Anger management for children
Before I became a counsellor, hypnotherapist and Hypno4ChildrenTM practitioner, I was a teacher. With a career spanning 20 years, I have seen my fair share of angry children and anxious parents. And from my observations, children’s anger can be seen on a scale – from never being angry before and suddenly displaying angry outbursts, to being unsettled and angry as a baby and these behaviours worsening as they grow older. But it doesn’t matter where your child sits on this scale, if their anger is having an impact on their day-to-day life, then it may be time to seek support.
What is anger?
Anger is a valid emotion and it’s perfectly normal to feel angry – just as we experience happiness, jealousy, sorrow or excitement. The range of emotions we feel as a human is expansive, although we don’t always know how to describe how we’re feeling. It seems though, that anger – the feeling and the way it is expressed – is not seen as a healthy or acceptable emotion. Yet it is how we express anger that is the key, and this is what I explain to the young people I work with.
Is my child’s angry response proportionate to the event?
When a child gets frustrated with another student in the class and lashes out at them, this could be deemed as an inappropriate way to express their anger. Similarly, shouting insults at a parent who has told their child they can’t have any more sweets, may also be deemed as an unproportionable reaction. However, it should be noted here that the experience of anger is individual to each child, and what is deemed proportionate for one child, may not be for another. Anger isn’t one-size-fits-all.
What I’ve found over the years is that when a behavioural response is in proportion to the event, then the child is regulated and in control of their behaviour and emotions. If the response to an incident is out of proportion, the angry episode happens very quickly, takes a long time to calm down, and they may be unable to control their behaviour and emotions. Therefore, understanding what is proportional for your child is key.
Why does my child suddenly just lose it?
I explain to my young clients that when we become dysregulated and feel our emotions are out of control, we have ‘flipped our lids’ – an expression used to describe how our ‘thinking brain’ and our ‘feeling brain’ have stopped communicating with each other. This is actually our sympathetic nervous system activating and our stress response kicking in.
When this happens, one feels increased alertness, raised heart rate, rapid breathing and muscle tension. In this state, we can’t think rationally, problem-solve or sometimes even hear properly. The connection between the pre-frontal cortex (the ‘thinking brain’) and the amygdala (the ‘feeling brain’) gets disturbed, thus finding it difficult to think calmly and regulate ourselves.
I believe it’s important for children and young people to have an understanding of what is happening in their bodies. Often, they are scared and confused about their angry outbursts, so giving them an explanation and helping them to understand that they are human, is reassuring for them.
How do I help my child with anger issues?
Firstly, it is crucial to explore the reasons why your child is feeling angry. Has there been a recent change in their life? A new school, loss of a loved one, a new house or the separation of parents. Anger is often just the tip of the iceberg and may be expressed to mask deeper-rooted emotions such as vulnerability, guilt, hurt or shame.
Children think differently from adults – their brains haven’t developed fully and lack the capacity to process events in the same way an adult does. Sometimes, it’s hard to pinpoint the cause of their anger. It might not stem from a big life event, it could simply be that they are tired, hungry, lonely and sad. Whatever the reason, it’s important to validate and acknowledge their feelings, listen to them and let them know they are safe.
When they are calm and in the right frame of mind for a discussion, agree on some safe and healthy ways for them to express their anger. For example: bouncing on a trampoline, kicking the football hard, hitting a pillow, listening to loud music and jumping around, or scribbling on scrap paper. The list is endless really, but what is most important is that they know it’s acceptable for them to express their anger in these ways, that you still love them and they are safe.
Making time to talk to your child is crucial. Listen to them without interruption and let them be heard. Anger often stems from frustration and bottled-up thoughts and emotions. Imagine a bottle of fizzy drink being shaken up vigorously then unscrewing the lid quickly…. You know how this ends! Well, it’s the same for children. Each time they feel a big emotion and it is repressed, instead of expressing it safely, the pressure continues to build until… pop! Talking, exercising, connecting with others, having a hobby, or even having a good cry or laugh at a film helps to release the emotional pressure slowly and gently.
When should I be concerned about my child’s anger?
You know your child best, but if you feel they are struggling to manage their anger even after putting in some strategies and giving them enough time to test them, it may be worth seeking additional support. Speak to your child’s school and ask them to observe them in different situations to see if their outbursts are happening there too. Your school SENCo (Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator) will be able to advise you further.
Perhaps your child has come to you asking for help. They are overwhelmed, confused and scared as to why they feel this way and they want support. This is a good sign and means they will be more receptive to accepting support and trying to implement different coping strategies.
How do I deal with an explosive child?
This is a question I got asked by many anxious parents. When your child has ‘flipped their lid’, it can be worrying for all concerned, you may even blame yourself. The main thing to remember is to remain as calm as possible and remind yourself that it is no one’s fault. At this point, they are out of control and will most likely be feeling unsafe and scared. Now is not the time to try a new coping strategy or to shout out different techniques to them. If they have a technique that works for them and they have practiced it regularly they could try it but don’t push it. As long as they are safe and not in danger of hurting themselves, give them time. Stay close by so they know you’re there and let them know they are safe. Having been there myself, I know you are probably feeling angry and frustrated too. You want to get your point across and let them know that their behaviour was unacceptable but now is not the time.
As they start to calm down and begin to regain control, gently talk to them and see what they need (a drink, a snack, a hug or a sleep even). They will need your help to feel regulated after such an explosion; remember they are still young and can’t do this on their own effectively. Once everyone is feeling calmer and you’ve all had some time and space, you can talk about the event together. Keep calm, listen and come to an agreement on how to manage these episodes if they happen again.
Tools and techniques for emotional regulation
These tools are great to practice regularly as part of their ‘well-being toolkit’ to help them stay regulated and calm. Practising them together makes them fun and is a positive way to model coping strategies.
Rectangle breathing is easy and can be practised anywhere (all you need is a rectangle: the TV, a window, a book etc.)
- Breathe in through your nose as you trace your eyes along the short edge of the rectangle.
- Pause for a second or two at the corner.
- Exhale slowly as you trace your eyes along the long edge.
- Pause at the corner and repeat.
Making the exhale longer than the inhale activates your ‘rest and digest’ mode and signals to your brain that you are safe and can feel calm.
Thought field therapy (TFT) tapping is a safe and easy technique developed in the 80s by Dr Roger Callahan. Children enjoy learning the tapping sequences and love to teach their family and friends too.
Tapping involves lightly tapping on different points on your body in a specific sequence whilst thinking of your worry or fear. This disrupts the negative thoughts attached to that thought field.
Hypnotherapy can help your child to relax and to practice visualising themselves in positive situations and scenarios. The therapist may guide them to make positive changes in their internal ‘control room’ (think of it as the ‘Headquarters’ in the Disney Pixar film, Inside Out).
It’s important to remember that these techniques and tools are not a magic cure. These are life skills that will help them to develop an awareness of how their own minds and bodies work. Building their resilience and ability to self-regulate when they notice their emotions are beginning to bubble up is an invaluable skill which will benefit them in years to come.
- ‘The Explosive Child’ by Ross Greene
- BBC Teach: The Brain House
Learn more about Danielle on our sister site, the Counselling Directory.