One tends to feel sorry for the parents of a child who’s throwing a tantrum in public. But often, this could go beyond misbehaviour. The larger question to consider is what exactly is going through the child’s mind? From bullying at school to the intolerance they exhibit on social media to physically attacking their peers, children appear to be expressing their aggravation in a shocking manner.
The content they are exposed to on television, video games, movies, music videos, and even on the news, do have something to do with it. Over time, these influences may desensitise children to violence, and they may arrive at the conclusion that anger/ outbursts/rage is the only way to solve a problem. However, the good news is, calmness can also be taught the way violence is. To begin, let’s examine some typical ways in which children express anger.
When rage points to issues that run deeper
- Until the age of five years, when a child strikes another child (hits him/her), it’s not particularly worrying. But beyond the age of five, if a child is not able to control his/her aggressive behaviour, then it definitely needs attention
- Becoming reflexively oppositional, that is, when he or she says “No” as soon as a request is made of him/her, or if he or she does the opposite of what is being asked of him/her, especially if the child is over three-years-old
- Sudden explosive outbursts, including yelling, that occur very often and are triggered by seemingly innocuous events
- Fighting with friends and grown-ups frequently; an inability to maintain friendships
- Damaging property such as household things, siblings’ toys or homework
- Often talking about “seeking revenge” or expressing hatred for others
- Feeling like a victim and as if others are constantly picking on them
- Blaming others instead of constructively solving problems and carefully introspecting about his or her role in the conflict
- Harming himself or herself whenever she or he has a disagreement with anyone including grown-ups or peers
- The signs listed above may be symptomatic of undetected problems such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), a mood disorder such as depression or even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
How to deal with unhealthy expressions of anger
- Detect the undetected: Consult a child psychologist and explain your dilemma in managing the child’s anger. The psychologist might conduct some evaluations to discern if the issue is actually anger or a sign of an underlying issue.
- Teach kids that actions (not feelings) have a limit: All feelings are acceptable. The very first emotion that we experience the minute we are born is anger. However, children must be taught that the way we show these feelings is important. Strong limits must be set for a child with regards to acts, like, for example, hitting another person. Limits will help them contain their rage. You can set the boundary by making it clear that: “You can be as angry as you want but hitting is not allowed.”
- No “time-outs”: Children need love the most when they are angry or when they are throwing tantrums. So, don’t send a child away to a room or corner to calm down. Instead, sit with the child and offer silent support like: “Here’s my hand on your back. You’re safe. I’m here.” If the child yells at you to go away, say “Okay, see I’m here at a distance. But I am staying right here. I won’t leave you alone with these scary feelings.”
- Recognise the signs of anger: During anger, the brain’s fight or flight response is activated and when the provocation is intense, the “emotional” brain actually gets “hijacked” leading the child to do impulsive actions like hitting or destroying things. Research on body arousal shows that brain chemicals released during fight or flight (cortisol and adrenaline) take about 20-30 minutes to reduce in level. In other words that’s the amount of time it takes the body to calm down from anger. Researchers such as Daniel Goleman and Potter-Efron who have written books on emotional management, advise that one of the ways kids and adults calm down when angry is by noticing how their bodies are reacting when they are provoked. So parents can teach their child what their body does when they get angry:
- Anger makes you breathe faster
- Anger makes your face turn red
- Anger makes your muscles tense and your skin feel tight
Noticing body reactions sends signals to the cortex or the “reasoning” brain and allows the person to begin the process of cooling off.
- Deflect: Sometimes it’s just not possible for the child to do anything about the provocation (for example, if there’s an incorrigible bully in his or her class). So, teach your child to focus the energy released during the fight or flight response elsewhere — into a sport, for instance, or to use it up by jogging up a flight of stairs or squeezing a squeezy ball, using a punching bag or even drawing what they feel. Try to be around when your child is angry about something. Your presence will help the child feel safe. This in turn helps develop the neural pathways in the brain that shut off the fight or flight response and allow the frontal cortex, or the “reasoning brain,” to take over.
- Be a good role model: Can you remember the last time you felt really angry? Maybe someone cheated on you, blamed you for something you didn’t do or one of your friends gossiped about you. How did you react? Perhaps by yelling or abusing, sulking, crying, or pledging to “get back” at the person. Not only does reacting this way only serve to aggravate the anger, what’s worse is that your child would have watched you, and he or she will mimic the behaviour. So, be very mindful about your own reactions to situations, particularly when your child is around.
- Learn and display assertiveness: Assertiveness is the key to healthy anger management. We either react to anger passively (by hiding or swallowing it) or aggressively (letting out the rage). Assertiveness is an expression that allows one to vent the emotion in a healthy way. It involves learning to express anger, without hurting anyone (neither yourself, nor another). To teach your child how to express themselves assertively: remind them to be polite no matter what the provocation; teach them how to express anger without being sarcastic; tell them to try to find a solution instead of flying into a rage; teach them to use calm body language such as open body posture and controlling your tone and to learn to list facts rather than to exaggerate issues. To be most effective, children should be taught how to manage their anger before adolescence sets in, ideally before the age of 10. Additionally, when a child learns to control his/her anger in his/her pre-teen years, parents reap the additional benefit of living in a calmer environment during what can otherwise be a very difficult period.
This post originally appeared in the Mumbai Mirror.