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Helping Kids Handle Anger

Michele Borba

In my work as an educational consultant in schools, one of the biggest trends I'm seeing with all kids is an increase in aggression and anger. Whether we care to admit it or not, the steady onslaught of violent images on television, video games, the Internet, movies, music lyrics, and in our newspapers are hurting our children. The result: too many kids are becoming desensitized to violence, and have learned that anger is the only way to solve a problem.

While that's the bad news, there is some good news: violence is learned, but so is calmness! I've included six secrets to help teach your kids calmer, more constructive ways to express their anger. These ideas have been presented to hundreds of parents in my workshops and the feedback has been positive: they're simple techniques and when used consistently they will work. Teaching them to our kids is one of the best ways we can prevent the development of aggressive behavior that is tormenting too many kids today. Here are six ideas to get you started.

1. Model calmness. The best way to teach kids how to deal with anger constructively is by showing them through your example! After all, you don't learn how to calm down by reading about it in a book, but by seeing someone do it. So use those frustrating experiences as "on-the-spot lessons" to your child of ways to calm down.

Here's an example: Suppose you get a phone call from the auto shop saying your car estimate has now doubled. You're furious, and standing nearby is your child now watching you very closely. Muster every ounce of calmness and use it as an instant anger control lesson for your child: "I am so angry right now" you calmly tell your child. "The auto shop just doubled the price for fixing my car." Then offer a calm-down solution: "I'm going on a quick walk so I can get back in control." Your example is what your child will copy.

2. Exit and calm down. One of the toughest parts of parenting is when children address their anger towards us. If you're not careful, you find their anger fueling emotions in you that you never realized were in you. Beware: anger is contagious. It's best to make a rule in your home from the start: "In this house we solve problems when we're calm and in control." And then consistently reinforce the rule.

Here's an example of how you might use it. The next time your child is angry and wants a quick solution, you might say, "I need a time out. Let's talk about this later," and then, exit calmly and don't answer back. I had one mom tell me her only escape was to lock herself in the bathroom. The child continued kicking and screaming, but she would not come out until he was calm. It took a few "locked up times" for the child to realize she meant business. And from then on the child knew that Mom would only talk about the problem when he was in calm and in control.

3. Develop a feeling vocabulary. Many kids display anger because they simply don't know how to express their frustrations any other way. Kicking, screaming, swearing, hitting, or throwing things may be the only way they know how to show their feelings. Asking this kid to "tell me how you feel" is unrealistic, because he may not have learned the words to tell you how he is feeling! To help him express his anger, create a feeling word poster together saying: "Let's think of all the words we could use that tell others we're really angry" then list his ideas.

Here's a few: angry, mad, frustrated, furious, irritated, ticked off, irate, and incensed. Write them on a chart, hang it up, and practice using them often. When your child is angry, use the words so he can apply them to real life: "Looks like you're really angry. Want to talk about it?" or "You seem really irritated. Do you need to walk it off?" Then keep adding new emotion words to the list whenever new ones come up in those great "teachable moments" opportunities throughout the day.

4. Create a calm-down poster. There are dozens of ways to help kids calm down when they first start to get angry. Unfortunately, many kids have never been given the opportunity to think of those other possibilities. So they keep getting into trouble because the only behavior they know is inappropriate ways to express their anger. So talk with your child about more acceptable "replacer" behaviors. You might want to make a big poster listing them. Here's a few ideas a group of fourth-graders thought of: walk away, think of a peaceful place, run a lap, listen to music, hit a pillow, shoot baskets, draw pictures, talk to someone, or sing a song. Once the child chooses his "calm down" technique, encourage him to use the same strategy each time he starts to get angry.

5. Develop an awareness of early warning signs. Explain to your child that we all have little signs that warn us when we're getting angry. We should listen to them because they can help us stay out of trouble. Next, help your child recognize what specific warning signs she may have that tells her she's starting to get upset such as, "I talk louder, my cheeks get flushed, I clench my fists, my heart pounds, my mouth gets dry, and I breathe faster." Once she's aware of them, start pointing them out to her whenever she first starts to get frustrated. "Looks like you're starting to get out of control." or "Your hands are in a fist now. Do you feel yourself starting to get angry?" The more we help kids recognize those early angry warning signs when their anger is first triggered, the better they will be able to calm themselves down. It's also the time when anger management strategies are most effective. Anger escalates very quickly, and waiting until a child is already in "melt down" to try to get her back into control is usually too late.

6. Teach anger control strategies. A very effective strategy for helping kids to calm down is called "3 + 10." You might want to print the formula on large pieces of paper and hang them all around your house. Then tell the child how to use the formula: "As soon as you feel your body sending you a warning sign that says you're losing control, do two things. First, take three deep slow breaths from your tummy." (Model this with your child. Show her how to take a deep breath then tell her to pretend she's riding an escalator. Start at the bottom step and as you take the breath, ride up the escalator slowly. Hold it! Now ride slowly down the escalator releasing your breath steadily at the same time). "That's 3. Now count slowly to 10 inside your head. That's 10. Put them all together, it is 3 + 10, and it helps you calm down."

Teaching children a new way to deal with their anger constructively is not easy -- especially if they have only practiced aggressive ways to deal with their frustrations. Research tells us learning new behaviors take a minimum of 21 days of repetition. So here's my recommendation: Choose one skill your child needs to be more successful and emphasize the same skill a few minutes every day for at least 21 days! Besides, the possibility your child will really learn the new skill will be much stronger, because he's been practicing the same technique over and over, and that's exactly the way you learn any new skill. It's also the best way to stem the onslaught of violence and help our kids lead more successful, peaceful lives.

Dr. Borba is the author of 20 books including 12 Simple Secrets Real Moms Know: Getting Back to Basics and Raising Happy Kids (Jossey-Bass-Wiley 2006); Nobody Likes Me, Everybody Hates Me: The Top 25 Friendship Problems and How to Solve Them; No More Misbehavin': 38 Difficult Behaviors and How to Stop Them; Don't Give Me That Attitude!: 24 Rude, Selfish Insensitive Things Kids Do and How to Stop Them, and Building Moral Intelligence, cited by Publishers' Weekly as "among the most noteworthy of 2001"; Parents Do Make a Difference, selected by Child magazine as "Outstanding Parenting Book of 1999"; and Esteem Builders, used by 1.5 million students worldwide. For more information, visit www.simplemommysecrets.com.

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