Tag Anger

Teaching Kids Anger Management

parents and young boy in intense conflictA frequent question I get from parents is what can be done to teach a kid how to control his or her anger. This entry reviews six of my favorite strategies.

#1: As is the case with so many issues in parenting, we do well to begin with a gut check. “How am I doing with managing my own anger?” While hypocrisy is an upgrade over disengagement, our credibility is enhanced when we walk our talk. Moreover, if I’m losing it with some regularity, I could be significantly contributing to my child’s problem with anger control.

#2: Also like so many issues in parenting, proactive strategies usually work better than reactive ones. We all lose IQ points when we’re angry (i.e., the more primitive parts of the brain take over), so if I wait until my kid has lost it to do my interventions, my odds of success are not great, and I may end up loosing it as well. I do better if I think ahead and imagine which situations could be challenging and prepare my child (and me) with a plan.

#3: Anxiety and anger are incompatible with a relaxed body. The first step to doing this is to belly breathe (instead of chest breathe), comfortably but deeply, both in and out. With anger and anxiety, the breath rises up and becomes shallow. With peace and relaxation, the breath drops and becomes deeper. The next thing is to relax all of the muscles. The metaphor I use is to try to turn each muscle into a cooked piece of pasta. I have a free 15-minute audio file that helps a kid build up this sort of muscle memory. You can download it here; strive to have your kid practice it three times a week until s/he is able to relax his or her entire body effectively and instantly.

#4: A useful cognitive approach is to try to move the focus of attention away from angry kidthe agitating agent or situation. Sometimes this can be accomplished by separating from the bother (e.g., having siblings separate). Other times this can be done by focusing on a coping or happy thought (i.e., true things that make a kid feel good). Or, it can be done by engaging in something fun or positively engaging.

#5: You can incentivize your child handling challenging situations well. Let’s say your guy is a little league pitcher who tends to lose his composure during games when things don’t go his way. You might tell him that he earns his technology (e.g., video games, cell phone) the next day by not showing negative emotions during the game. Of course, following up with proportionate positive commentary is a nice adjunct.

black mom with kids, white background#6: Try not to let advantages accrue to your child because of his or her temper outburst. If s/he is able to get out of undesirable responsibilities (e.g., chores, homework), gets more attention (e.g., one-on-one attention is most likely to occur during or after a fit) or gets his or her way because of the loss of control, then the frequency of such behaviors may rise, and not necessarily with intention. I would also be very cautious about trying to protect your child from any appropriate consequences that might come his or her way (e.g., a coach wants to bench your kid for a game for having thrown his bat in anger after striking out). It’s good for the anger control problem to not lead to good things (which includes the avoidance of important undesirable activities) and to be associated with developmentally appropriate consequences that sting.

If these strategies don’t work, please consider seeking out a child psychologist. S/he can help you to develop a more elaborate plan for resolving or improving this problem. For a referral, click here.

Disrespect vs. Expressing Anger

angry kidThe title of this entry is an issue that comes up a lot in my practice, especially in regards to parents dealing with their first-born children. I speculate that it comes up more for this group because parents of first-borns may not have had the chance to think through the nuances of these issues, the stances they wish to take and the procedures they wish to employ. (Doesn’t it seem that by the time we have this stuff all figured out our children are leaving home?) When parents introduce this issue it usually isn’t with a question wondering about the difference between healthy expressions of anger and disrespect. It’s usually introduced with the declaration “he’s being so disrespectful!” However, when I ask for examples I’m struck by the fact that this discussion often becomes about helping a parent to differentiate between adaptive and dysfunctional expressions of anger and how to help his or her child learn to express his or her anger adaptively. So, I’d like to explain what’s at stake, give some examples of each type of expression of anger and suggest how to respond.

