Five Steps Toward an Anger-Management Plan
Most families don’t have a plan for dealing with anger. They just continue on, hoping things will get better. When families don’t resolve their anger, however, they just keep trying to start over. Trying again is helpful, but we each need to have a bigger plan if we want negative patterns or anger to change.
There are five essential steps in helping children deal positively with their anger. We’ll explore each one.
Step 1: Identify Cues That Indicate Your Children Are Getting Angry
Many children move quickly from a trigger to an angry reaction. A trigger might be an unkind comment from a sibling, a request to do a chore, or a difficult part of a homework assignment. The best way to slow down this reaction is to identify early warning signs that indicate anger is approaching. Children often don’t recognize anger. In fact, many times they act out before they even realize what happened. This first step helps children become more aware of their feelings and better able to control them.
Before you help your children recognize the cues earlier, think about the cues that tell you when you’re starting to get angry. One dad said, “My eyebrows turn down, and my forehead becomes tense. My shoulders raise, and I tend to lean forward. My voice becomes louder and more strained.”
How can you tell when you’re getting frustrated? Here are common cues in children that indicate they’re starting to get angry:
> They tense up and clench their teeth.
> Their behavior increases in intensity.
> They begin to cry or feel like crying.
> Their tone changes to whining or sarcasm.
> They become restless, withdrawn, unresponsive, or easily provoked.
> They begin to talk incessantly, often with greater intensity.
> They make noises like growls or deep breathing.
> They pout.
> They squint, roll their eyes, or develop other facial expressions.
Take time to jot down the cues that each of your children demonstrates when getting angry. Once you’ve identified these cues, teach your children how to recognize them. Your job is to help your children recognize their feelings of anger and identify specific positive actions to take before the anger becomes more intense. For very young children, you can point out that this emotion is called anger and offer suggestions for responding differently.
Let’s say, for example, that a dad sees frustration (an early type of anger) developing in his son, who can’t get his sneakers on. “I can tell you’re getting angry,” Dad might say, “because your voice is getting louder and you’re squinting your eyes.” The boy needs to recognize his frustration before he becomes so angry that he throws the sneaker across the room.
If your teenage daughter is frustrated because the shirt she wants to wear is in the laundry or is winkled, you can help her recognize that frustration and deal with it appropriately before it intensifies into anger or rage.
In this step of identifying the cues, you can use various methods to raise anger awareness. One fun way is to ask your children how they can tell when you are starting to get angry. Children seem to come up with answers quickly: “Your eyes get bigger” or “You raise your voice.” Children benefit from recognizing the anger cues of other people because it helps them to become more sensitive to their own physical signs. (If you use this method, be sure to respond honestly, and don’t give excuses for your inappropriate anger.)
Another way you might help your kids learn about anger is to watch a children’s video with them. Most animated movies contain lots of emotion, and nonverbal cues are exaggerated. Have a child stop the video when he or she sees anger in one of the characters. Then ask, “How can you tell that person is angry?” Children often learn to see anger in others first before they can identify it in themselves.
Step 2: Step Back When Anger Starts
One of the healthiest ways to respond to anger at any of its stages is to “step back.” This gives children (and parents) time to acknowledge that anger is developing, to rethink the situation, calm down, and determine what to do next. Otherwise, frustrations can easily build, rage can become destructive, and bitterness can form. Stepping back helps to stop the progression of intensity and gives children time to respond differently.
Unfortunately, many children (and adults) don’t want to step back when they’re angry. Instead, they want to press forward and even attack. The anger they feel is so intense that they need to make heart-level changes before they can respond with constructive behavior.
When children lack the self-control to work on anger, they need parental control to help them. Let’s say that you tell your child to take a break, but your child begins to badger, argue, and push your buttons. And even when you attempt to leave the situation, your child follows you, continuing to press with intensity. This manipulative technique is designed to draw you into a fight. Don’t engage! Determine not to allow the child to bait you into an argument. If you start fighting back, he or she will escape the important lessons of anger management and learn to use anger to control other people-including you! Have the child sit in the hall or on the stairs to settle down. Children must learn this step in order to respond well to anger, and it may require your firmness to teach it. Whether you stand there or leave, make it clear that you’re done with the conversation until your child takes a break.
