We all have felt strong feelings of anger when we are stressed and edgy and our children begin to whine or do things that irritate us and don’t respond to our requests for them to stop. As our anger builds, it is as if each annoying event acts as a mini-trigger to sustain and intensify the anger we are feeling. When feelings of anger get to a certain point, they are extremely hard to contain. This is what Dan Goleman describes in his book, Emotional Intelligence, as becoming “emotionally hijacked.”
These are the times when we might find ourselves doing and saying things that we would never think possible when we are more relaxed and self-controlled. If this is true for adults, then we cannot be surprised that it happens to children, who have far less experience than we do at trying to successfully manage their anger.
Unfortunately, the more stress there is in a family’s life, the greater the chance that angry emotions will spill out. What can families do to reduce angry outbursts?
1. Learn everyone’s feelings fingerprints. “Feelings fingerprints” is a name for the earliest signals our bodies send us when we are starting to feel angry. Maybe your face gets red, or hot. Some of your children might clench their fists, or find that their breathing gets very heavy. There is always a signal, and the first step is to help everyone in the family keep track of those that are theirs. Once you know your “feelings fingerprint,” you can begin to plan what to do as soon as you start to notice it, instead of having an angry outburst.
2. Control Your Reactions. We all have more control over our anger than we think. Imagine this: you and your children are having an argument with lots of screaming. A neighbor comes to the door. What happens? Chances are that everyone will stop. And the longer the neighbor stays, the less likely you all are to pick up where you left off. What does this mean? It means that while it’s very hard to avoid being angry, family members-- starting with parents who must serve as role models-- can try to limit the harmful expression of their anger. We have five chances to do this:
- Control your initial reaction and ask yourself: “Is this really something to be angry about?”
- Control your initial response: “What can I say or do that will be most helpful now?”
- Control your reaction to another’s response to your anger. If your anger has led to an angry response, which is typical, think about this: “How can I keep this from getting worse and worse?”
- Control your next reactions: “How can I bring some calmness to what is happening?”
- Apologizing for what you said or did: when anger does occur, it’s still useful to let your children know that things may have been done or said in anger that were not meant. The alternative is to let you children think you DID mean what happened.
3. Bring humor into your household. Humor reduces anger. Households in which humor has a strong and regular place find anger is expressed less harshly and less often. Some ideas for bringing humor into you house include:
- Cut off cartoon captions and write your own. This can be a fun family activity. A related fun game is Mad-Libs, where everyone creates a story by providing words representing certain parts of speech in a fill-in-the-banks format. Mad-Libs are available in most book and card stores or on line.
- Have a humor corner in your house or classroom. Pictures, books, and whatever else people find funny would go there.
- Have a laugh break. This can really help at homework time, especially when kids are stuck. Short audio or video segments involving humor, or time to read from humorous books or cartoons can really make a huge difference in a situation that can bring out a lot of anger. It is hard, frustrating, and ineffective to just sit there and “keep trying” when one is truly stuck. Humor is energizing, encourages creativity, and puts us in an optimistic frame of mind. This is exactly what children need when they get back to that homework assignment.
4. Enjoy a day without expressing anger. This may seem difficult, but think about what happens when your child does something to annoy you when you are with a neighbor. You usually can control your reaction. Well, what if the neighbor stayed for an entire day?
Parents, try to make an agreement that you are going to go an entire day without expressing your anger directly to your children. Don’t worry about your children getting the wrong message from this. You probably wouldn’t do this all the time, but you might want to bring it into your household routine once a week, or so. By the way, you might want to practice for two days in advance before you do it for real. It’s not as easy as you think, but the results might surprise you!