If a child’s behaviour becomes out of control or aggressive because of anger, then it is an issue that you need to tackle with sense and sensitivity.
By Aparna Samuel Balasundaram
Anger, like any other emotion, is normal and part of the human experience. In fact, anger, when expressed appropriately, is a useful emotion. It helps us to stand up for ourselves and for what is right.Even Mahatma Gandhi used his anger constructively against the injustices he experienced. According to him,‘anger controlled can be transmitted into a power that can move the world.’
What is crucial is how we react when we are angry. Uncontrolled rage could destroy relationships and lead to violence. It does not pay to respond to anger with more anger on our part, and more so with our children. Over the last two decades,I have worked with hundreds of families where anger in children seems to be a repetitive theme and one that is getting more prevalent.
To help a child with anger management, we need to understand the WHY of anger which helps us identify the warning signs. We need to know HOW anger is manifested to help us understand the causes;and then the WHAT a parent can do to help their child feel in control and be the boss of his anger.
The first step to anger management is to understand the reasons why children get angry. Anger is usually a defence against a deeper sense of hurt, frustration, shame, jealousy or rejection. When these feelings become too intense for a child, he may exhibit and act out his anger in an inappropriate way– that might cause pain to himself and others. In his mind, offence is the best defence! For example, a child gets angry with his parent (who he perceives as unfairly disciplining him), or with a sibling (who does not share things), or with a bully (who shames and teases him). Anger is normal and as parents, you should not judge or shame the child for feeling anger. Rather,your role is to support and help your child deal with this anger in a safe and healthy way.
Anger is manifested in many different ways. The classical impression is that of a volcano erupting. So, screaming, hitting,throwing things, using hurtful words are stereotypical ways in which anger is manifested. These are tangible and visible ways your child might express anger,typically externally-directed towards others. Equally common, and often not taken as seriously, is when anger is inwardly-directed towards the self, such as crying, withdrawing, locking oneself up, pinching or hitting self, clenched fists and teeth, tensing the body and holding one’s breath. Depending on your child’s personality and perhaps the situation, a child may respond to angry situations in either an externally, or internally-directed way. It is important for you to help your child be aware and identify these ‘warning’ signs. These signs act as indicators and red flags that they are getting close to losing control over their anger.
The third step to anger management is to learn and apply strategies to deal with this anger. Here are 5 key strategies to help your child become the boss of his anger!
STAY CALM: As a parent, it is essential that you do not negatively label,shame or feed off your child’s intense emotions, as you will only fuel the fire. Rather, you have to be calm, centred and make a conscious effort to help your child regain control. By being connected and supportive of your child,as they experience these negative feelings, you are demonstrating that you are not against them, but are against their behaviour. In this way, they can view you as part of the solution and not the problem. Children can only learn and understand how to ‘do better’ when they are calm and they see that their parent is calm too.
THE ‘STOP’ SIGN: You have already helped your child identify his personal triggers and warning signs that tell him that he is getting angry. Now, as part of step two,when your child does experience these warning signs,he can use a visual of a STOP sign in his mind. This STOPsign can act as a reminder that he has to stop and break this flow of negative emotion and take a step back. For a younger child, help him label his feelings. You could say something like, ‘Ayush, you’re getting upset. Mummy (orDaddy) is here to help you. We can make this better. Let us first calm down.’
REGAIN CONTROL: Now that the STOP sign has disrupted this anger flow, the next step is to start regaining control.Teach your child to use some calming strategies when he feels the physical symptoms of anger. He can take deep breaths or drink a glass of water or distract himself with a song / book / art project. He can take a shower or play with a favourite toy. Your child can make a chart of constructive ways to handle his anger. Make this a family activity.
Encourage him to draw or write these out, as this give him a sense of ownership too. Post this chart paper at a visible place like the refrigerator or near his bed. However, if your child has already gone past this point and is physically getting out of control, he should first be separated from the person he feels like hurting. He can then release this anger by going for a run in the safety of a garden / park.
‘Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned!’ - Buddha
THE EMPATHY HAT: Empathy is the capacity to see things through the other person’s point of view. Children as young as two years are capable of showing empathy, but they do require your guidance and modelling for this. Help your child to realize that just as he wants his point of view understood, the other person too wants to be understood.
So when eight-year-old Arjun’stoddler brother Rohit, grabs the remote car Arjun was playing with and starts his own version of ‘race-race’, Arjun may grab the toy back and also land one whack on Rohit’s head! Use this as an opportunity to talk about the ‘empathy hat’. Tell Arjun that while it is understandable how he feels, hitting back is not the solution. Instead, ask him to put on the empathy hat and think about how he would feel if he had been hit on the head. Then talk to Rohit about how he would feel if Arjun had taken his toy. This mutual understanding for each other will not only lessen the sibling fights but will also teach them a way to deal with angry feelings. When you see your children using the ‘empathy hat’ concept, positively reinforce it with encouraging words. This verbal reward will incentivize them to demonstrate more empathetic behaviours.
THINK AND PROBLEM SOLVE: Now that a possible truce has been reached or your child has used the STOP sign and avoided an escalation of angry feelings, the last step is to deal with what caused the angry feelings. See if you can help your child stop, think and find a plausible solution.
So, if he gets angry every time his younger brother grabs his race car, talk about alternate solutions. He can play in another room where his brother will not disturb him, or he can give his brother another toy car to play with while he is playing with his race car. Involve your child in this problem-solving process so that it empowers him with the skills to calm himself and look for solutions even when you are not around.
So, the key is to remember that anger is normal and merely telling our children, “STOP getting angry!’’ does not help. Rather, help them to recognize what makes them angry, how their anger is manifested and the ways to deal with anger in a safe and constructive way. The worst thing would be for a child to hold on to that anger or stuff it deep within, as that could build up and explode in dangerous ways. Parents, remember that you need to be a role model too!
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Aparna Samuel Balasundaram