According to Dr. John Gottman, the best moment for kids to learn about anger is when they are angry. However, it can be very challenging for both parents and professionals to mediate this process, while at the same time mediating their own internal dysregulation. We can help children build connections, vocabulary, and skills by talking about emotions and helping them explore more about them. In our house, we have found it is particularly helpful to share with kids that you feel those same feelings as they do. You can disclose with them examples of things that make you feel angry, how you feel, and what is particularly hard for you to do when you are feeling that (something like "I sometimes feel anger, too. My heart starts going fast and I find it hard to keep my voice down... sometimes I raise my voice, but I am doing my best to remember to take a deep breath and stay calm. Does this happens to you as well?" or "I feel like that sometimes too, I find it helpful to take a deep breath and count to 5, or to sing my favorite song, take a shower"... It is important that your sharing is genuine and that you share strategies that you indeed use when you are feeling that way.
If you are a parent or teacher, please remember not to take this time to make it about yourself or accidentally blame the child for your feelings (you can soon find that "When you don't clean up, I feel angry and that's why I yell." doesn't end well is not beneficial for the child). Use examples that are not related to the child's behavior. Additionally, this is a good opportunity to teach children we are responsible acknowledge and manage our own emotions. This activity offers the child two important resources:
1. Co-regulation: children learn in their social context, they learn by watching you and interacting with you. This is best practiced when the child is in a dysregulated state (for example, angry and screaming); you'd be 'the calm in their storm'. We can also appreciate the power of teaching about emotions as part of daily conversations or planned activities with them. By sharing your experience with that feeling you are normalizing their experience (we all feel emotions, we all sometimes have a tough time coping with them, and we can all find ways to calm ourselves). You are also implicitly letting them know they can talk with you about it and that you are there to help them learn more about emotions and themselves.
2. Self-regulation: help them think about what they feel when they are angry (how do you know you are angry, what makes you feel anger, what do you think about or do when you are angry...). You can ask them to tell you when is the last time they remember being angry, what did they do and why, and what can they do when they are angry next time. Having heard your own coping strategies helps them know other things they can try but is also helpful for them to come up with their own strategies to try. You could drama-play with them being angry and practice, say, taking a deep breath. Take a mental note and whenever they are angry the next time, connect with them in a calm way, and when you get the opportunity mention the strategies they came up with.
A big thing in our house when someone is feeling big emotions is thinking did we eat today, what did we eat, and when was our last meal. Do we need a cup of water? We know that when we get hungry we might feel more sensible, and prone to anger! Teaching this to kids helps them understand anger can come from many places and helps them practice checking in with their needs.
Please always remember, that these exercises are not to manage behaviors by telling the kids they are doing something wrong and need to change it. They help children learn more about their emotions, understand we all can feel them and we all can 'lose it' sometimes, and practice creating a space of choice between what they feel and what they do. In the end, our only objective is to help children gain awareness. Have in mind that children- really, all of us- might be aware of their emotions and might know intellectually that taking a break, a deep breath, going for a walk, counting to 10, or visiting their secret garden, can help them calm down and that they have a choice in doing one of those or all of them instead of yelling, throwing, or saying things they regret after, and still do all the yelling, throwing, etcetera when they feel angry; and that's OK!
Teaching children all this takes us in the right direction. We need to foster their socio-emotional development and help them build skills to understand and manage their emotions, but we must not forget their brains are still developing and self-regulation development is a life-long process. Think of moments you have 'loss it' yourself, even if you are not someone to explode in an overwhelming situation, maybe your strategy is to just shut everything down, even though intellectually you know you need to address the situation... This simple exercise can help us gain more compassion and understanding and know that "This shall pass." when our children are overwhelmed by big emotions.
Furthermore, we do well to remember anger can come from many places. It can be rooted in wanting attention from you, as they develop they start feeling stronger about fairness and independence (which comes into play often when parents are setting limits), and children struggle with delayed gratification ("We can eat ice cream AFTER dinner not FOR dinner), and there are also a plethora of reasons that may make individuals more vulnerable to their emotions such as hunger, overstimulation, and even boredom... Practicing exploring what comes up for us can be a great tool to help children learn about themselves.
Giving shape, form, and color to anger
Emotions are energy, right? E-motion, energy in motion... We can use visualization or externalizations to transform that energy into something tangible and learn more about how we perceive and experience it. Just like we can feel angry for many reasons, we can feel it in many ways and it can depend on the situation (sometimes we feel like screaming other times we just want to cry...). You can make this an art project and have children draw their responses or just a 5-minute chat during the day or at bedtime. Some ideas you can try:
If anger were a color, what color would it be?
If anger were a face, what would it look like?
If anger were a cartoon, what cartoon would it be?
If anger were a pose, what pose would it be?
If anger were an animal, what animal would it be?
It is important to give children the space and time to give their answers, and to respect their answers. Sometimes, it will be a one-word answer, other times it might be a long answer about how if anger were a cartoon it would be Eruptor from Skylanders and how he had to go to the academy for a special class on anger management... Let them tell their stories and explore what they connect anger with. This activity can work with any other emotion you chose to explore. Additionally, always have in mind that emotions are neither good nor bad, they just are; often, they are just messengers or alerts telling us to check in with ourselves and sometimes to connect with others.
Thaina Cordero is the Care Coordinator at Cypress Wellness Center. She has an MS in Educational Psychology, is a trauma-informed certified yoga teacher, and is a doctoral student in a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology program at Modern Sex Therapy Institute. Thaina can help you find a therapist that best suits your health and financial needs. Reach out for questions about billing, insurance, or inquire about our services, staff, and programs. Email: email@example.com