All the time I work with adults who consciously or unconsciously believe that expressing anger is dangerous. People won’t like them. People they care for will end up hurt. People will retaliate. Or, people will abandon them. While there are many factors that play into this besides how the person’s parents responded to his or her anger as child (e.g., cultural pressures on females to not express anger, being stuck in childlike and magical misperceptions of about one’s power), how we parents respond to our kids’ expressions of anger is part of the equation, as is how we model our own expressions of anger. None of us want to communicate to our children that expressing anger, in appropriate ways, is wrong or dangerous, at least not within our households. If we communicate, very frustrated young girl on top of chairintentionally or not, that expressions of anger ore not okay we risk increasing poor outcomes for our kids (e.g., depression, intermittent explosions, passive-aggressiveness, substance abuse). So, let me give some examples of what I would argue are okay versus not okay expressions of anger, keeping in mind that contexts can always move a particular example to the other list.

Ten examples of (usually) okay expressions of anger:

• “I hate school!”

• “Why are you so mean?!”

• “My life sucks!”

• Stomping off in anger

• Slamming a door that doesn’t break anything

• “You’re a terrible mother/father!”

• “None of my friends have a parent like you!”

• “My teachers suck!”

• “I hope you die!”

• “I hate you!”

Ten examples of (usually) not okay expressions of anger:

• “You’re a (curse word)!”family stress

• Any use of the F-word, and it’s derivatives

• Flipping the bird

• Hitting someone (not in self-defense)

• Damaging property

• Throwing things (most of the time, though sometimes this can be harmless)

• Declarations suggesting you put your mouth on some part of your child’s body

• Sexually related gestures or comments

• Blocking you from going where you wish to go

• Misusing resources (e.g., throwing away that left over pasta you were looking forward to eating)

time outIn the former category I’d mostly just not respond, and try to create some separation, as you’re not likely to be able to sustain a productive exchange anyway (i.e., your child is suffering from transient brain dysfunction as we all lose IQ points when we get angry). However, I would usually go back later, when both you and your child are calm, and do a psychological autopsy regarding the underlying issues, with an eye towards providing some relief or resolution.

In the latter category I’d use time out for kids ≤ age 12 (there can be exceptions for older but less mature teens and younger but more mature youth) and removal of privileges or grounding for teens. In upcoming blog entries I’ll describe methodologies for these punishment procedures. (You can also see Chapter Five of my parenting book and find related and relevant content in my entry on “Six tips for when you lose it with your kids.”) In closing please also keep in mind that a regular occurrence of these kinds of problems may be signalling that working with a qualified psychologist or mental health professional could be very helpful; for a referral, click here.

What Should I Do When My Kid Throws a Fit?

Temper tantrums in childhood are nearly as common as the flu, though no one has developed a vaccine for them. What follows are the four most common problems that I’ve found are at the root of tantrums followed by four guidelines for how to respond.

Problem #1: Your child needs more positive one-on-one time with you

Possible Fix #1: One hour a week of special time

Just as plants grow their branches around obstacles to get light, kids grow their behavior towards that which gets them attention; neither process is conscious. In run-and-gun households–and aren’t we all this way these days–it’s easy to be quietly grateful when our kids are behaving and to give them passionate attention when they screw up. Sure, this kind of attention is like eating an unwashed radish, but if you haven’t eaten in days that can be a pretty delicious food. Moreover, our relationship with our child is like any other relationship in our life: speed bumps are more likely to cause crashes when the relationship hasn’t gotten enough positive attention.

My prescription would be to spend at least one hour a week one-on-one doing nothing but paying attention to your child, expressing positive thoughts and feelings about him and proportionately complimenting anything that he is doing or saying that is praiseworthy. This technique is called special time, which is different from quality time (i.e., in quality time something else is usually getting my attention in addition to my child). My space here is too limited to describe the technique, but I’ve elaborated upon it in the first chapter of my book Working Parents, Thriving Families, and a few days ago I did interview with USA Today that describes it more.

Problem #2: Someone is experiencing a significant stress

Possible Fix #2: Try to either eliminate/reduce the stress and/or increase resources

All of us break when our stress/resources ratio tips too heavily to the stress side. Resources are enhanced when we do things to rejuvenate ourselves, child and adult alike (e.g., socializing with friends, seeing an enjoyable movie). When we break we tend to break in the direction of our vulnerabilities. Adults may drink more, yell more, withdraw from others and so forth. Kids may tantrum. So, ask yourself whether there has been a recent increase in stress in your child’s life or in the life of someone else in the family. If yes, a starting point might be to see if such can be eliminated or reduced. If not, then I would try to be patient and try to increase everyone’s care.

