ASK THE EXPERT: Anger Management for Kids
We're here again with parenting expert, Dominique, to talk about anger management for kids, one of the 10 hypnotherapy sessions offered in our Children's Essential Hypnotherapy Package.
Terri: Hi Dominique, it's always great to have you here. Today's topic is something that a lot of parents are curious about – anger management for kids. What can you tell us about it?
Dominique: Hello Terri, it's always a pleasure. Yes, this is definitely a topic close to many parents' hearts. No matter how wonderful our kids are, there will be moments when they experience anger, and for some kids those moments seem to come quite frequently! Most parents I speak to grew up in the 70's and 80's, when expressing anger in a healthy way was not yet an option. Many of us, then, grew up having to really repress our anger instead of expressing it and so it can be extra challenging for us as parents to deal with a kid who is having a big reaction to something. Our conditioning means that our first instinct is either to get angry in response, or to become anxious and try to stop it as quickly as possible. But it's essential to understand that like us adults, children too experience a whole spectrum of emotions, and anger is a natural part of that spectrum. It's not 'bad', nor does it mean that there's something wrong with our child or our parenting.
Terri: Ok, so if I'm understanding correctly, it's not about eliminating anger, but managing it?
Dominique: Exactly! It's not about suppressing or avoiding the emotion, but helping children understand their feelings, express them healthily, and learn to manage them in a constructive way. We don't want to give our kids the same message that was given to many of us...that we're bad for feeling anger and we should hide it, repress it, or be ashamed about it.
Terri: That sounds a lot easier said than done! How do parents actually go about doing that?
Dominique: Well, firstly, it's really important to remember that kids look to adults as models for how to behave and react. If a parent is able to remain calm and composed in the face of a child's anger, it shows the child that it's possible to manage strong emotions effectively. However, if a parent or caregiver responds to the child's anger with their own anger or frustration, it might reinforce the child's behavior and send the message that reacting impulsively to anger is acceptable.
So, self-regulation is really the essential first step. This means that parents and caregivers must first learn to manage their own emotional responses, especially in high-stress situations. This can involve practicing deep-breathing exercises, taking a short walk to cool down, or just pausing before responding to the child's anger.
Once the adult is calm, they can more effectively acknowledge the child's anger without judgement, as we discussed before. They can help the child label their emotions, saying things like "I can see you're very upset right now". This validates the child's feelings and helps them understand what they're experiencing. However, it's a bit of a fine line, because you also don't want to sort of 'seed' them with the idea that they feel a certain way if they don't. So really just stick with what you can obviously see, rather than trying to interpret it. 'I can see that you are really angry', 'it seems like you really didn't want that to happen', are useful phrases that most kids will feel validated by in the middle of a meltdown.
Here's the MOST important thing to remember, and the part that most parents misinterpret: If you hit the nail on the head when you're validating what the child is going through, their reaction is likely to GET BIGGER at first. This is OK. This does not mean you're doing it wrong! When they truly feel that they are now safe to express themselves because you are calm and are witnessing them, they will allow themselves to feel more of what is there. If they've been furious, they may suddenly burst into tears and wail, or they might seem to get even angrier in agreement with you, telling you more about whatever is upsetting them. Your job is simply to stay calm, and to let them know you're there. You understand. You get it. You're going to ride it out with them.
Terri: Oh really? That's so counter intuitive! If a kid is upset and I try to validate them and that makes them MORE upset, I think I'm doing it wrong!
Dominique: Yes, most adults do! But they're not. Imagine you're furious about something...maybe someone hits your parked car and doesn't leave a note. So you're feeling really angry, and you try to express it to your partner.You start to tell them how you're feeling and they say "that's ridiculous...I don't know why you're so upset". How do you feel? You might feel silly for having been angry. You might agree and sort of just dismiss your anger and try to forget about it. Now imagine that they say "Ok, let's just fix it right now, please stop being upset, I hate seeing you so angry!". How do you feel? Like you have to take care of them more than pay attention to how you feel? Like your feeling is problematic to them? What we really all want and are looking for is the same thing that kids want: validation and a witness. Now imagine you tell your partner the story and they say "Oh no...what happened?!" And then they listen with kindness and patience while you tell them the story, hearing your feelings about it and letting you get it all off your chest. Don't you feel better? And then if there are actions or solutions to find you are in a much better place to work on that together once you're no longer carrying all the feeling about it inside yourself.
Even more than us, kids have an amazing ability to get to the other side of what they're going through if they're given just a bit of space, and a loving, connected adult to witness them. That doesn't mean that you're trying to 'fix' what is making them angry, or take away the difficulty. It means you are providing a temporary space for them to just feel it all and move through it. I like to imagine a tunnel that the child has entered...like a train. If you try to stop the train half way through the tunnel that feeling gets stuck there. They will try to get back into that tunnel again and again to see if they can push through to the other side. Although it can feel like an inconvenience to a parent to allow the child to make it all the way through the tunnel, they really will come out the other side into sunny skies again if given enough time and support.
However, as we talked about earlier, most of us were never allowed to reach the other end of the tunnel when we were kids, so parents can feel very skeptical about that and not trust that their little one will actually emerge out the other side. Practice it a few times and see...it can be amazing to watch them find their inner resources and go from absolutely furious to totally sunny again when they are simply allowed to express and feel what's there for as long as it takes.
