Meaghan O’Keeffe, RN, BSN, is a mother, writer and nurse. She worked at Boston Children’s Hospital for nearly a decade, in both the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit and the Pre-op Clinic. She is a regular contributor to Thriving.
Anger is a natural emotion. It can help us defend ourselves when we feel threatened, and in the right circumstances, it can be the needed spark that spurns someone into action.
The problem is, many of us don’t know how to deal with anger. Some of us avoid it, some of us suppress it and some of us explode with it. And, whether or not we know it, we may be teaching these anger management techniques to our kids—both good and bad. For instance, when it comes to processing my own anger, I’m an avoider/suppressor. In fact, it wasn’t until I was well into adulthood that I even recognized when I felt angry. Anger generally makes me feel uneasy. So when my kids express it, my knee-jerk reaction is to talk them out of it, to get them to see the positive side of a situation. In some ways, this is a good skill to learn.
But am I just teaching them that anger isn’t okay?
How can we approach anger from a different perspective? How can we help our children express themselves in a healthy way? By thinking about constructive ways to work through those feelings—before they’ve hit.
Talk about anger when things are calm
Ask your kids what they think anger means. Let them know that feeling angry is normal. Talk about some of the things you and your children might experience when they’re angry. They might breathe a little faster, feel their face turn red or get a bellyache. They might yell or cry or want to break something. Remind them that it’s okay to be angry, but it’s never okay to hurt someone or something because you’re angry. Some kids might get very quiet and want to be alone when they’re angry. Learning about what makes us angry, how anger feels and what kind of things we can do to let our anger out may help them better process the emotion.
Your children might be able to verbalize situations that induce anger. If they’re too young, or just not sure, give some examples of things that often make people angry, like:
- losing a game
- not getting what we want
- being teased
- having trouble finishing a goal
Come up with an anger plan
Knowing how your child manifests anger will help determine which healthy outlets will help. Deep breathing may help diffuse anger: Have your child slow and deepen her breathing by blowing imaginary bubbles. Or she might need to practice physical exertion, such as running in place, jumping jacks or riding a bike. If she tends to become withdrawn and quiet when angry, activities like drawing a picture of her anger or listening to music may help her work through her feelings safely. It’s best to develop and practice an anger plan when your child is not experiencing anger.
Your child might find it helpful to think of her anger as a rambunctious puppy that needs practice and training to stay in control. If that puppy starts to act up, it just needs some help doing the right thing. Or maybe anger feels more like an erupting volcano. When she begins to feel the lava getting hot, she can try to let out some steam before the volcano overflows. These kinds of images may help your child recognize anger early on, before the situation escalates.
Give your kids permission to talk through anger
When your child feels wronged, let her explain why. Ask her how it feels. Encourage her to talk it out. Teach her to communicate effectively about the things that are bothering her. When my children are embroiled in a full-fledged fight, I occasionally intervene in a way that helps them slow down, talk it through and find a solution before someone hits, yells or throws a toy.
Resist the urge to fix it
It’s difficult as a parent to watch your kids feel anger and other “negative” emotions. Our base instincts tell us to get rid of the anger as quickly as possible. But what our children really need is validation that what they’re feeling is real. They also need reassurance that releasing the anger in a healthy way will help —and that they’re in a safe environment to learn how.