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Six parental tips for your angry children

It was labor day when 8 year old Brandon’s mother heard a commotion from her child’s room. Seems that his 14 year old visiting cousin said something that upset Brandon which caused Brandon to strike the other boy. His mother Michelle hysterically called her therapist wondering what to do and how to handle the anger in her young son which seemed to be escalating as he became older.

Her therapist wisely explained that children become angry in a variety of situations. Common causes of childhood anger include: frustration, needing attention, feeling powerless, being misunderstood, not feeling good about themselves, feeling helpless, being belittled or made fun of, not having physical needs taken care of, having a parent take over instead of asking if the child wants help, being disappointed, having difficulty saying what they need, or being punished.

The problem of excessive childhood anger is growing. Yet many parents—like Michelle—feel they don’t have the tools to teach their children how to deal with normal angry feelings in an appropriate manner, without hitting or yelling at others, or losing control. Therefore, some parents ineffectively deal with their child’s anger by demanding that he or she stop being angry. Worse, some parents actually yell at or hit their child in attempts to “teach” their child not to be angry. That is like putting them alone in the woods unarmed with a raging black bear to teach them not to be fearful!

Alternatively, good parenting requires teaching children the practical skills needed for anger control. Although feeling angry is a part of life that no one can avoid because it is “hardwired” in our brains as a protective and survival mechanism, we can teach our children positive ways to cope with these normal angry feelings. Learning the tools of anger management empowers children, makes them more effective and pleasant human beings, and improves the world by decreasing hatred, violence and conflict.
Following are six tips for parents to help their children manage anger, based on our model of anger management called the eight tools of anger control”:

Tip #1 – Teach how to respond instead of react
Parents can teach their children the difference between feeling angry and acting on anger. Michelle explained to Brandon that feeling mad is neither good nor bad, but hitting someone out of anger is not OK. She then explained that we have choices as to how to deal with angry feelings. Encouraging your child to take time-out until they cool down, to keep a journal, draw, or talk out their emotions are positive outlets for feelings of anger.

Providing a means by which to channel feelings into positive actions is another tool to help your child deal with his or her angry feelings. Examples might include taking a relaxing walk, writing letters and cards, doing something nice for another person, or donating time to a worthwhile community project geared toward helping others.

In the short run, life at home will be easier when children learn how to work through anger. In the long run, children will continue developing ways to cope with anger as they become teenagers and adults, and will pass these skills along to their own children.

Tip #2 – Be aware of how your children are seeing you
Start by setting a good example. Children learn from observing your behavior. Be aware of the messages you are sending your child in terms of how you behave toward them, how you behave toward other people, and how they see you handling your own anger and stress.

Unfortunately, some misguided parents create hatred in their children by modeling prejudice, intolerance, disrespect or violence toward other people that may be different from them or have different word views. Teaching “empathy” (the ability to see the world from the perspective of another), openness, tolerance and understanding are extremely valuable anger-management tools to teach yourself and your children.

Tip #3 – Tell children personal stories of triumph
Your children need to hear stories of how you may have overcome hardship, adversity, or other life challenges. Research shows that hearing your stories of empowerment over rough times or situations can make your children feel more attached to you, and give them more hope for themselves to be able to overcome their life difficulties. Having more optimism and developing more positive attitudes can often reduce anger in children and adults alike.

Tip #4 – Be consistent in parenting
At any age, anger is often generated between the gap between what is expected and what actually occurs in reality. With children, it is especially important to outline exactly what the consequences are (positive and negative) for their behavior—and then stick to it! Consistency makes children feel more secure, less anxious, and less likely to react angrily if they don’t get “their own way.” Parental consistency between parents or other adults in your child’s life is also very important to create stability and a sense of predictability.

Tip #5 – Reduce family stress
Coping with family stressors is an important tool of anger management, as angry outbursts are much more likely to occur as personal and family stress levels rise. There are many ways to buffer family stressors such as maintaining regular rituals for eating together, sharing the day with each other, finding time to play together, and emotionally supporting each other.
Parents can also help their children learn to calm themselves or self-sooth when angry. It is often helpful to calm their anger by using the five senses: touching, smelling, tasting, hearing, and seeing. Squeezing play dough, splashing in water, running around outside, listening to music, painting a picture, tensing and relaxing muscles, taking slow deep breaths, or eating a healthy snack are all good responses to angry feelings.