Possible Problem #3: Your child doesn’t feel like doing something

Possible Fix #3: Incentivize future occurrences of the something

 One of the most important tasks we parents have is to grow our child’s capacity to do things when she doesn’t feel like it. No psychological muscle better predicts success in both vocational and interpersonal pursuits. So, if my child is freaking out just because she doesn’t care for a rule or restriction that is developmentally appropriate, I would set up an incentive for future occurrences. Lets say she’s freaking out because you’ve told her to clean her room. Perhaps you might decide that, going forward, access to TV is earned each day by having cleaned the room appropriately (i.e., to spec and without freaking out). You are not taking TV away in these instances. Your child is either deciding to earn or not earn TV based on her behavior. No matter what you’re going to insist on the room being cleaned, less you create a training program for throwing fits, but whether it results in the TV being earned or not is dependent upon your child’s choices.

I have a much more detailed description of setting up a range of behavioral programs in my parenting book. You can also find additional guidelines at this blog post: Seven Tips for When Your Child Refuses to Do a Chore.

Possible Problem #4: Your child is showing the expression of a diagnosable psychological problem

Possible Fix #4: Seek our the services of a mean-lean-healing machine

 Tantrums are like fevers. You know there’s a problem but it could be many different things. Like a fever, you try treating it yourself first if it’s mild. However, if it persists, or if it’s serious (e.g., the tantrums are violent), then it’s good to do as you would do with a medical problem: seek out the services of a clinician well trained to diagnose and to treat the problem(s). To find possible candidates, click here. Here are some related blog posts:

Signs That a Kid Needs Mental Health Services

Seven Common Myths About Counseling

Affording Mental Health Care

Ok, here are some things to try at the point of the fit, keeping in mind that these may not work or be appropriate for your child.

Guideline #1: Don’t reward the bad behavior

Caving in to your child’s demands often creates a training program for the bad behavior. Your child gets the idea, often not even consciously, that throwing fits gets him his way. Moreover, I wouldn’t increase your positive attention during the fit, which leads to the next guideline.

Guideline #2: Extinguish the flame

Your attention can act as oxygen for the flame. For example, lets say your child throws herself down on the ground in a fit of anger. I would, if she won’t hurt herself and others or damage property, and if it’s possible for you given other demands on your time, leave her alone as she calms down. You might say as you leave: “What you’re doing is inappropriate. Let me know when you’re ready to clean your room.”

Guideline #3: Use timeout

Timeout can be done in ways that are not effective. But, if you’ve gotten some good counsel on how to do it, this can be a good time to use it (again with the parenting book?!…sorry, its just that there is just so much relevant information that I can’t cram in here and I don’t want to leave you hanging).

Guideline #4: Do a psychological autopsy

Once everyone is calmed down, which might be after the fit, later that day or sometime after that, I would sit down with your child and deconstruct what happened. We all lose IQ points when we’re upset. We do well to wait until everyone’s brain is fully back online before doing this work. Some of the best teaching can be delivered through questions: “What happened yesterday when I asked you to clean your room?” “What do you think about how you acted?” “What would be a good way for you to make up for what you said and did?”

If you have two adults parenting in your household it might be good for the parent who was not involved in the conflict to do this autopsy. If the transgression was slight, a heartfelt apology may be sufficient. If not, simply apologizing is not good for your child’s character development. Therefore, I would look for a proportionate reparation he could make, for his sake (e.g., using his own allowance to replace a magazine he ripped up, writing out an apology, offering to rub mom’s feet ;-).

Dealing with this issue can be a true pain in the neck, and make one wonder what exactly are the criteria for arranging for an adoption out of the home, but it’s very important work. And, you are to be saluted for taking it on!

%d bloggers like this: