Managing Anger in Children (and parents)

Angry ChildTips for Developing Skills to Manage Anger in Children (and their parents)

Of all the emotions that can get a child into trouble, at home or at school, anger leads the list. While sadness or anxiety can lead to misery, it is anger that leads to trouble, i.e., punishment, suspension, expulsion, and a host of other outcomes we don’t wish our children to suffer.

Obviously, it is also important than a child be able to express anger. But anger should be like a sneeze: it clears the passageways, then disappears. A child who cannot get angry can be in as much danger as a child who cannot control how angry he gets.

So the goal is to learn how to manage the often difficult-to-manage emotion we name anger. Following are some tips that can be used anywhere, cost nothing and do not require the assistance of an expert.

If you’d like to learn more, I refer you to my book, When You Worry About the Child You Love, from which these tips are loosely adapted.

  • Get plenty of exercise

    Exercise may well be the best tool we have for helping children (and adults) work off anger and aggression.  Overall, physical exercise is one of the best tonics you can take for your brain.  It helps all brains–children’s, adults, old people’s, animals’, even babies’ brains.  It helps in many different ways. It increases the level of blood the brain receives. With more blood comes more oxygen and many other good nutrients.

When your child exercises, it helps in managing anger by providing an acceptable outlet for aggressive feelings.  Exercise is controlled aggression.  It also relieves anxiety.  It is a better anti-anxiety agent than any medication, and it has no side effects (unless you exercise too much.)

  • Use words. Read aloud.

    Play word games at dinner and while driving in the car. Role-play the resolution of conflicts by talking them out.

Next to physical exercise, using language to express feelings may be the best antidote we have to destructive or violent behavior. If you can’t put what you feel into words, or if you can’t argue or debate coherently or ask for what you want articulately, you feel frustrated.  Frustration leads to physical acting up, sometimes to violence.

Words help a child take the fangs out of anger.  Once you channel angry feelings into words, you have won, at least for the moment. You are in command.  This is not to say that words cannot hurt. Words can do great damage, as we all know.  But the first step for a child in mastering anger is to learn to use words, rather than physical acts, to express that anger. Then he or she can try to learn to use the words wisely, an effort that will continue for the rest of his or her life.

  •  Encourage negotiation and the making of contracts 

    This is what “working it out” is all about.  Hear both points of view. Negotiate, negotiate, negotiate.  Make a deal.  Sign a contract.  The more you can do this with your children, the better.  When a dispute comes up, don’t impulsively bark out a response; instead, negotiate.  Teaching your child to learn to negotiate, make deals, initiate agreements, and stick to contracts provides him or her with a lifelong skill.  Successful adults are usually the ones who have mastered these skills.

Anger is related to the “fight, flight, or freeze” response of the sympathetic nervous system. Fighting can be for good – combating injustice – or for bad – ruining relationships. Stress hormones are released during anger episodes and these hormones destroy neurons in areas of the brain associated with judgment and short-term memory and it can weaken the immune system.

  • When Anger Becomes a Disorder 

    When the frequency and/or severity of anger interferes with relationships, work performance, legal standing, or mental health, it has become a problem. This is the time to consult with a professional to make sure there is no underlying diagnosis that you might not know about.  Various conditions, including ADHD, Tourette syndrome, conduct disorder, seizure disorders, thyroid dysfunction, or even brain tumors can manifest as uncontrolled or impulsive anger.

Excerpted from When You Worry About the Child You Love

You can find more tips from Dr. Hallowell in his ADDitude Magazine article on Managing anger for children with ADHD.