While this anger management post title says it’s about how to calm an angry child, it’s really about how to encourage young children to calm themselves. It’s not a quick and easy method (if there even is such a thing), but it can be highly effective if it’s implemented consistently and if the children are encouraged to try, adapt and experiment. Don’t forget to download the free printable, I hope you find it useful!
Anyone can get angry given certain conditions, but some people manage their anger more effectively than others. It’s the same for children. Most young children will get angry, but there are great variations in how often it occurs and how extreme the anger becomes. It might be due to personality or because tantrums generally lead to them getting what they want. It might be due to genetic and environmental factors. It might be the normal process of learning to deal with their own emotions. But it might also be due to speech delays, where a child becomes frustrated because they can’t communicate what they’re feeling or what they want. It also might be due to sensory processing issues, where a child experiences a bombardment of sensory stimuli that is overwhelming and so they lash out.
As adults we need to observe our children to try and understand what triggers frustrated behaviours. We shouldn’t just assume they’re naughty, spoiled, tired or seeking attention. If we are going to help our kids learn to calm themselves, we need to narrow down the causes and we need to be prepared to try many different methods in the search for what’s most effective.
We need to be flexible
When it comes to calming an angry child there is no ‘one size fits all’ method, so just because we had great success with one child’s emotional rollercoaster, doesn’t mean we’ll have equal success with another. Each child needs to find their own path, with our support, and it may take quite some time. We need to be patient, consistent and a supportive, positive ally during this process.
In saying this, we must protect all the children in our care, so if an angry child is endangering another, either physically or emotionally, we must certainly step in and separate the children so that both are safe and the situation cannot escalate.
How do we implement an anger management strategy?
There are 3 steps we can take when implementing an anger management strategy in our classroom or at home.
- Teach children to identify and understand their own emotions
- Teach calming strategies
- Practice, adapt, refine, more practice
Teaching children to identify and understand their own emotions
It’s difficult for children to manage their behavior if they don’t understand their own feelings, if they don’t understand why they’re getting upset or the consequences of being angry. Experts encourage us to spend plenty of time teaching kids about emotions in general, reading relevant stories and talking about the scenarios and behaviours of the characters. Showing them pictures of children showing different emotions, taking photos of your kids acting out various emotions and using them for discussion. Of course, these discussions need to happen when the children are calm, not when they’re in the middle of an emotional episode.
Talk about the physical changes they might see: a frown, clenched fists, tense jaw, faster breathing and so on. When you’ve had these kind of discussions your child will understand if you say, ‘your eyes are a little scrunched up and you’re glaring at your brother, are you feeling upset or angry?’ This is all part of the process for a child to learn to recognize and talk about their emotions so they can then try to lessen them.
Level of intensity
It’s also helpful for children to understand the intensity of their own emotions so they can learn to recognize oncoming anger and implement a cooling down strategy early in the process. It’s much easier to reverse emotion when it’s only a little engaged and much more difficult when it’s a full-blown tantrum. Many specialists recommend using a mood thermometer that is green for calm on the bottom and red for very angry at the top. Children learn to look at the thermometer to gauge whether they are just a bit irritated, or cross or really cranky. (You can download a pdf of this graphic here).
Understanding intensity can help children recognize their changing emotions more quickly so they can enact calming strategies earlier. It’s also very helpful as an evaluation tool so that children can decide whether their calming strategy is working effectively and whether another method may work better. It also might help them decide which strategy to use. For eg, if they’re just a little frustrated they may find a quick hug is all they need, but if they’re very angry they may be better off sitting in a bean bag in a corner of the room listening to calming music through headphones. In fact some experts recommend that on a scale of 1-10 any emotion at level 6 or higher indicates that a child should remove themselves from the immediate area of conflict.
Other measurement tools
Other methods that can be used for measuring feelings are to:
- Gesture with their hands, showing them close together for smaller emotions and getting wider as their level of upset increases.
- Ask if it’s as small as their toy car or as big as their real car.
- Ask if it’s as quiet as a cat or as loud as a lion.
Once a child has an understanding of their different emotions it’s time to focus on teaching calming strategies.
Teaching calming strategies
There are many, many different methods children can use to calm themselves, and there needs to be a willingness to try quite a number of them in order to find the most effective fit.
