Helping Children Manage Anger and Conflict
By Cynthia Wallace
Adults can play a key role as a child develops the skills of understanding what triggers strong feelings of displeasure and knowing the best ways to deal with them.
Big emotions can come in small packages. An 11-year-old Scout confides that when he can no longer ignore another child who is annoying him, he loses control. "I get angry and snap. I take my rage out on that person making me angry," he says.
Indeed, children may experience their own version of "road rage" when they're so exasperated by a situation that they consider responding with aggression or even violence. The child quoted above admitted to no more than grabbing the other child's shirt. But if he doesn't learn to manage his anger now, how will he express it when he's 15, or 21?
Managing anger and conflict is an essential lifetime skill that can take years to master. Help from an adult often clears the way for children having a difficult time, and it's never too early to begin the learning process. "No age is too young; the younger the better, really," emphasizes Mark Lombardo, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist on the Interfaith Medical Center's Mobile Crisis Team in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Some ways parents and significant adults can plant the seeds for success in managing anger and conflict early in a child's life include the following:
Learn what triggers anger.
A child may not know what's causing his anger. Pay attention to the events that coincide with bouts of isolation or displays of aggression or sadness.
For example, in cases of divorce, emotional upheavals could occur after a weekend visit with one of the parents; or, maybe the child sitting at the next desk at school could be prompting these behaviors. Even the time of day, such as bedtime, could bring frustration and anger. Dr. Lombardo advises adults to learn what triggers a child's anger, then share the insight with the child and talk about why he or she has such feelings on those occasions.
Put a name on emotions.
"I'm mad." "I'm irritated." "I'm annoyed." To comprehend these emotions, a child needs to be able to name them.
When adults help "children label their feelings, they can better understand what's going on within themselves and better communicate it to the parent or caregiver," Dr. Lombardo says. That way, children learn to talk about feelings, using words instead of actions to express anger, frustration, annoyance, or irritation.
Let a child know what's acceptable.
A parent or significant adult should set out guidelines for the child. Let a child know that it's O.K. to be angry, but not O.K. to yell and scream, throw or break things, or hit someone.
"If needed, there should be a time-out or some consequence to pay for breaking the rules," says D'Arcy Lyness, Ph.D., child psychologist and behavioral health editor of KidsHealth.org. Dr. Lyness says an adult could set limits for a child by saying: "It's not O.K. to hit. We don't do that in this family. Now, tell me what happened and why you're so upset."
Be a model for your children.
When Jamie Czuy's two boys, Jesse, 9, and Mark, 12, get angry, there can be yelling, door slamming, foot stomping, or crying to contend with in the Czuy household in Cortlandt Manor, N.Y. "I really try to keep my patience and deal with the situation logically," Czuy says. "But sometimes it doesn't work, which really frustrates me."
One of the hardest things aboutteaching a child to manage emotions is for adults to keep their own feelings in check. "If parents are responding to kids having an angry outburst by having an angry outburst of their own, then they're not going to get very far," Dr. Lyness warns.
Adults need to be aware of their own behavior, because as they respond to an angry child they're inadvertently teaching that behavior to the child, no matter what it is.
Learn to shift the mood.
Parents help upset toddlers shift their mood into something more pleasant by distracting them with a toy or new activity. Finding a way to get rid of an angry mood continues to be a good idea as a child matures. (And children learning to manage anger will eventually be able to shift their mood themselves, without the help of an adult.
Dan Hoernes, an 11-year-old living in Cortlandt Manor, N.Y., knows how to calm himself when his older brother makes him so angry that he wants to slug him: "I just go up to my room, listen to music, calm down, finish up my work... just relax from all the stress that's going on," he says.
Help resolve the conflict.
Often a parent or significant adult may want to just "leave it up to the kids" to hopefully settle their disputes without a fight. "That's not such a good idea, because as a parent you can be very helpful in guiding them through that process [of problem solving]," Dr. Lyness says. Let the child have an active part in settling the dispute, she advises. Say, "What do you think would be a fair thing to do?" and then listen.
The adult doesn't have to accept the children's proposed solutions, but being involved in the process will help the youngsters develop the skills needed to eventually resolve conflicts without an adult.
Show that you understand.
Sometimes all it takes for a child to get past the anger is to know that a parent or significant adult truly understands what the child is going through. Dr. Lyness concedes it's not easy or pleasant to be sympathetic to an angry child. But sometimes, she says, recognition of the child's emotion is all it takes for the youth to experience a feeling of: "Oh, you get it! Now, it's out of me. I'm done." Otherwise, the child may continue expressing that anger in ways that can lead to trouble.
Every child will become angry from time to time, but with guidance and support from caring adults, he or she can learn to manage these emotions and live a more content and rewarding life.
Cynthia Wallace lives in New York State. She also wrote the Family Talk column "Safeguarding Children Online" in the October 2005 issue.
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