Most of us were not explicitly taught social skills. We picked them up along the way, perhaps by observing our parents' interactions with others. But, our littles can benefit from our teaching moments, learning how to appropriately express emotions in different circumstances.
From a very young age, we're told to not be angry or sad. This only results in repressed feelings. We may be concerned when our child acts aggressively, but the American Psychological Association tells us that this is the natural human response to anger. We can't prevent anger, but we can teach ways to express it assertively without harming others.
While it is sometimes necessary to temporarily suppress anger (to avoid confrontations that may lead to physical aggression, for example), unexpressed anger can turn inward, possibly resulting in mental or even physical concerns, such as high blood pressure, depression, anxiety, and sleep and digestive issues. It can also lead to violent or passive-aggressive behavior and can hinder interpersonal relationships.
Anger itself isn't the problem, but like other intense emotions, it can cause us to make poor decisions. When angry, we experience physical changes: Our heart rate and blood pressure rise and adrenaline surges. We may also experience muscle tension and vocal changes, sometimes without our being aware of it.
In some cases, anger can mask more difficult emotions. It is easier to feel anger than the more vulnerable sadness or powerlessness. Misplaced or mismanaged anger can lead to violence.
By teaching our children to recognize and deal with their anger, we may be able to prevent its negative impacts before they happen. Children need to learn to be assertive, not aggressive, and to express themselves without getting emotional or defensive. Fortunately, proven techniques exist, and like other skills, these need to be practiced.
1. Use your words
From the time our children are toddlers, we should be putting names to feelings. Having a word to express an emotion is the first step in dealing with it. Frustration, disappointment, embarrassment, and anger often manifest themselves similarly, but people react to them differently. While disappointment is generally met with empathy, anger can be met with scorn.
By giving these emotions a name, it is possible to encourage children to “use your words" to help you help them feel better. It is okay to feel angry, but it is not okay to behave aggressively.
Don't just tell them; model this behavior. Verbalize your own feelings. This may feel silly, but it can help your child work through the process. In some cases, it may also help you feel less frustrated and angry as well.
2. Visualize yourself in another person's situation
Remind your child that people are unique. Everyone's expectations and life experiences are not universally shared. People from different parts of the world have different customs and may find yours unfamiliar, even rude sometimes.
Children of different ages and abilities vary in their level of emotional maturity. Others don't always share your opinions. By getting angry at their behavior, you may be imposing your own values on them.
3. Consider the “whys"
Question the intent of the supposedly hurtful action. Did a classmate intentionally embarrass your child or did she misconstrue an innocuous comment? If a friend didn't respond when your son waved, was it because he was mad or because he was distracted? If your teen is left out of a group chat, was it intentional or merely an oversight? Sometimes our perceptions are not in tune with reality so this is something we should communicate with our children.
4. Practice relaxation techniques
While this sounds simplistic, it is almost impossible to be relaxed and angry at the same time. There are multiple ways to teach relaxation. You can use personal cues, such as words, phrases, or images to bring to mind in a difficult situation.
For younger children, thinking of a favorite song or story can be calming. As your child gets older, you can teach other techniques, such as breathing, imagery, or meditation. Kids can be taught to breathe from their belly button or practice “elevator breathing." Tell them to close their eyes and go to a “happy place." Have them slowly repeat a calm word or phrase while breathing deeply.
5. Use cognitive restructuring
Cognitive therapy works by helping people look at things in a new way. Instead of saying everything is awful, think everything is awesome (maybe even sing it in your head).
Rephrase situations: It is not “the end of the world" but a “frustrating situation."
Put someone else in your situation. Insert some logic. Anger is sometimes irrational. Your teacher is not “out to get you"; you are simply having a hard time with a concept.
Drop the entitlement: Say “I want," not “I deserve."
6. Plan/practice alternate ways to handle situations
Focus on steps to take to face the issue, recognizing that not every problem has a tidy answer and that some problems take time to resolve. Encourage your child to think before acting.
