Children’s Rituals to Handle Anger (Part III)
Handling Anger When it Hits
Lets face it, we can’t always catch a mad before it explodes. In the best case scenario, we catch it as early as possible, before a full-blown nuclear meltdown occurs. But sometimes that doesn’t happen either. Depending on how much a good mad has escalated, letting it go and run its course might even be the best tactic. There is one thing, however, that (in my experience) never works…and that is getting mad back (and yes, I realize that it can be hard–damn hard to not be mad back).
We have a couple of different tactics that we take when a mad comes on. Some of these, we practice when we aren’t mad (our mad drills), others are more of a “let it ride” and then discuss later scenario. All of them can be used together.
- Breathing Exercises: These can be a simple as breathing in and out to a specific count, to breathing with visualization and/or energy work of “breathing in calm” and “breathing out mad”–Chickadee visualizes “calm” as cool blue water light and “mad” as “hot red rocks of fire”, and we usually breathe in and out to a count of three.
- Counting, Recitation & Moving: We have a couple different things that we usually couple with breathing, when just breathing isn’t enough. These include everything from running in place or even growling (mostly for Sharkbait) to swaying, tree pose (from yoga), counting (by evens, odds, fives, tens, etc), reciting quotes, poetry, etc (we have a weekly recitation as part of our homeschooling plan, so Chickadee uses that as her “mad mantra”).
- Fireball Mad-itation: So…we also have a specific little meditation we do either to practice getting rid of mad or when we get mad. You can pretty much adapt this for whatever will work for you, but basically, our meditation promps go something like this–“breathe in and collect all your mad like a dragon making a fire ball” (and we scrunch into a ball sort of) “stuff all your mad tight into your body until you can’t fit any more” , “jump up and roar it to the sky”, “let your fire ball go into the clouds and explode like a firework” and “breathe in cool, clean, fresh air”
- Quiet Time and Ignoring: Sometimes the best thing we can do is let them work it out on their own, and give them a safe, quiet space to do so. There is nothing wrong with letting a mad kid be mad. At some point in time, they need to learn to work through their feelings without us.
- Debriefing (see below)
I *think* its working, because the last time Chickadee got mad, she sort of huffed over to an empty spot in the room and said “I’m going to breathe and sway now mom” like a teenager grumping over doing homework or chores, lol.
Reflecting On Our Feelings Afterwards
I think that the best time to reflect on being mad and trying to work through what caused the problem in the first place is after the mad is over. The professional term for a similar sort of discussion after a major event is “debriefing”, and is usually conducted as a peer-to-peer review of what went wrong, how it was handled, what stressors were involved, etc (for more official info, check this out). Obviously, the dynamics here aren’t the same as a workplace event debriefing, but there is something that I think can be learned from the idea and applied at home.
The first thing to remember/establish in a family debriefing is a suspension of judgement regarding action and non-judgement of feelings. As a parent, we have the right (and I would argue obligation) to judge the actions of our children (we are, after all, ultimately responsible for them)…but I think we also have an obligation to our children and to our familial relationship to listen to our children’s reasoning for their actions. We don’t have to agree with them, but I think we should hear them out and discuss them–kids are kids, they don’t reason as adults, and we shouldn’t expect them too. Furthermore, how the heck do we expect them to reason as an adult and make adult judgements if we don’t teach them how in a way that doesn’t belittle them as people? The one thing we don’t have the right to judge though, are feelings. Even as an adult, you can’t help your initial feeling about something. An initial feeling is a gut reaction, and the ability to rationalize the accuracy of that feeling, and whether or not it is justified is a learned skill. It is just as unfair of us to expect children to have adult skills in this area as well, without offering them some guidance.
The second part of this is to establish the facts of the occurrence (the event that started it off)–its sequence and scope, followed by the reactions and interactions and perceptions of everyone involved, before discussing the shoulda, woulda, coulda. The parental role in a debriefing is to be a mediator, both between parties involved (if necessary) and between one’s self (the child, in terms of their automatic reaction vs. the part of them that “knows better”). Rather than telling a child what they should do or how they should react, etc, try to either lead them to establish that conclusion on their own or share with them how you would have handled the situation, if you were them. Also, let them practice what they could have done, if it is applicable to the situation. A good way to carry out this this conversation is by asking everyone to use I-statements and speak in specific examples, rather than making you-statements and generalities (which tend to feel accusatory). Obviously though, the level of discussion that occurs here depends on your child’s level of understanding, communication and introspection. Sometimes, debriefing works perfectly well as nothing by a cuddle session.
One thing that I mentioned, that I think bears repeating (over and over and over and over and over, perhaps) is that yelling/getting mad back never helps. Don’t get me wrong…we parents are only human, and it happens. But think about it–has there ever actually been a situation where kiddo has gotten upset, and *you* adult being upset back has done anything but aggravate the situation? Because…I have yet to see or be part of an event where getting mad back helped.
Another tip that has helped us, not just in this area, but in discipline overall, has been part of the strategy from the book 1, 2, 3 Magic, which was recommended by Sharkbait’s pediatric neurodevelopment doc. While I don’t agree entirely with all of their methodology, and I find the tone of it to be a bit condescending, overall, their main advice works quite well, provided it is done consistently. Their biggest advice (regarding negative behaviors) is two-fold: “no talking” and “no emotion”. This advice sort of covers my previous comment. In the book, “no talking” means not expecting your child be be a little adult and trying to talk them into or out of a behavior, while “no emotion” means being matter of fact, without anger, pleading, etc. Both of these are described as common “mistakes” that parents make that give the child control over the situation and lets them “win”, because the parent has lost the power in their encounter. Instead the goal is to be consistent and calm.
Also…I think we need to remember that we are only human. We make mistakes. I mentioned this in one of the previous posts, but our ability to admit when we are wrong and to apologize to and/or in front of our children is part of being a good role model as well. I actually grew up with a fairly lousy example of how to handle interpersonal conflicts and my answer to handling anger for a long time was to hold on to it until it exploded. Partially because I was punished for my feelings and partially because that was the example I was most often shown. It took (and continues to take) a heck of a lot of introspection on my childhood and a heck of a lot of discussion with the hubby on how we wanted our relationship to work (easier to do when 2/3 of your first 3 years are spent communicating via email and phone thanks to the military!) and what sort of parents we want to be for us to get to this point. And sometimes we still mess it up. But we talk it over and talk it out, and at the end of the day, our philosophy is that we are in this together as a family…and that we can help each other to do better, next time around.