Teaching Kids to Deal With Anger: Q&A With Dr. Mary

Mary Rosen

angry girl

Today, Dr. Mary is discussing the topic of anger and provides parents with some tips on how to help their kids with anger management.

Q: My 9-year-old daughter has always had a temper. When she was young, she had many tantrums (including hitting) and had trouble calming down. Things improved as she got older, but she still continues to have angry outbursts with everyone, particularly several of her friends. She will yell at them over very minor things, which causes them to avoid her. This happened a lot at the end of the school year. I am worried that she will have no friends. What can I do at home to help her?

A: Your concern is understandable. Children who are easily set off and who show difficulty controlling their anger can be perceived by their peers as scary, odd, or immature, and by other adults, including teachers, as "difficult." These kids react out of frustration, insecurity, or perceived threat, without thinking about the consequences of their actions, and may feel embarrassed or even scared after their outbursts.

Some things that you can do at home to help your daughter with anger management:

Identify anger signs and possible causes of anger. We all have bodily warning signs that signal strong emotions. Some common signs for anger include a hot face, tensing of the hands (or other body parts), and a racing heart. Helping your daughter figure out what her signs are will help her know when she's angry; knowing when she's angry can help her manage her anger sooner rather than later.

You might point out what behaviors you've observed right before she becomes angry: "I notice that your face usually gets beet red and you grab your hair just before you get really angry. These are signs that you might have an anger outburst." At home, when you do observe her starting to get mad, ask her how her body is feeling.

Another activity that's sometimes used is having your daughter lie down on a very large piece of drawing paper, while you trace the outline of her body. Hang the paper somewhere where you and your daughter can look at it together; have her draw what her body feels like when she is beginning to feel angry. Talk with her about how it's easier to try to calm down when she's starting to have these sensations before she has a full-blown outburst.

Also, have a conversation with your daughter about what might be causing her to anger so quickly. This is tricky because some kids will not, as a habit, attempt any explanation whatsoever while others may feel like they're being blamed for something they feel they have little control over. However, knowing what situations or people make her most angry may help her avoid them or better deal with them when they occur.

Discuss the outcome of unintended anger. Calmly and empathically talk with your daughter about how others, namely her friends, may interpret her angry outbursts, pointing out that in the heat of the moment, she may say or do things she may later wish she hadn't, and that her angry outbursts may elicit anger or resentment right back.

Identify calming strategies. We all do better with tools to help pry us out of potentially bad situations. Teaching your daughter some coping methods to use before she gets out of control will not only help her feel better in the long run, but can keep her friends from being the target of her rage. These are among the most used and the most effective:

  • Take a break. If your daughter begins to feel signs of anger while at home, she can go to her room, go outside, or take a run in the yard. At school, she can walk away from a potentially heated situation by going to the bathroom or to another area of the playground. If in the classroom, going to another area in the room can also work. Some teachers I know have a "cool down" area in their classroom where kids can go anytime they need to calm down. It is usually a corner of the room that contains pillows or bean bag chairs. Some children may need to excuse themselves and go into the hallway to calm down or go and get a drink of water. Leaving the situation will hopefully keep your daughter from saying or doing something she will later wish she hadn't, and will allow her time to gain composure. Let her know that it's okay for her to say, "I need to take a break right now," or "I feel angry right now and I need time to calm down." You may consider talking to her teacher before the start of school to discuss what you've been doing at home and how that can be incorporated in the classroom. 
  • Breathe. The act of deep breathing ("belly breathing" or diaphragmatic breathing for those who practice yoga) can calm your daughter's body and may help distract her from potential conflict. Teach her to breathe slowly in through her nose for several counts and slowly out through her mouth for several counts. Breathing should come from the belly, not the chest. While practicing, putting her hand on her belly will help her feel her inhalation/exhalation. At school, however, she should breathe quietly so as not to draw attention from others. 
  • Count. Counting forward or backward to 10 slowly (or higher, if needed) helps put some distance between the anger signs and a potential angry response. 
  • Use an inside voice. Positive self-talk is helpful for dealing with many strong emotions and this one is no different. Help your daughter come up with a short statement that she can repeat inside her head when she senses she's getting angry. Some possibilities include, "Stop and relax," "I can deal with this," "Stay calm." Have her come up with something that she feels she can remember and use, and have her practice it often. 
  • Imagine something calm. This can be combined with slow, deep breathing. Help your daughter identify some situations or places that she's associated with calm, happy feelings. This could be anything from a family vacation spot by the lake to a special place in the backyard. Have her close her eyes and try to picture being in that place, and how good it feels. Talk with her about picturing her "spot" at times when her body begins to feel angry and upset. 

Try to eliminate or decrease exposure to angry and aggressive role models, such as television and movie characters, aggressive video games, and books with angry themes. Make sure that you and other significant adults in the home are modeling appropriate responses to anger. You can show your kids that everyone gets angry, but how one deals with the anger is important, and dealing with it involves having a plan and lots of practice.

In addition, instituting a house rule about angry actions can convey that you are not taking this issue lightly. For example, if your daughter has an outburst with you or other family members, you might take away something she enjoys for a period of time, such as use of the computer or television, on a consistent basis.

Dr. Mary Rosen is here each week to provide answers to your most pressing school issues. She's a school psychologist, licensed counselor, graduate school instructor, and parent.

Got a question about school learning and behavior for Dr. Mary? Leave it in the comments below or email us, and Dr. Mary may answer your question in a future post.


Image via Lance Shields/Flickr

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