Anger is a normal human emotion. It usually mobilizes a response to danger, but it’s also a form of self-expression and sometimes a child’s way of declaring independence. Many things can trigger a child’s anger, and sometimes the result is aggression.
Aggression first begins in the toddler years. This is when children are naturally more aggressive than any other age group. A toddler’s inability to talk may be one reason why aggression starts at this age.
As children reach kindergarten age, it is less typical for anger to explode into aggression because they’ve learned to hold back such impulsive urges. Over time, as children reach school age, parents can expect more subtle expressions of anger: pouting, sulking, and whining. Regardless of a child’s age, anger management training can help a child develop better ways to cope with angry feelings.
How can I teach my child to manage their anger?
It is possible to teach even a young child to manage and express anger by focusing on 4 key areas:
recognizing body clues
understanding triggers to anger
expressing anger appropriately
What are body clues?
Body clues are part of your child’s “fight/flight” response when her anger is triggered. Think about times that you have felt angry yourself. Did your heartbeat increase? Did you notice tension in your muscles? Perhaps you started breathing more quickly or you felt really hot? These physiological responses are clues that you are in a situation that will require either a fight or flight response. In kid terms, these “body clues” tell your child that something has happened to make him angry and it is time to take care of his feelings so he can respond appropriately. You can teach your child about his own body clues using a blank template of a human body (or a gingerbread man). Ask your child to draw pictures or symbols to show where he feels anger in his body. An upset tummy can be represented by butterflies in the stomach. Changes in breathing might be shown with balloons drawn in the chest area. Flushing or feeling hot can be shown with flames on the face. Then when you notice your child is feeling angry, ask him to tell you or point to the area where he feels his anger in that moment. You can model this as well by saying something like, “I feel mad and I feel it in my muscles.”
How can my child calm himself?
Every child needs to learn how to calm her angry feelings. One of the best (and easiest) ways to calm feelings is by taking belly breaths. Teach your child different kinds of belly breaths she can take in a moment when she is calm. Try some of the breaths described below or make up your own. The important thing is that your child slows down her breath and focuses on the fun she is having taking calming breaths, rather than the trigger to her anger. It is important to practice, practice, practice until belly breaths become a habit, rather than a chore in an angry moment. Think about practicing belly breaths with your child each night before bed and work belly breaths into the daily routine. Perhaps start each meal with a belly breath. Take a breath each day before you leave for school and work in the morning. You can also model using belly breaths when you are mad (or pretending to be mad for the sake of a teachable moment!) Say something like, “I feel mad in my stomach so I’m going to take a pizza breath to calm myself (take a breath). I feel so calm now!”.
Pizza breath: Pretend you have a pizza in front of you but it is too hot to eat. Lean in and take a big in-breath to fill your belly with the pizza smell. Pause to enjoy the pizza aroma then slowly let your breath out. When the “pizza” is cool, pretend to eat it!
Lion’s breath: Take a slow deep breath in, pause, then ROAR it out. You can be extra ferocious by extending your arms out like lion’s claws.
Puppy breath: Inhale through your nose, then pant or bark the breath out. It might be fun to wag your “tail” while you do this!
Birthday cake breath: Take a breath in, then blow out the “candles” on the imaginary cake in front of you. Like your “pizza”, gobble it up when the candles are out!
Balloon breath: Breathe in deeply while you lift your arms over your head in a balloon shape. Let your arms drop to your sides as you “raspberry” the breath out.
What are triggers to anger?
Triggers to anger are the situations that prompt your child’s anger. A trigger may be something that someone did (Mom said “no”, sister took a favorite toy, dad served peas at dinner ), something that happens in the environment (the power goes out, fire drill at school, noisy cafeteria) or something physiological (hunger, fatigue, thirst). You can help your child recognize and verbalize his triggers by teaching him an emotional vocabulary and helping him make connections between the trigger and his feelings. You can do this by noticing the feelings that he is exhibiting and giving them a name. Say something like, “I can see that you feel mad because you are frowning.” or “I notice that you are frustrated because you are pounding your fists on the table.” Validate his feelings by saying “Everyone feels mad sometimes and that is okay.” Then you can ask him “What happened to make you feel this way?” Allow your child to express his feelings without judgment or interruption, then validate his feelings again by saying, “I understand that _____________ caused you to feel mad.” Make a connection with your child to help him truly see that EVERYONE feels mad sometimes by saying “I feel mad when ____________.”
How can my child express anger appropriately?
The more a child expresses anger verbally, the less likely he will have an angry outburst. Once your child has acquired her emotional vocabulary and has started to understand the triggers to her emotions, it is time to help her learn different responses to triggers. When your child is calm, sit and talk with her about her triggers. Depending on her age, you can either suggest a different response to a trigger (“When your sister takes your toy, remember to take a belly breath then ask for it back in a quiet voice”) or you can ask your child to think of a different response (“What can you do next time your brother hits your rather than hit him back?”) It may also help to point out other people’s emotions or feelings, such as “That man on TV looks angry. What do you think he can do to calm himself and respond appropriately?” It is very important to model your own appropriate responses to anger. When you notice yourself in a trigger situation, voice your feelings and then narrate your response. Something like, “I feel mad because traffic is so slow today. I am going to take a lion’s breath to calm myself (then do it). I feel calm now. I think it’s better to take a different route than yell at drivers (then do that!)”
When should I seek help for my child?
If you believe your child’s anger is really out of control and affecting how he interacts with his family and friends, see the doctor. Your family doctor can refer you to a psychologist,social worker or other licensed mental health professional. They can work with your child and the family. They can help develop ways to change your child’s thinking and responses. This can help improve his behavior.