The flash of anger in my tween daughter’s eyes surprised me. We'd been camping, and Maddie’s 6-year-old sister, Aly, had just burned her finger on hot ash. As I treated the wound, Maddie strode up. “I hurt myself, too,” she said, with attitude. “Last night when we were making S'mores.”
“Hold on,” I said. As Aly screamed beside me, I tried not to show my frustration. “I need to help your sister first.” This was the first I'd heard of Maddie's burn.
Maddie's anger flared. “You always help her first! You don't care for me at all!” She rushed back to our cabin as I finished bandaging Aly’s hand.
I walked back to the cabin, dreading the confrontation ahead. I could see how the next few minutes would play out: pleas and demands from me, mounting anger and accusations from her. There had to be a better way to manage these cycles of anger. It was making all of us weary, especially Maddie.
The angry cycle
Once a child is angry, it's easy for him to stay in a cycle of thoughts, emotions and physical responses that feed his rage. Here’s what the angry cycle looks like:
- An event creates pain or distress that sets off the child's anger. This event can be something another person says or does, or an unmet expectation.
- The pain triggers thoughts or memories that focus the child’s angry response on another person. For example, he may think you don’t understand his life or that you care more about a sibling.
- These “trigger thoughts” lead to a negative emotional response. Your child feels frustrated, rejected, fearful or enraged.
- These emotions cause a physical response, such as a flushed face, tense jaw, pounding heart and clenched fists. As anger takes control, a child finds it difficult to think rationally.
- Finally, a behavioral response occurs. The trigger thoughts, emotions and physical reaction evoke a fight, flight or freeze response.
Stopping the angry cycle
We often try to lecture our children or teach them a lesson in the midst of their angry cycle — right when they cannot think rationally. Our best efforts at correction will likely not get through when our child is in this highly emotional state; harsh discipline often make things worse.
This is true of kids of all ages: An emotional, angry teen can't be any more rational than an emotional, angry toddler. When one of my children is angry, I know I have to first stop the angry cycle before anything else can happen. I use some of these phrases instead of escalating the interaction:
- "I see you're angry."
- "I am sorry that happened to you. I’ll be here to talk about it when you're ready."
- "I get angry, too. How can I help?"
- "When you're ready, I can tell you how I handle things when I get mad."
- "It’s OK to be angry, but think about how you act next. Make good choices."
- "I understand you're angry. But can you try to understand my point?"
When I acknowledge my children's anger, they see that I'm paying attention. And when I make myself available, my kids can turn to me for help. They do want to make good choices; they just need extra guidance, and they are often grateful for my offer to help instead of simply sending them to their rooms or giving them consequences.
Being available and attentive always works better than simply telling a child to calm down. And choosing the right words in the midst of your child's angry cycle can defuse the situation and lead to healthy resolution.
Training kids to recognize and stop their own angry cycles
When a child gets angry, multiple physical reactions are occurring inside her body. According to one public health organization, "The adrenal glands flood the body with stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. The brain shunts blood away from the gut and towards the muscles, in preparation for physical exertion. Heart rate, blood pressure and respiration increase.”
We can help our kids understand what's happening inside their minds and bodies when negative thoughts are triggered so that they don't get caught up in the angry cycle, which can become a habit. We can teach children to recognize and stop their own angry cycles using the three R's.
- Recognize: Identify the thought that came before the emotion.
- Reflect: Think about how accurate and useful the thought is.
- Redirect: Change the thought to a more accurate or helpful one.
How can a child begin to recognize trigger thoughts? Start writing a list of trigger thoughts on a piece of paper and review them regularly with your child. Some examples are: "She doesn't care," "This isn't fair," and "Nobody respects me."
If your child is unable to identify his or her trigger thought, you can assist by saying something like, "I've noticed that when you think I'm not listening to you, you get really angry with me." Try to observe patterns that your child doesn't yet recognize, and then help him.
Next, teach your child to check his thoughts. For example, when he is having an intense emotional response, encourage him to evaluate whether the thoughts in his mind are true. When a child learns to evaluate her thoughts in this way, she is better able to change them.
The next step is to replace the faulty thought with the truth. Philippians 4:8 says, "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things."
Replacing negative thoughts — ones that lead to anger — with empowering thoughts does require some practice. Help your child focus on truth by listing counterstatements to the trigger thoughts you've written down. For example, "I know Mom loves me," "God is with me in unfair circumstances" and "I can set a good example for others."
When our kids learn how to catch, check and change their trigger thoughts, they are better able to keep these negative thoughts from growing into bitter emotions and angry outbursts. As we help them redirect trigger thoughts to truthful thoughts, we equip them to stop the cycle of anger.
Tricia Goyer is the author of over 25 books, including Calming Angry Kids: Help and hope for parents in the whirlwind.
Anger Through the Ages
Babies, toddlers, preschoolers and preteens experience anger differently. A child's response to these emotions begins in infancy and develops throughout childhood. Self-regulation — the ability to calm themselves — continues to develop into young adulthood. We need to train our kids how to respond appropriately when they get angry, no matter their age. Knowing the underlying causes of anger at each developmental stage can help us identify issues and provide us with the tools necessary to help our children deal with their anger in healthy ways.
Age: 0 to 1
Babies cry because they need to be fed, held or changed, or because they're tired, sick or in pain, not because of misbehavior. When an infant cries, it's because there is a legitimate need, and as parents, we should seek to lovingly meet that need. Babies also may cry when they sense a caregiver is angry or tense. In many cases, calming ourselves and then tending to our children works best.
Ages: 2 to 5
Every parents recognizes that young children experience frustration. What might be labeled misbehavior in older kids are often just responses to fear, overstimulation, exhaustion or hunger. These children sometimes lack verbal skills to communicate their thoughts and feelings, and that frustration can be a trigger for anger. These emotions may cause them to scream, pout, hit or throw things. Help kids attach words to their emotions. Work on these communication skills when they are not in the middle of a meltdown. The better they can communicate and feel heard, the less they will respond to situations with angry outbursts.
Ages: 6 to 9
For many children in the school age years, their anger triggers involve change. My kids liked to know exactly what was going to happen and when it was going to happen. When I provided them with this information, our days went smoother.
Creating routines so kids know what to expect will help to diffuse stress that leads to anger. Helpful routines may include those associated with chores, homework, mealtime and bedtime.
Ages: 10 to 12
Preteens are part child and part teenager. Many are experiencing early signs of puberty and hormonal changes that can make them feel irritable. In addition, these children strive for greater independence and they often try to test authority, especially that of their parents. Preteens can also feel isolated and frightened by all the changes within themselves, their friends and their peers. This can cause emotional upheaval that comes out as anger. Look for ways to start giving kids in this age range small doses of independence and ownership of their lives.
As they get closer to adulthood, teens continue to feel a need for greater independence and control over their lives. Anger is an emotion that may be triggered by out-of-control elements in their lives, such as trouble with friends, being bullied, stress at school or even a strained parent-child relationship. During these years, their bodies are going through a lot of changes and hormones are running wild. Teens may want to stay up later, but a lack of sleep can lead to moodiness, which can lead to anger.