Children who respond well to touch can be taught how to massage their own neck or arms as a self-calming technique. These same children also may find a great deal of comfort in stroking or caring for a pet. To reduce stress, try telling your child the following:

  • Let’s draw a picture about how you feel
  • A warm bath sometimes helps wash away angry feelings
  • When you feel hungry and irritable, tell me and I’ll find a snack for you
  • Sit down and take slow deep breaths until you have calmed down

Tip #6 – Teach your child how to solve problems
Parent can teach their older preschool, school-age and teenage children to problem solve as a “prevention” tool for getting angry. Michelle, for instance, taught Brandon to “stop and think” the next time he was angry—before losing control and striking other children. She also taught him how to listen to his cousin with both his eyes and ears, before getting upset so that he could “name” the problem and discuss what was upsetting him.
Turns out that Brandon’s cousin had made a disparaging remark about Brandon’s father who happened to be incarcerated. Once the issue was named, Michelle taught Brandon to think of different ways to solve the problem. They agreed on Brandon telling his cousin how much it hurt his feelings to hear “bad” things about his father. As a final step, they agreed to discuss how well their planned worked in a few days.

Most children will need adult help in thinking through this process and coming up with creative ways to solve problems. And it does take time. The advantage, however, is that after doing this process over and over, most children soon will become fairly good at identifying a problem and coming up with different options for solving the problem on their own. A child that has much practice in thinking of different ways to solve a problem is much more likely to solve a conflict in a positive way instead of just reacting with the anger response.

Five tips to raise the optimistic child for better mental health

I had just completed a session with 17 year old Julie with severe depression and a firm belief that she was a total failure, she would never be able to change anything in her life, and all her shortcomings were her fault.

Where, I asked myself, did such a young person acquire this negative and fatalistic thinking?

The answer soon became apparent when I invited her parents into the session. They began discussing numerous life events and explaining them in ways that their children were learning. The car got dented because you can’t trust anybody these days; Mom yelled at brother because she was in a bad mood; you can’t get ahead in this world unless you know somebody.
As a parent, your own explanatory style is on display and your children are listening intently.

Why would you want your child to be an optimist? Because, according to Dr. Martin Seligman, “pessimism (the opposite of optimism) is an entrenched habit of mind that has sweeping and disastrous consequences: depressed mood, resignation, underachievement, and even unexpectedly poor physical health.”

Children with optimistic thinking skills are better able to interpret failure, have a stronger sense of personal mastery, and are better able to bounce back when things go wrong in their lives.

Because parents are a major contributor to the thinking styles of their children’s developing minds, it is important to follow the following five steps to ensure healthy mental habits in your children.

Five steps for parents

Step 1 – Learn to think optimistically yourself. What children see and hear indirectly from you as you led your life and interact with others will influence them much more than what you “teach” them directly. Model optimism for your child by incorporating optimistic mental skills into you own way of thinking. This is not easy and does not occur over night, but with practice almost everyone can learn to think differently about life’s events – even parents!

Step 2 – Teach you child that there is a connection between how they think and how they feel. You can do this most easily by saying aloud how your own thought about adversity created a negative feeling in you.
For example, if you are driving your child to school and a driver cuts you off, verbalize the link between your thoughts and feelings by saying something like “I wonder why I’m feeling so angry; I guess I was saying to myself, “Now I’m going to be late because the guy in front of me is going so darn slow. If he is going to drive like that he shouldn’t drive during rush hour. How rude.”

Step 3 – Create a game called “thought catching.” This helps your child learn to identify the thoughts that flit across his or her mind at the times they feel worst. These thoughts, although barely perceptible, profoundly affect mood and behavior. For instance, if your child received a poor grade in school, ask “when you got your grade back, what did you say to yourself?”

Step 4 – Teach your child how to evaluate automatic thoughts. This means acknowledging that the things you say to yourself are not necessarily accurate. For instance, after receiving the poor grade your child may be telling himself he is a failure, he is not as smart as other kids, he will never be able to succeed in school, etc. Many of these self-statements may not be accurate, but they are “automatic” in that situation.

Step 5 – Instruct your child on how to generate more accurate explanations (to themselves) when bad things happen and use them to challenge your child’s automatic but inaccurate thoughts. Part of this process involves looking for evidence to the contrary (good grades in the past, success in other life areas, etc).

Another skill to teach your child to help him or her think optimistically is to “de-catastrophize” the situation – that is, to help your child see that the bad event may not be as bad or will not have the adverse consequences imagined. Few things in life are as devastating as we fear, yet we blow them up in our minds until small glitches become mental catastrophes.

Conclusion: Parents can drastically influence the thinking styles of their children by modeling the principals of optimistic thinking, teaching the connection between thoughts and feelings, how to evaluate automatic thoughts, and how to dispute negative beliefs that led to pessimism and depression.

Recommended Resource: “The Optimistic Child” by Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, 1995. (ISBN: 0-06-097709-4)