When Kids Get Angry

Written by Deb Cockerton

Helping our kids manage this difficult emotion.

When Kids Get Angry

Sean throws down the toy, crosses his arms over his chest and stomps away, yelling loudly, “Why did you get me that stupid toy anyway?” It takes a while for his mom to calm him down and find out the real reason for his anger: he couldn’t figure out how to operate the toy properly.

There are lots of reasons kids get angry. Sometimes they get frustrated, like Sean, when they can’t figure something out, or when another child takes something that belongs to them. Sometimes they are mortifyingly embarrassed because they can’t compete with, or are taunted by, their peers. Sometimes, they are afraid, anxious or hurt. Sometimes, kids get angry because things don’t go their way.

Many of us were raised to believe that feelings of anger should be suppressed. Actually, feeling angry is okay, and a perfectly reasonable response to certain situations. Anger is just like other emotions – sadness, disappointment, and grief – that we need to teach our kids how to manage. Our kids need to learn that aggression in the form of hitting, pushing, hurting, throwing or yelling is not an appropriate way to deal with angry feelings. But they also need to learn what is appropriate. Not resolving angry feelings can lead to stress and health problems as well as behavioural problems.

So what is the best way for kids to deal with angry feelings? Understand their triggers, recognize when they feel angry, stop and think before acting, change the way they view things, vent their anger appropriately, and have strategies in place to resolve situations that lead to anger.

Not only do we need to teach kids these skills to make them better able to deal with anger throughout their lives, we also need to model these skills ourselves when we get angry with them, or with others.

Watch for triggers

Anger is precipitated by a trigger – something that someone says or something that happens that makes our children feel angry. It could be something external or internal. Someone steals your child’s toy, your child thinks kids are laughing at him behind his back, your daughter’s friends exclude her from an activity. Once you find out the trigger, you can help your child verbalize his feelings. Verbalizing feelings gives kids more control over them. Then you and your child can come up with a plan for dealing with the situation the next time it happens.

It’s important to get to the underlying feeling for the anger. If follow up questions to your child indicate that shame, embarrassment, fear or loneliness are behind the anger, then your child may need confidence-building, and help with recognizing his own strengths and attributes. He may be a lousy soccer player, perhaps, but his artwork is the best in the class.

At times, your child’s thoughts or perceptions about a situation can lead to anger. For example, when the hockey coach chooses John to replace a player coming off the ice, Luke thinks, “That’s not fair. John’s a terrible player. I’m way better than he is.” Luke gets angry and his game suffers for it later on. The coach notices that Luke’s game is off, and pulls him from the ice. This escalating situation could have been prevented if Luke had been able to shift his thinking. Maybe the coach just wanted to give everyone some ice time, regardless of his abilities. Or maybe Luke just came off the ice a short time ago, and needed to rest for the power play the coach knows will happen at the end of the game. We need to teach our kids that our thoughts influence how we react.

Slow down and think

Before our kids can deal positively with their angry feelings, they need to recognize when they are feeling anger. Some get red in the face and feel hot, some turn their hands into fists, and some hold their breath until they feel as though they are going to explode. Be a mirror for your child when you see him get angry (or feel any other feeling he can’t label). “Jacob, I can see that you’re really angry about this. Your face is all red and your very agitated.”

Once kids are able to recognize that what they are feeling is anger, teach them the following strategies to help them deal with the anger.

  • Stop and figure out what you are mad about. Is it because you can’t understand the new math concept, or because someone called you a nasty name?
  • Think about ways to calm down that will work for you (see sidebar for suggestions).
  • Figure out ways to deal with situations that act as triggers: speak out – ask the child for the toy back or calmly tell the other person that their words or actions are offensive; walk away from the situation or person who is making you angry; talk it out with someone; or try changing your negative thoughts into positive ones by seeing the other person’s point of view.
  • Evaluate what worked and give yourself a pat on the back. Tell a parent or teacher what a good choice you made.
  • If you weren’t as successful as you want to be at dealing with your anger, think about different ways of handling the situation the next time it happens.
  • Keep a journal of how you feel each day. This is a good way to vent feelings and to identify emotions.

What parents can do

Parents need to support children and youth as they learn to manage their own emotions, in particular anger. Here are some suggestions:

  • Model self control – children will imitate the way you react when angry. If you swear, hit or throw things, your child will too. Instead, use self-talk to model a better way of dealing with anger: ” I am angry right now, but I will take some deep breaths, calm down, then come back to talk.”
  • Use mirrors to help children understand what happy, sad, angry or frustrated faces look like.
  • Ask questions about their day – “How did that make you feel? Then what did you do?”– so they have a better understanding of their feelings and subsequent behaviours.
  • Help them identify their triggers when they are calm and can process. They will be able to tell you what yours are!
  • Determine the feelings that are at the root of the anger, and help your child deal with them.
  • Help them develop new ways of dealing with situations that make them angry. If they can’t walk away (in the classroom, or on the bus), then maybe they can close their eyes and do some deep breathing.
  • Give them options for venting their feelings. Tell them they can always come to you, or talk to their best friend, or a teacher, or a special person in their lives.

We want our children to have a strong “Emotional IQ” – to be well-adjusted emotionally and socially within the family, school and community settings. We must teach them that anger is an emotion like any other, neither good nor bad. It is how we handle it that expresses our ability to manage our emotions effectively and interact with others in a positive way.

  • Ways to Cool Off and Calm Down!

    • Take deep breaths in your nose and out your mouth and try to just concentrate on your breathing. Repeat at least 10 times or until you feel calm.
    • Count from 100 backwards by 3s – this will give your brain something else to concentrate on.
    • Do something you enjoy – read a book you like for a few minutes, draw a picture, listen to music, or ride your bike.
    • If your anger involves another person’s actions, think of reasons why she might have acted that way. Maybe she was having a bad day or just found out her parents are getting divorced. This will help you to not take the action personally.
    • Don’t feel embarrassed or angry to get help when you need it. If you don’t want others in the class to know you need help with a lesson, for instance, speak to the teacher privately and come up with a signal that means you need help – perhaps a yellow sticky note on the corner of your desk.
    • Talk to someone you trust about your feelings.
  • Photo credit::

    Deb Cockerton

  • Illustration by: Trish York

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About the Author

Deb Cockerton

Deb Cockerton is a writer, counsellor and workshop facilitator. She can be reached at deb_cockerton@hotmail.com.

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