How to Help a Child Deal with Anger

You probably haven't thought about anger like this before. 

By Welby Pinney, MSSW, LCSW, Licensed Clinician | Mar 02, 2016
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This post is part of our “I’m Stumped: Our Answers to Your Common Parenting Dilemmas” series. For all of the posts in this series, click here.

Twenty years ago, if you went to see a therapist about anger, he might have told you to express your anger and to let it all out. The idea being that people are like pressure cookers – as the pressure builds, we might explode. But what we’ve learned through brain science over the years is that this isn’t true. We aren’t little pressure cookers. We have learned that when we feel angry, our brain gets flooded with hormones that get us ready to deal with whatever has upset us, however, we have also learned that those same hormones can become addictive. To really simplify the science – the angrier you are, and the more often you are angry, the more the brain “enjoys” that chemical hit. It’s a bit like giving alcohol to an alcoholic. When we express our anger, we’re activating those addictive anger hormones - which the brain “enjoys, “ which in turn, leads the brain to seek more of those hormones. Our fuse gets shorter, we feel the anger more intensely, and for longer periods of time.

Here’s what we now know about anger. Anger is actually a secondary reaction to a primary feeling of hurt or fear. (Hurt is the feeling of something bad that has already happened, fear is the anticipation of something bad happening.) When we feel hurt or afraid, we feel weak and powerless. And no one likes to feel weak or powerless. So instead, we turn on our anger. Anger helps us feel strong and powerful. For example, if you’re driving along and a car cuts you off, your immediate instant reaction might be fear. You almost got hit by a car and it was scary. But that feeling of fear is so uncomfortable that many of us jump immediately to the secondary reaction of anger. When we get angry at the other driver, we feel powerful again. We don’t have to wrestle with that difficult feeling of fear and anxiety. We can just blame the other person and yell obscenities.

So now our advice about anger has completely changed from 20 years ago. We no longer tell people to express their anger. Instead, we tell people to hang out with that first feeling of fear or hurt. People who are particularly prone to anger graduate from that first feeling to anger so quickly they didn’t even register the hurt or fear. So we encourage people to think about their anger through this new lens. In the car situation, my advice would be to stop and think, “Wow. That was really scary when that car cut me off. I was afraid it was going to hit me.” Rather than expressing your anger, perhaps it’s best to back off – be scared - and let that driver go on; the threat just drives away.

How does this apply to kids? Well, if you think about it, it applies to everyone. If you think about anger between any two groups – different races, cultures, countries – you can track it to hurt or fear. It’s pretty powerful when you think about it.

Think about how you would respond when your child is hurt. What would you say to him? What about when he’s afraid? What would you say and do? Now think about how you naturally respond when he is angry. Is it the same? Is it different? If you look at anger through this new perspective, can you see some ways that your approach to working with angry child might be shifted? And, keep in mind, emotions are contagious – anger begets anger. What happens when you respond to anger with anger?

The first thing to do with an angry child is of course to calm him down. We know that when he’s in his downstairs brain he’s not able to think clearly or address the source of his anger. This post on “Time In” is a great strategy to help a kid go from an angry moment to a calm one.

Anger is variable depending on the age of the child. A 2 year old might be really angry because you told him that terrible word – “no”. A 16 year old might be angry because his friends didn’t invite him to a party. So of course our responses to these vary, too. But in general the best way is to talk it through with the child. The reality is that we think through stories and experiences in words. If our world is rich in a vocabulary about feelings, we’re better able to process emotional experiences. So when talking with a child, it is best to use feeling words as much as possible.

WHAT questions are better than WHY questions. For example, “Why did you hit Jacob?” sounds threatening and accusatory. A child might respond better if you ask, “What happened with Jacob on the playground today?” or “What happened that made you feel so angry?”

The goal is that there will be a secondary thought that will pop up somewhere between a first thought and the following action. So the first thought might be, “Jacob said something mean” and the action would be to hit Jacob. But in between those two, you want the child to think, “But if I hit Jacob, I might hurt him or get in trouble. I should probably not hit him.”

In order to get a child to that place, you have to really practice this. So – again, this only works once the child is calm – you can recap the situation. Ask your child to tell you what happened today on the playground. Then ask if there’s a better way that he could have handled the situation instead of hitting his friend. I wouldn’t be shocked at all if your child said that he couldn’t think of any better ideas. So then you can propose a few, multiple choice style. I love to throw in a silly choice, because humor can snap us out of a funk and can expand our brain’s ability to think. So I might say, “Well let’s see – you were upset at Jacob. Instead of hitting him, do you think you could have, a) told a teacher, b) say, “I don’t like what you just said. It makes me feel sad.” c) walked away, or d) done fifteen jumping jacks?

Next, you can dive into the pros and cons of each option. “Okay, so what would have happened if you told a teacher?” Then together you can select a few choices that your child feels comfortable trying. Maybe he doesn’t want to say, “I don’t like what you just said. It makes me feel sad.” But maybe he’s okay with walking away or telling a teacher. That’s great! Giving him the choice makes it more likely that he’ll actually utilize that choice when the opportunity arises.

Look, I’m realistic and I know that we all get busy. We’re parents and we have jobs and homes and millions of other things to take care of. So I don’t want to give you impossible parenting tips that take forever to implement and have to be monitored closely for months. So in an ideal world, sure, you’d come back to a situation next time it arises and check in. You’d see what choice your child made and whether it worked better for him than anger. This would be ideal. In the real world, you should just try to do the best you can to approach your child’s anger with the viewpoint of hurt or scared. Just shifting your mindset on anger will make such a huge difference in how you react to it. After all, the goal is that your child will be able to identify when anger is creeping up and know how to shift back to those original feelings. The best way for him to learn this is through repeated exposure to a vocabulary rich in feeling words, and repeated practice of staying in that original feeling instead of immediately graduating to anger.