening to music, or writing in their journal. If issues arise at school, talk to the teacher to figure out what could work. Maybe it’s getting a pass to the guidance counselor or working on their art portfolio. This technique is especially effective when kids come up with their own ideas. Ask your daughter what she thinks she could do to cool down the next time she starts yelling at you. Kids can be pretty creative in coming up with their own ways to manage their anger.
- Identify Trigger Thoughts. It’s important to help your child look at what was happening and what they were thinking that triggered their angry response. As James says in The Total Transformation Program, parents need to identify triggers, as these “will cause repetitive incidents of unacceptable behavior if your child doesn’t learn how to manage them.” The focus here is on the thoughts that fueled the child’s negative feelings (fear, inadequacy, anger, jealousy) which led to their angry response.
Start by investigating the problem situation with your child. Help him figure out what was going on and what he was thinking just before the angry outburst. To help him describe the trigger thoughts, have him imagine that someone videotaped the situation and when played back, he could hear what he was thinking at the time.
Parent: “When I asked you to go upstairs and clean your room, you swore at me, stomped up the stairs and slammed the door. Let’s talk about what happened and what you were thinking.”
Teen: “When you asked me to clean my room, I was just about to watch my favorite show on TV. I thought that you knew it was my favorite and picked that time to send me upstairs. You always let my brother watch his favorite show and his room is worse than mine. I thought that was really unfair and that made me angry.”
The trigger is thinking that the parent was unfair, which led to feelings that the parent favors the sibling, which led to the angry outburst.
- Constructive Self-Talk. Once you have identified the triggers, teach your child to tune in to and turn around those underlying negative thoughts. Although it can be hard, kids can learn to practice constructive self-talk which will help them develop more acceptable responses to problem situations. If the same problem situations happen over and over, it’s likely you’ll find that negative self-talk is going on in your child’s head. Say your daughter always blows-up at her older brother when he beats her at basketball. Her self-talk probably sounds like: “I’m never good enough. I’ll never beat him. I’m such a loser. He’s such a show-off.” Helping her to recognize and switch around her negative self-talk can help her to react differently the next time. Her constructive self-talk may sound like: “I know I’m trying my best. He’s two years older and 4 inches taller. I’m actually pretty good at basketball when we play at recess. I’m getting taller and better at lay-ups. Maybe someday I’ll beat him.”
- A Simple Plan. Help your child come up with a simple one- or two-step plan for what to do when they are experiencing problem situations. If your child has trouble in gym class, help him come up with a simple plan to cope with the situation. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, embarrassed and eventually angry, suggest that he talk to the teacher about another way to demonstrate his ability or if he can do an alternative task. Maybe he can arrange to take a brief break when feeling on the spot, a silent signal to the teacher about his growing distress.
The important thing is to work it out ahead of time, tailor it to the situation, develop do-able alternatives and make sure your child is aware of the plan. For an older child, he will need to buy-in to the plan, as he’ll be the one using it. For a younger child, this may mean telling her what is going to happen differently. “If you have a tantrum at the store, we will leave immediately and won’t be able to buy that cereal you like.”
- Communicate. Let others know what the plan is. If your child is having a hard time in math class, talk with the teacher and explain what you are trying to do to help your child. “When my son is frustrated in math, he starts thinking that he’s dumb and gets overly sensitive to criticism. Last year it was helpful when his teacher let him do the problems at his own pace. My son felt less pressure and often did well on the work. I hope you can help us figure this out for this year.” You’ve let the teacher know the problem, a potential strategy (or simple plan) to address the problem, and elicited her support in making it work.
- Implement. Once you’ve come up with the simple plan, the sooner you can implement it, the more likely it is to work. Let’s say you’re taking your child to the football game, where they tend to get over-stimulated. Plan to sit in a less crowded area and take frequent breaks. Don’t make this plan in the summer, expecting you’ll remember in September. Instead develop it, tell your child and implement it right away. And don’t wait until the behavior is unmanageable. If your child is starting to get over-stimulated in the first quarter, take a break right away.
- Move On. It’s important to move on after trying a plan. If it was successful, great! It works and you can use it again. If it wasn’t, it may take a few tries or some tweaking. Help your child understand that it’s okay and that you’ll try it again or try something different next time. You both did your best; you tried something new and you’ll try again next time with more success.
Helping kids identify their triggers and manage their anger is a tall order, I know. Keep in mind that it’s a process. You will likely encounter some setbacks or unsuccessful trials, but that’s okay! Remember that learning and developing new more effective strategies doesn’t happen overnight. It requires time and persistence. Keep coaching these skills—one at a time if that makes it easier—and they will come.