Children learn that stepping back may just involve looking away or taking a deep breath. Other times, it may mean changing the activity or walking away. During the most intense moments, it may mean leaving the situation or getting alone. The child who is frustrated with a puzzle, for example, may choose to work on something else for awhile. The girl who is angry with her brother may need to cool off in another room.
When you teach your children to step back and evaluate the situation, you are teaching them wisdom and maturity. After all, this is a skill many adults do not possess. Many moms and dads would benefit from stepping back when anger starts to take over.
Step 3: Choose a Better Response than Anger
Many parents move to choosing better responses too quickly, thinking that the complete solution lies here. Although this step is important, it won’t work alone. The first two steps will go a long way in helping your children to learn anger control. Only then are they ready for this step.
While children step back, they can choose more appropriate responses to their situations. As children see the effect their anger has on others, they begin to see the need to control themselves. They need to learn that they can control their anger and that the way they respond is their choice. If you tell Susie to go to bed and she gets angry, the way she responds is up to her. She can stomp off and slam the door; or she can choose to adjust her expectations, accept your instruction, and remain calm.
People who always blame others view themselves as victims. Children need to take responsibility for their actions, even when they’re responding out of emotion. They must not blame their hurtful responses on someone else. (And, of course, parents must not blame their anger on other people, either. A child’s wrong behavior doesn’t give a parent the right to use anger as a weapon.) Parents and children both need to take responsibility for themselves. They need to learn to control their anger and choose to respond in appropriate ways.
But what better choices should children make? Parents who are frustrated about their kids’ anger often respond negatively, pointing out the wrongs without suggesting alternatives. Statements such as “Quit pouting” or “stop hitting” don’t provide enough information for children to know what they should do instead.
Parents need to teach their children other alternatives, and simplifying the choices makes the decision process easier. Here are three positive healthy choices to get kids started:
> Talk About It. If six-year-old Carl doesn’t like the way Trevor is playing with his favorite car, he can recognize the anger (frustration) and choose to talk about it by saying, “I don’t like it when you play rough with my car.” Talking about it can help solve the problem without saying or doing something hurtful.
> Get Help. A second choice Carl has is to get help. A third party can give counsel and advice and help resolve the situation without anger. This may be another child, a parent, or a teacher.
> Slow Down and Persevere. Sometimes children who are becoming angry can choose a third option: to take a deep breath and determine to persevere. Just acknowledging his frustration may allow Carl to continue to play with Trevor without becoming angry. You might explain perseverance to a child this way: “If you’re cleaning out your closet and the bucket of Legos suddenly falls off a shelf, instead of kicking your blocks across your room in anger, you can slow down and persevere. That means that you stop for a moment, go back to the problem, and pick up the blocks. This approach will help you get through the problem without making it worse.”
You can help your children learn to handle their anger by reflecting what you see and offering assistance without telling them what to do. “Jeremy, I can tell you’re getting angry because your voice is getting louder. Remember you have three other alternatives. If you need help, just ask me.” Even though it may be easy to get caught up in your children’s emotions and try to solve problems for them, don’t do it. It’s better to help them process their emotions rather than solve the problems.
Step 4: Control Rage; Don’t Vent It
When children’s anger progresses beyond frustration and controlled anger, they become enraged. Rage is anger out of control. Enraged children no longer think rationally. Their anger is now controlling them. You may see a host of venting behaviors such as yelling, hitting, saying mean things, kicking, screaming, manipulative behaviors, and/or withdrawal. When a young child is enraged, we call it a “tantrum.” But rage isn’t reserved for young children. Even some adults have a problem with rage; we just don’t call it a tantrum.
Whatever form it takes, children (and adults) must learn to control rage and not vent it. Proverbs 29:11 reads, “A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control.” Allowing children to vent anger is dangerous for them and anyone else around. If young children are taught to hit a pillow or a punching bag when they’re angry, they won’t know how to stop that behavior when they get older and stronger.
