Children’s Rituals to Handle Anger (Part II)
Lets face it…sometimes, we just get mad.
It would be ridiculous to not expect our children, who generally have less of an internal filter for what goes they react to and the reactions they have, to not do the same. And punishing anger (when channeled properly) is teaching your child that their feelings are not important.
Anger can be a perfectly healthy emotion, if a person learns to use it and work through it effectively. Tantrums, biting, hitting, screaming, etc–not really a healthy way of being angry. Also, a child that is habitually angry is probably not experiencing anger in a way that is healthy either…which is a different sort of situation that needs to be addressed, by a professional. For everyone else, the first part of avoiding unhealthy and unproductive anger is mentioned in part I–the key is to have appropriate modeling by parents and (to a lesser degree) older siblings (also media messages, etc). The second part of this is knowing your children and what makes them tick, so that you know when anger is imminent and what it is directed at, and can deal with it effectively
I have a three and a half year old that is facing a probable ADHD diagnosis once he ends up in school (we are still up in the air with the homeschooling…for right now, I don’t think its going to be fiscally possible, and I’m sort of bummed about that). Like many second kids and boys and kids with ADHD, Sharkbait has been a bit of a late talker (the only reason that he hasn’t been diagnosed already is because he isn’t old enough to fit the criteria, but we’ve been seeing a child neurodevelopment pediatrician since he almost got kicked out of nursery school). Any parent of a child that is still developing their ability to express themselves will more than likely tell you that their communication difficulties can cause quite a bit of frustration and anger on the part of that child (part of the reason for the “terrible twos”). In my case, its also resulted in a remarkably ingenious kid that is capable of rather impressive feats of engineering and outright daring to get whatever it is that interested him because he considers it less work than simple asking. Of course, the problem we’ve run into is that, in trying to teach him to ask for things verbally, he’s gotten a little spoiled. Which also can lead to some anger issues when the “no” comes out.
But, the key thing here is that I know this about my kids. I know what warning signs to look for, I know what frustrated looks like and when it will likely become head-spinning exorcist mode or kicking and screaming on the floor (though we’ve mostly evolved past that), I know the stubborn look on Sharkbait’s face when he’s trying to work out if smacking his sister for some transgression is worth the time out (sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t…and he will actually put himself in time out if he thinks its worth it). For that matter, I also know what it looks like when Chickadee is nearing the edge. She’s fairly laid back and low key, and more prone to crying over hurt feelings than yelling about them, but she gets mad too–and stubborn about it! But because I know how my kids will (usually) react, and what their warning signs are, I can either (depending on what is appropriate at the time) either nip it in the bud early or help guide it into a more appropriate expression of anger.
Depending on your child (their age, their ability, their communication level, etc), there are three main strategies that I have found useful:
- Distraction! Let them eat cake. Okay, maybe not. It really depends on how soon you’ve caught their potential mad. Cake (or in our house, raisins, animal crackers, or ants on a log) can be a distraction if its offered early enough. But, too late in the came and cake (or whatever) becomes a reward for being mad. And that is just a bad idea. Distractions seem to work best when the issue is one of environmental stresses–hungry, overtired, overstimulated, under-stimulated, etc. The best distraction to offer is usually the one that counters the environmental issue at hand–take an overtired kid to a dark and calm spot, but an under-stimulated kid to a place to jump around.
- Redirect! Give them something else to do…or another way to do something. This one seems to work best when anger is really frustration over something not working “the right way” (which would be however the munchkin wants it to work). Sometimes the thing not working is a matter of operator error. If this is the case, the kiddo might need help finding another way to make it work. Sometimes the thing not working is a matter of a broken thing, and they might need something else to play with. Sometimes its a matter of not playing together well with others, and a new activity or separation might be called for. The problem of course is when munchkin does not want help or another toy. Redirecting can be a 50/50 success operation, lol.
- Release! Give them a healthy outlet for their anger that allows them a temporary escape from the source of anger. This is different than redirecting them to a different activity by helping lessen their frustration, because its based on the idea of allowing them to be angry and to direct that energy and emotion into something that give it a release that doesn’t hurt anyone or anything. Sometimes this might be through discussion of their feelings (which will depend on the child and the event), but sometimes its not. Physical stuff also works well here–running, dancing, drumming, jumping, play dough time, biking, swimming, digging, meditation, etc. The main point is to teach your kids to have a way to release their anger and frustration, before it gets to the boiling point, so they can learn to express those feelings in a productive way (which we will get to in part III).
Most importantly, particularly with younger children (who don’t recognize the *other* stressors in life that can make them cranky to begin with) is to know your child’s limits and to try to work within them as much as possible. In a situation where you suspect it will happen before it hits…encourage him/her to talk about how he feels as its happening if you can’t avoid the situation, or come up with a game or something to distract if you can (we’ve effectively driven half-way across the country 6 or 7 times in the last 8 months, so this is one we have some practice with). Realistically though, its not always possible to totally plan around your child–sometimes things just need to get done. Make sure they have access to snacks and drinks if an out and out meal isn’t forthcoming and is going to be off their normal schedule, give them time to rest or to run and add in quite time in what might be an exciting day (when I run errands, we always pop in the local teacher store, which has the best decked-out Thomas train table ever).
Whatever you do, just remember that meltdown mode is at some point, inevitable. Sometimes you just never know what might set even your own child off. And that is okay! Kids need to learn to deal with frustration and to work through it more than they need to have all avenues of frustration eliminated for them. Anger and frustration is part of life. Children should be allowed to get angry, frustrated and upset…but they need to be taught how to cope with those emotions, express them, and work through or past them. At the same time, a child shouldn’t be made to suffer just to teach coping skills. There are some types of stress (like those that can be handled with distractions) that they will learn to overcome with age and maturity, while there are others (usually those that can be overcome with redirection) that children can be taught to work through or around. The most important thing to remember is that all of this takes time and work for both the parent (or caregiver) and child to develop, so start working together as early as possible!
(recap part I) * (stay tuned for part III)