Also, as adults we need to remember that it’s the strategies that our kids find most effective that are important, not the ones that might seem most promising to us!
Pop over to this post to download the FREE mood thermometer above + 23 calming strategy cards like those below. These free cards are available in English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Icelandic, Romanian, Spanish and Swedish.
Keep it short and sweet and regular
It’s best to teach about calming strategies for short periods, but very regularly, preferably every day. Find a time when your kids are calm and start chatting with them about how they feel when they’re angry and what they can do to cool themselves down. Since all children are different you might start with options you think might be effective, and then broaden that out as you and your child start practicing together.
For eg, you might suggest that the child sits in a quiet place to read their favourite book, but if the child can’t stay still even when they’re calm it’s not going to be an effective strategy when they’re emotional. Instead, the child might say they’d like to squash a ball of play dough so you can pull out ideas that involve movement and distraction such as painting, playing in a water tray or sand tray or building with blocks.
Practice calming strategies every day
Ask your child to practice estimating their level of anxiety a few times each day (even when they’re not anxious), and practice a few chosen strategies. That way it should be easier for them to implement them when they really need them. After they’ve calmed down it helps to have a discussion about how effective the strategy was and whether they want to hold on to that idea, adapt it or toss it and try something else.
Calming strategy suggestions
Here are some ideas. Remember that what works for one child may have a poor result for another, particularly when it comes to sensory issues.
Deep, Steady Breathing
This is very popular. Ask a child to breath in slowly to a count of 4, then breath out slowly to a count of 8, and repeat this a few times. Or have them pretend to be holding a candle and they blow it gently so that the flame flickers but doesn’t go out. Or cup your hands together and pretend to slowly blow them up like a balloon, when the ‘balloon’ is big and round you can slowly let the air back out or have it pop by clapping hands together. Or blow bubbles with a wand, either through pretend play or in reality.
Tensing muscles tightly and then releasing them can bring instant relief to some. Just note that this can wind some kids up rather than calm them.
Sprinting, jumping, dancing, walking, hopping like a rabbit, tensing and walking like a robot and then flopping like a rag doll, stretching, yoga for kids, pushing hard against a wall or pulling against a large rubber band. Lifting heavy objects
A quiet space
If we make an inviting, private space some children will take themselves there when they feel overwhelmed without even being prompted. The space should be fairly small, and make use of pillows and blankets, cuddly toys, a favourite book or song to play, something to squeeze or fidget with, perhaps a calm down jar or sound-reducing earphones, some hard candy or gum to chew.
A small space
Some children with sensory issues respond very well to being tucked into a very tiny place like a box full of pillows, where they have to fold up their body to even fit. Or they might like to be wrapped up tight in a blanket, or weighed down with something heavy.
The goal with sensory play is to help a child focus on just one of her senses so that others are blocked out to give relief.
Try a water table, sand table or sandpit, play dough, clay or finger painting. Paint how they’re feeling at an easel or pretend to write a letter about why they’re angry. Fill a box with different textures such as feathers, furs, velvet, buttons or cotton wool. Fill another box with sound makers such as a shaker, triangle, paper to crumple, a conch shell, a small tin and chopstick, or provide headphones and music.
Ask a child to imagine they’re somewhere else, for eg, their favourite holiday spot or riding their bike, or flying like a bird over a beautiful mountain.
Once a child has decided which strategies they’d like to try and they’ve practiced them while they’re calm, it’s time to see how they go when the emotions are high. So it’s time for practicing, adapting, refining and more practice.
Practice, Practice, Practice!
Not only should a child practice their preferred strategies but they should be encouraged to evaluate their effectiveness once they’ve calmed down. Some strategies will work better at lower levels of distress, while others will be needed for higher levels of anger. Also, there might be differences between what works best at home and what works best at school, and what works in the classroom compared to what works in the playground.
Keep in mind that this process might take a very long time and we must be patient. We also need to be consistent, making a point to encourage kids to use their calming tools rather than giving in to their complaining, whining or tantrums.
Another point to keep in mind is that anger issues affect everyone in the vicinity, not just those directly involved. Anger in young children can cause stress in families and in classrooms so it may be important to have discussions as a group. This way, everyone can be open about how poor anger management affects them and consider strategies, support and agreements that involve everyone.
I hope this post has given you some ideas about anger management in young children that you find useful.
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