Anger is difficult for any person to navigate, but it especially tricky for children to process. Often, society views anger as an explosion of negative thoughts and emotions. It can be association with extreme sadness, and an abundance of unceasing thoughts or impulses.
Typically, people repress the initial waves of frustration in order to get through the moment. Unfortunately, this is a pattern we then teach the children in our lives. We coach kids that anger is unhealthy and something to be punished for experiencing. We even minimize the stressors they are experiencing (Quit crying or I’ll give you something to cry about. You don’t know how easy you have it!)
Anger, in fact, is an essential emotion, which alerts us to potential danger. Perhaps someone has crossed a line, or there might be an injustice that needs to be address. Consider how most social movements arose out a group’s collective angry and demands for improvement.
When it comes to childhood anger, what you see is only the tip of a deep iceberg. Below the surface of the ‘explosive behavior’ may be ample anxiety, fear, shame, sadness, guilt, and grief. Similar to adults, when kids stifle their anger it ends up becoming amplified. What once started as a small issue over time can become a volcanic eruption of emotions bubbling out suddenly. Here’s how you help the children in your life process a range of emotions, including anger.
Stay calm: Do your best to remain as neutral as possible. Encourage you both to maintain deep, easy breathing. Help them express their emotions through calming techniques like yoga, meditation, writing, painting, dance or repeating a calming mantra.
Validate their experience: When you name something your claim it! Negating an experience only perpetuates the negative emotions and increases the likelihood of shame or resentment, both of which fuels anger. Encourage them to discuss their feels and reassure them that what they are feeling is real and important. Keep your talking to a minimum and repeating short, supportive phrases like “I’m here for you,” “I’m ready to listen when you want to talk,” “I love you,” and “Help me understand.”
Express the anger: If the child can talk about what they are feeling have them express it through color, images or movement. In particular drawing are helpful since after they can crumple it up and toss it in the trash. This helps them see a physical release of their negative emotions and create space for more positive thoughts and feelings.
Try the rose, thorn and bud exercise: Whenever possible check in with kids about the positives (roses), negatives (thorns) and opportunities (buds) in their day. This helps them process a spectrum of emotions and embrace the potential gifts of the world around them.
Expel extra energy: If a kid feels overwhelmed doing activities to release the pent-up sensations can be extremely helpful. Try inflating and then popping a balloon, stomp their feet, dance, squeeze objects (clay, or stress balls) and then relax their hands.
Share feelings: When you openly discuss feelings in conversations it helps kids process the power of emotions. Consider implementing this discussion when you are reading a book, watching a show or playing a game. Ask the child how they view the perspective of a given characters and what they might be feeling. You both can also label feelings out loud like “Eating ice cream makes me happy” or “I find thunderstorms scary.” You can then ask a kid what they might be feeling at that moment or how a situation makes them feel. This helps them begin the process of more readily identify emotions they or other might be experiencing.
Teach them processing: After a child’s outburst discuss what trigger their reaction. Allow them to talk about what happened earlier and how previous feelings contributes to the recent situation. This enables kids to explore their emotions and form connections between feelings and reactions.
Promote journaling: It can be easier to write about a feeling rather than talking about it. In particular consider buying a child an unlined journal so they can either write or draw the feelings they are experiencing. Discuss with the child if they would like the journal to be completely private or if you can periodically talk about what they might be capturing in the journal to help them process their feelings and emotions better.
Anger is difficult to navigate so its reasonable why parents, and influential adults in a child’s life are uncomfortable addressing this valid emotion. Unfortunately, when we promote repressing anger or negative emotions it teaches kids that these sensitive are “bad” or “shameful.” Essentially, we are encouraging them to distrust the sensations they are experiencing within themselves. By exploring the above suggestions, you both can learn to integrate the entirety of your emotional lexicon.