Search for solutions together. Talk about how things could have been different and what your child might do differently next time. If there is a conflict with another person, see if a compromise can be reached. Suggest an apology if it is warranted. Practicing this first can help alleviate anxiety.
7. Work on communication skills
Don't jump to conclusions. Learn to express what you want appropriately. Stop and listen to what others are saying. Learn active listening skills (mirroring ensures you are hearing others correctly) and think before speaking. Avoid the temptation to get defensive. Ask questions so you know what others are trying to say. Avoid name calling. Keep cool.
Talk about the source of the anger. In children, frustration and disappointment often bring on angry outbursts. Look for the underlying concern. The source may be a skill not mastered or a difficulty in school. There may be issues of self-esteem or problems getting along with peers. Anger and sadness can be intertwined in childhood.
Once the problem is identified, it is possible to provide help, possibly through getting help in school, explaining how things work, or guiding them through social skills.
8. Step away
Remove your child from a difficult situation. Used properly, time outs are not punishment, but a way to remove an individual from a situation, providing time to reflect. It allows the individual time to calm down and collect him- or herself, and to regain control. It also is acceptable to put yourself in a “time out." Doing so retains some control over the situation, making one less likely to feel trapped.
Teach older children to make a conscious effort to not act – to remove themselves from the situation and take a break to cool down. Advise waiting before sending an email or text. Suggest walking away when someone antagonizes your child, creating time to think before deciding the next step.
If your child is sick, tired, or otherwise stressed, feelings of anger are more likely to erupt. If possible, don't put him or her into a difficult situation at these times. Teach older children to pay attention to these cues themselves. Those in an “emotionally-compromised state" are more likely to react in an extreme manner.
9. Encourage empathy
Encourage your child to see things from another point of view. Even young children can understand when someone else feels sad or angry. If they don't want to talk about their feelings, try inserting a favorite character from a book into the story. Ask questions to prompt your child to see another side of the issue and relate it to the situation at hand. How would the characters feel and react?
Remind them to forgive themselves and others. Even good people sometimes behave badly. Losing your temper once doesn't mean you can't change. Children especially need to believe that they will not be forever judged for their actions.
10. Use humor
When we are in the middle of an emotional situation, we can't always find the humor in it. Often disagreements are over rather silly things. Pointing these out in a gentle way can diffuse tension and lead to a solution. The use of silly words, like Doodyhead, can send the conversation in a new direction and the source of the anger may be forgotten.
11. Be generous with hugs and praise
Physical contact can help defuse a challenging situation. A well-timed hug can ward off feelings of jealousy or frustration that can lead to anger. A gentle touch on an arm can help calm escalating nerves.
Remember to praise your child for their attempts, not just their achievements. Sometimes people fail, and there is much to be learned when things go wrong. Remind your kids of their strengths and what they have accomplished thus far. Pointing out your own failures can help your children see that they can move forward and try again.
12. Encourage exercise
Exercise can be an effective way to work off negative emotions or “burn off steam." A good workout can make you realize that an annoyance is just that and nothing more. Regular physical exercise may also reduce frustration, a frequent anger trigger. Exercise increases endorphins, and that feel-good feeling from regular exercise may carry over and keep a minor annoyance from growing unto something more.
13. Self-reflection, literally
Encourage your child to look in a mirror when angry. In all likelihood, he or she will not like the image. Anger is not an attractive emotion. It is said that watching video of his tantrums on the tennis court caused Roger Federer to stop his notorious behavior.
14. Be a good role model
Be aware of your own anger. Studies show that parental emotions influence their children. If you think you don't exhibit anger often, pay attention to how many times you yell or otherwise show anger (maybe keep a journal), noting what triggers it and how you react (yelling, punching the wall, hitting the steering wheel).
While anger is a normal part of life, it is sometimes indicative of a more serious issue. When anger falls outside developmental norms—for example, if a teacher reports your child's anger is out of control, or if it's impacting your child's and possibly your family's life—it is time to seek help.
Several developmental and mental health issues can contribute to emotional outbursts. A professional evaluation can help diagnose and find the proper approach for your child.