Helping Children with Anger
I first spoke on "Helping Children with Anger" at Kansas State University nearly 40 years ago. The occasion was an annual convention of the Kansas Association for the Education of young children. Along with Dr. Ross Campbell, author of "Kids have Feelings too" I believed then and still believe that ANGER is the single greatest danger to any child or family in the country. At the time of my talk I had recently come across an article citing the effect of violent television on children. Interestingly even the most violent TV had ZERO effect on peaceful children. The eye opener was that the angry child are nearly 10,000 times as likely to act out when exposed to the same violent tv. The moral to the story is that Anger and Violent TV go together like matches and dynamite.
Since those early days I have kept sort of an anger notebook adding to it whenever I had the opportunity. One notable entry was contributed by Dr. Roy Menninger of the Menninger Foundation. "Anger is a secondary Emotion. We must help our children look underneath the anger and work on the cause…usually hurt, anger, loss, frustration or a similar emotion. It is difficult to work with the anger until you know what is underneath."
Another prominent Menninger, one of the founders of the famous clinic, Dr. Carl, had a slightly similar thought: "The problem with anger is that expressing it does not mean hitting something it means putting your feelings into words. The fact is that hitting something when you are angry actually makes things worse." Dr. Carl is no longer with us but his statement affirms millions of teachers and parents who are hoarse from saying TALK, DON'T HIT. But how will the children learn to talk if no one is listening?? This could be the one great thing we do for an angry child (right AFTER we protect everyone in the immediate area) listen to him. Listening to the child not only develops his skills it makes it more likely he will listen to us when our turn comes.
When it is your turn to talk avoid yelling, preaching, begging, warning, and sighing. The best approach is probably SHARING, sharing what you do when you are angry. Admitting our own personal problems with anger puts us on the same side as our child. It makes us allies which is a very good strategy for any sort of parental correction. THEN ask the child what he could do next time. Making a child THINK is probably better than time out.
A parents strategy however does not start with listening, or with sharing, or asking questions. Our true strategy starts with a written set of rules posted on the wall. No assault, no slander, no vandalism. In kidspeak that means no hitting, no name calling and no breaking things…the three cardinal rules broken by a majority of prison inmates…which is what helping children with anger is all about…keeping them out of prison when they are grown. Rules don't keep anyone OUT of prison but they protect the rest of us.
After we have posted the rules, decided to listen and learned to share our own problems the next big step is problem solving. My favorite technique here is assigning a child who has recently broken one of the rules to ask ten people what they do when they get angry. How can we expect our children to be wise if they never talk to the wise???? Some people are so wise they actually make money writing books. Go to any librarian in the country and ask them to do a subject search on anger, seeking books for the appropriate age of your child. Here in Topeka one of our remarkable librarians actually turned up 32 picture books for 5-7 year olds. (Click here to see her list) Reading books and talking to the wise PREPARES a child for the next time he is angry. Be prepared is a very good motto. I hope we all adopt it…prepare your child so he knows what to do when he does get angry.
Better than even the best motto is Repentance. Immediately after an angry outburst have your child OBSERVE the pain he has caused and ask him gentle questions. "Why is he crying? Look real close at the tears. Did you ever feel like that?" It seems to me that going back to the scene, taking a close look and asking gentle questions produces ten times the repentance of a spanking. Repentance after all is what we are looking for. It is one of the great foundations of self control.
Combine repentance with reparations and you have a winning formula.
Reparations usually make a lot more sense than punishments. Reparations simply mean restoring what you have damaged. Some reparations can take a long long time. This stage of things is probably a good time to SHARE again, about a time YOU had to make reparations. Keeping our kids on our team does matter.
Up to this point in my talks the crowd is usually with me but when I say just two words "Try Prayer" they react like I said " tie a clove of garlic to the child and rub him with limburger." Sadly not many professionals are familiar with the statistics on prayer, personal faith and anger. The fact is that children encouraged to believe in a higher power (The Prince of Peace) are much less likely to have outbursts of all kinds. (Multiple studies by Kansas State University on Resiliency, also the National 4-H council and the University of Wisconsin in studies on Protective Factors.)
Two other practical but very simple solutions for children are tensing all your muscles as hard as you can as long as you can and simply turning your head. Both are physical solutions to an emotional problem and they both work. The tense muscle thing works because it feels so good when you do loosen up. The turn your head thing works because it relieves us of the "visual threat" that may still be present. Learning to turn your head is connected to another of the great foundations of self control WALK AWAY. The first thing you have to do when you walk away is turn your head!!.
Rage is more difficult to deal with than anger. With rage we are not talking about assault, slander and vandalism with rage we are talking murder and mayhem. Wise parents and teachers must learn to tell the difference. The main difference is that rage just doesn't go away. The child is always angry or very close to it. This child needs some professional help. If professional help is not affordable or available I suggest contacting a local church.
Not being alone is actually the one thing statistics show to be most effective of all: entertain your children's friends in your home. If we are not involved in the social lives of our children how can we hope to help them keep anger out of relationships. A child's only real hope in dealing with anger is adult involvement. It is a point made very clearly in "Lord of the Flies???? When children are left alone in this famous book the journey to violence is very short one. Next time your child is angry don't leave him alone…share with him something from your past or at the very least something from my little fire side chat…something like: Rules, Listening, Sharing, Books, Repentance, Reparations, Prayer, and finally Walking Away. It could save your child. If enough people learned it it could save the world.
Read our little story Dani Diggs is angry…Angry…ANGRY.