Helping Children Cope with Anger
By Leah Davies, M.Ed.
All human beings experience anger. But children, in particular, have difficulty channeling their strong emotions into acceptable outlets. Anger is a response to a real or perceived loss or stress. It results when a person's self-esteem, body, property, values or sense of entitlement are threatened. It is often a reaction to feeling misunderstood, frustrated, hurt, rejected or ashamed.
Children often blame other people or events for their anger instead of assuming responsibility for it. If children do not learn how to release their anger appropriately, it can fester and explode in inappropriate ways or be internalized and damage their sense of self-worth. When children express their anger inappropriately, it may mean that they lack coping skills to deal with their emotions in positive ways.
To assist children in becoming emotionally competent so that they are ready to learn, educators need to help them:
- Understand their anger and the emotions of others.
- Develop positive social interaction skills.
- Realize that they are responsible for the choices they make.
- Learn how to express anger in ways that aren't harmful to themselves or others.
How can educators do this?
- Model acceptance of each child as a valuable human being worthy of respect.
- Accentuate each child's strengths.
- Make your expectations compatible with children's level of development.
- Provide a safe, responsive, predictable environment.
- Provide children the opportunity to make choices.
- Send honest, congruent messages, making sure your words match your facial expressions and body language.
- Be fair, supportive, firm, and consistent. Never ridicule a child.
- Watch for and acknowledge appropriate behavior.
- Teach decision making and problem-solving skills.
- Use role-playing, puppets, or videos to teach social skills. For example, how to treat each other or how to work out disagreements.
- Involve children in making rules such as:
- We are kind to each other
- We listen to others
- We use self-control
- We work out differences peacefully.
- Make the rules clear and follow through with meaningful consequences which are appropriate for the age of the child.
- Be aware of nonverbal signs that a child is angry such as a red face, tensed muscles, or clenched fists.
- Understand that a child's headaches, upset stomach, or withdrawn behavior may be a symptom of repressed anger.
- Watch the child carefully, noting the antecedents to aggressive behavior. Ask yourself:
- What happened right before the outburst?
- How was the child feeling?
- What does he or she need/want?
- What can I do to make the situation better for the child?
- Anticipate angry outbursts and arrange activities to reduce them. For example, if the child gets angry when it is time to go inside, talk with the child ahead of time and share your expectations. Then comment when the child acts appropriately.
- Arrange the seating to decrease conflict. Separate children who arouse angry responses in each other.
- Help children understand that anger is a natural emotion that everyone has. Say things like, "It's okay to feel angry. Everyone feels angry sometimes, but it is not okay to hurt yourself or others."
- Stop any aggressive behaviors. Say, "I can't let you hurt each other," or "I can't let you hurt me." Then remove the child or children as gently as possible.
- If the child is out-of-control, provide a quiet place where he/she can calm down.
- Resist taking a child's angry outburst personally. Deal with the child in a calm, matter-of-fact way.
- Acknowledge strong emotions, helping the child control him/herself and save face. For example say, "It must be hard to get a low score after you tried so hard."
- Assist the child in using a vocabulary of feeling words. Read books that ask the children to verbalize a time when they felt various emotions.
- Use feeling words to help the child understand the emotions of others. For example, "Mary is sitting alone and looks very sad; she may be lonely," or "When Joe tripped, he looked embarrassed."
- Help children understand their own emotions by putting their feelings into words. For example say, "It made you angry when they called you names."
- Listen, reflect and validate without judgment the feelings the child expresses. After listening, help the child identify the true feeling underlying the anger such as hurt, sadness, disappointment, fear, or frustration. For example, "That hurt when your best friend was mean to you," or "It was scary to have them gang up on you."
- Encourage the child to accept responsibility for the anger and to gain control over him/herself by asking him/herself the following:
- Did I do or say anything to create the problem?
If so, how can I make things better?
How can I keep this from happening again?
- Facilitate communication and problem solving with the child or between children by asking questions such as:
- What do you want/need?
- How can I help you?
- What can you do to help yourself?
- Help children understand that they can choose how to react when they feel angry. Teach them self-control and positive ways to cope with their negative impulses. The following are choices they can make:
- Stop and think
- Calm self by breathing deeply
- Count slowly
- Tense body and relax
- Find a quiet place or sit alone
- Write about feelings
- Tell someone how you feel
- Problem solve
- Look at books or read
- Draw or play with clay
- Exercise, walk or run
- Play music or sing
- Rest or take a shower
- Hug someone, a pet or a stuffed animal
- Stress that the children must accept responsibility for their actions. Reinforce any constructive steps.
- Establish an open, caring relationship with other adults who care about the child, so that jointly you can help the angry child meet his/her psychological needs of being accepted, secure, and recognized as a valuable human being.
- Help the parent or guardian understand that giving in to a child's outburst or exposing him/her to verbal or physical violence can be detrimental to a child's growth and development. If needed, provide parenting information or suggest a parenting class.
- If the problem is beyond your scope of expertise, seek additional assistance and/or recommend professional help.
- Lastly, find healthy outlets for your own strong emotions, so that you will be open to the needs of the children with whom you work.