One boy was allowed to kick the furniture when he became angry. His mom called it “letting off steam.” When he grew up, he still kicked the furniture-plus his car, his dog, and anything else that got in his way, including his wife and kids. No. It’s not okay. Venting anger teaches children an unhealthy response pattern. Children must learn anger control and rage reduction early in life, so they have the opportunity to develop habits of self-control and healthy communication.
After a temper tantrum is over, require a discussion. As you and your child reflect on what went wrong, talk about inappropriate ways to handle anger. Be sure to validate the angry feelings when appropriate, and distinguish between the emotion and the child’s response. “I understand that you’re angry because Joe took your CD without asking. That makes sense, but we have to solve the problem differently because hitting him is wrong.” Talk about a better way to respond next time. This kind of discussion after each episode can help a child learn to rethink anger and build new positive patterns.
Keep in mind that your goal of anger control may take some time. You’re trying to decrease the frequency and the intensity of angry episodes. Frequency has to do with the number of times a child loses his temper. Intensity has to do with the amount of anger the child pours into the situation. Reducing both is important. Talk to your children about this goal, and point out examples of the improvements you’re seeing. “Bobby, I know you got angry with Josh a few minutes ago, but it seems that you stopped from becoming too intense. I like that.” Or, “Shannon, you used to get angry a lot, but it seems that more recently you’re not getting angry as often. Good job.”
Step 5: Choose Forgiveness, Not Bitterness
Anger has many faces, and bitterness is one of the ugliest. Bitterness is anger connected to hurt from the past, the ability to catalog painful memories so they can be used at any time to fuel present anger. Bitterness harbors anger for longer periods of time than other forms of anger. Some people don’t think of themselves as angry because they don’t experience rage. Instead, their frustration and anger go straight to bitterness. Bitterness is much easier to deal with in children than in adults, but it’s dangerous nonetheless.
> Children may be experiencing bitterness if they are using such phrases as “You always…!” or “You never…!”
> Responding in anger more frequently and intensely than the situation warrants.
> Using sarcasm or becoming cynical.
> Becoming negative and critical; or
> Withdrawing and becoming unresponsive.
These symptoms don’t always mean that a child is bitter, but they may indicate a problem. Bitter and resentful children need to see what their anger is doing to them. Holding on to offenses as a type of revenge is not helpful. People were not created to carry around thoughts and plans of revenge. They need to let it go. When children hold on to offenses, they become miserable, plotting revenge, developing a critical spirit, and are generally unhappy.
Don’t ignore bitterness. Don’t assume that children will outgrow it. If anger isn’t dealt with, it gets worse. Address it. Talk about it. It may mean listening to your children and communicating understanding. Resentful children sometimes feel as if they’re misunderstood and that no one listens to them. You might say, “If sounds like you’re still angry about not being able to go to your friend’s house yesterday.”
Children need a plan for dealing with ongoing offenses such as meanness, unfairness, and rejection. Confrontation can bring resolution to a problem, but justice isn’t always possible. Bitterness is a poor choice for coping with the unfairness of life because it turns the offended person into an angry person.
The solution to bitterness is forgiveness.
Forgiveness, a heart-level response that can ease anger, is not about forgetting an offense. Children sometimes hesitate to forgive because they think they must forget that an offense occurred or ignore the pain it caused. Forgiveness acknowledges the offense and chooses to let go of the desire for revenge, recognizing that God is the judge. Forgiveness means letting go and moving on, not holding the offense against someone any longer. Forgiveness is a mature and healthy response that says, in effect, “You have done wrong to me, but I am responsible for my own actions and my response to you. I choose to let go of the offense.”
Once children understand forgiveness, healthy confrontation can take place. Children need to learn about forgiveness and understand how to clean out their anger tank every day. A good anger-management plan contains a strategy for dealing with accumulated anger and preventing it from hampering one’s life.
Excerpt taken from Home Improvement: Eight Tools for Effective Parenting with permission from Dr. Scott Turansky and Joanne Miller