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09th Jul 2015

Anger Management: How to help kids cope with angry feelings

“When children, like all humans, feel threatened, they tend to resort to anger in order to protect themselves.”

So says Clare Crowley Collier, who has worked as a teacher and is qualified in Child Psychology and Psychotherapy, with vast experience of the issue of anger management in children and young people. “Threats can be external,” Clare explains. “For example, a child may act out when something is taken from them or they feel they are going to lose something important to them, or internalise when they feel threatened by other feelings they are having, that can feel too big for them to handle. For example they may feel hurt or sad because a friend doesn’t want to play with them or embarrassed by a comment a teacher makes.”

Clare points out that anger is like an iceberg: “What we see on the surface is only a small part of the problem, other feelings or issues that need to be addressed may exist below the ’water line’. In addition, children can often use anger and aggression as a way of manipulating both peers and parents i.e. using temper tantrums as a way to emotionally control others to get their own way.”

Helping children to manage their anger gives them an invaluable life skill, Clare notes: “Children who can manage their emotions effectively enjoy increased self-confidence and worth, they perform better in school, as they are better able to focus, concentrate and organise themselves and have healthier social friendships and relationships.”

Clare advocates a 3-step ‘Emotion Coaching’ approach to help children cope with angry feelings:

1. Recognising, empathising and validating feelings:

“This step is about connecting with your child and helping them to name their feelings. Once a child can name feelings they can move forward towards a solution. Empathy, putting yourself in your child’s shoes and responding accordingly, as well as listening is key in this step.”

2. Setting limits on behaviour:

“It is important to set limits on behaviours that are unacceptable. Emotions don’t just disappear because we tell them to stop crying or stop hitting, so we tell a child it’s okay to have the feelings but that there may be a better way to express them.

‘You’re angry that Jenny took your toy, that’s okay but it’s not okay to hit her. What can you do instead?’”

3. Problem-solving with the child/young person:

“Children will reach a point where they know why they are feeling badly and are then ready to think about what they are going to do about the problem. Ask the child ‘How do you want it to be? ‘What would you like to happen?’, ‘What can we do about this?’

“So, for example, your child comes home from school, flings their bag angrily against the stairs, takes a cup out and slams it hard against the table. Ordinarily we might focus on them not breaking the cup, using Emotion-Coaching we are like detectives trying to find out what has led to these behaviours and work out possible solutions. Parents can then check in with their child to see how the solutions worked and come up with new plans if they weren’t effective.”

Clare also recommends the following general tips to boost anger management skills:

  • “Helping children identify situations that trigger their anger can be beneficial, as they can then have a calm plan in place for when they encounter these situations.”
  • “Encourage children to draw or describe what their anger looks like. For example they might say it is like a volcano about to explode or a wall going up really fast. When children have a symbol for their anger they can begin to gain some control over it, so in the example of the wall, a parent could then ask them about the bricks in the wall i.e. what are the things that make you angry and what are the thoughts you have, with each brick representing a ‘hot’/’angry’ thought, then replacing each ‘hot’ thought with a ‘cool’ thought to calm them down.”
  • “It is also important for parents to teach children to notice where in their bodies they feel angry i.e. clenched fists, tightness in stomach etc., as these act as warning signals that let the child know they are getting angry and now is the time to do something to calm down before they act.”
  • “Some helpful ways to calm down include taking deep breaths, counting from 10-1, having a mantra such as: ‘I’m calm and relaxed’ or whatever works for the child. Glitter jars can also be useful to help children to practice taking deep breaths as they watch the glitter settle in the jar.”

Clare Crowley Collier runs Family Matters which provides a range of services for families and schools. These include parenting courses, one to one parent support, counselling and workshops for primary and secondary schools with a focus on building the social and emotional skills of young people.