Another important thing to remember is that children will often have a build up of unexpressed emotions, about all sorts of things. And that sometimes they'll sort of 'engineer' an opportunity to be angry in order to FEEL all of them at once. I remember seeing this really clearly when my son was small and he wanted a snack one day. Every single thing I offered him had something wrong with it, according to him, and it became clear that he didn't really want a snack, he wanted a reason to lose his cool. He had some big feelings he was ready to show me, and without knowing it he was trying really hard to create the situation that would let him do that.
So watch out for that, and notice when your child seems to just be out of sorts and looking for an argument. That's a really good time to hold some firm boundaries around something so that they have a reason to react with anger and get it all out.
Terri: Ok, so wait...I know that when it seems like my son is about to lose his cool because I've said no to something he wants, or because something has gone wrong, my tendency (probably like a lot of parents) is to try to AVOID the meltdown. To bend the rules a bit just this time, or to make a concession, or to try to somehow make him feel better so he doesn't make a scene, or slow down the flow of the day, or whatever. Are you saying he actually WANTS to lose his temper?
Dominique: Oftentimes, yes. He doesn't know it, of course. He thinks he really, really wants that thing (and he might) but he might also have a lot of feelings that have built up that he needs to get out somehow, and this moment represents that opportunity. He also wants to know that you are safe, that you can stand firm in the face of a feeling, no matter how big it is.
Terri: So...holding firm to the boundary will let him do that?
Dominique: Yes, exactly. You don't have to be stern or mean about it...you can be very kind, very loving, and very firm. That boundary will allow him to react and express everything that's been building up inside him. And of course you know what your job is when he does that?
Terri: Uh....stay calm?
Dominique: Exactly, and validate. 'I know you really want it. I understand that it's hard for you to hear no'. He'll agree with you. He'll probably try to talk you around a few more times, but when he really gets that you're not shifting, he'll let all those feelings out. You can be celebrating inside that he's going through the tunnel, and remaining calm and understanding on the outside. It might take a while. For a kid who is not used to being able to express feelings in this way, safely and freely, it can take quite a long time at first. But he will get to the other side, and he will usually come out feeling much calmer and safer than he went in.
Terri: What about a kid that becomes physically aggressive when they're angry?
Dominique: Yes, it's very important that the child knows that you will be keeping them, and everyone else, safe in the face of their anger. That you will not allow them to hurt you or themselves or anyone else. You can tell them this as you take the steps to do it. This might look like taking objects out of their hands, physically moving them away from someone else, holding them so they can't punch or kick you. Not aggressively, not with anger, but firmly. You are going for kind and firm in your words, energy and actions. If they have a strong need to express themselves physically, encourage them to show you how mad they are by punching a pillow, or ripping up paper...something that let's them get the energy moving out of their body but doesn't hurt anyone.
Terri: OK...so to sum it up then...if I've got it right...first step is to work on our own self regulation? Do whatever work we need to do to be able to stay calm in the face of our child's big emotions?
Dominique: Yes. This is the most important part, because without that your child will not feel safe to express themselves, and will also have no model to work from of how that could look.
Terri: And then once we feel like we can do that, the next is to remember that big emotions are not 'bad' and that sometimes they're actually helping our kid to go through the tunnel and come out the other side?
Dominique: Yes! And that the way you can help them access the big emotions when they need to be felt is to hold your boundaries in a kind and firm way.
Terri: And then when they're in the tunnel and they're angry and yelling or whatever they're doing, we validate how they're feeling and keep everyone physically safe. And we know we're doing it right when they seem to get even more upset!
Dominique: Exactly. If you are holding firm, kind boundaries and also validating their feelings in a genuine way (because you genuinely do get how they're feeling), they will feel safe to express even more of what they're feeling and let it all come out.
Terri: After which they feel a ton better!
Dominique: Yes! I mean, wouldn't you? They feel safer because they have experienced you standing firm in the face of their big emotion, and that tells them that their big emotion is not something to be scared of. And they have managed to purge a lot of built up stress at the same time. It's a perfect storm, in a really good way.
Terri: Amazing. I'm actually looking forward to the next opportunity to try this with my son!
Dominique: Please do, and let us know how it goes!
Terri: Oh I will. But before we go, you know we have a hypnotherapy session to help kids manage their anger. Does this go along well with what we've been talking about today?
Dominique: Absolutely. Hypnotherapy can be an additional tool because it basically helps kids train their minds to go through the tunnel by moving from a state of disregulation to regulation. It helps kids relax and focus their minds, and makes it easier for them to understand their emotions when they come up.
Terri: Ok, yes, I can see how that would help. It's not taking away the anger or telling them they shouldn't be feeling it, it's helping them recognise it and transition through it, which is what we want them to do.
Dominique: Exactly. And it also gives kids some really needed quiet time to just focus on themselves in a relaxing way, which often goes a long way to calming their nervous system and helping with their overall happiness.
Terri: Thanks for sharing your insights, Dominique. It's been enlightening!
Dominique: My pleasure, Terri. I know it's a hard topic and I'm happy to come back and talk about it more whenever you like.
Terri: Thank you!
The Anger Management Hypnotherapy for Kids session is one of 10 different sessions available in the Children's Wellbeing Essentials Package. Click here to read more about it.
Dominique Olivier is an Essential Oils Expert, Parenting Coach, and Kid's Yoga Teacher. Her mission is to empower parents with the tools to nurture their children's emotional health. She lives in South Africa with her husband and 8 year old son.