This summer, like summers before, when it gets hot outside, tempers heat up too. Drama resides where people, especially children, are close together. Drama of any type can cause emotional hurt, and emotional hurt is typically a trigger for emotions to escalate quickly.
Our hot emotion is anger and it is a learned behavior. Our role models—parents, teachers, coaches— teach us how to express anger. Children, as well as adults, come into situations with a wide variety of all these learned behaviors. In addition, our society also has a great impact on how we react when we feel wronged. Revenge has become our societal norm. Situations often end in tragic events because hurt people turn their thinking brain off in reaction to some anger trigger. They then decide to hurt others before they can be hurt again. We now have an eye for an eye mentality, and this has escalated to the point that every day we have “breaking news”. Even more concerning is that we seldom stop to really listen to the tragedies reported in the media, as these stories have become our new societal norm too.
Anger is often thought of as a substitute emotion. People get angry so they do not have to feel the pain associated with the cause of what triggered the anger. This person can project the pain onto someone else to further remove their own pain. All the underlying anguish of sadness, frustration or isolation can lead to anger becoming a habit. It is a habit for self-preservation.
We must remember that anger is both helpful and hurtful. Anger is helpful when our thinking brain is turned on because it helps us stand up for our self. On the other hand, anger can be hurtful because it can trigger others to become angry too and angry people can get out-of-control. When control is lost and our thinking brain is turned off, this intense rage can lead to catastrophic reactions and violence.
The good news is that each of us can play a part in the solution to end violence and we begin with our own family. If we train ourselves to handle anger in a constructive rather than destructive way, then we can model and teach others to practice anger management skills. Our family atmosphere allows each child to witness alternative ways to deal with negative emotions in an appropriate manner.
We must give our child confidence by establishing the parent as the leader. We cannot be dominating or overly critical of children. To maintain the child’s confidence, praise good behavior – instead of only criticizing bad behavior. Discuss with all children the rights of others and courtesies due them. Talk about the little triggers that may anger people. For instance, anger is triggered if someone is taking things without asking, invading someone else’s personal space, talking poorly about them or their situations. We need to teach children how to ask for what they need. For example, “I feel angry when you go in my room to get something without asking. Would you please ask to use it instead of just taking it?” Let the child know others will be more accepting if each child asks for what they need and maintains self-control.
The next step is to develop strategies for the family to deal with anger at its onset so that the child will stay in control of volatile feelings. Take a few deep breaths and think before reacting.
This is how we keep our thinking brain turned on and involved. Some people still count to ten and the purpose is to slow down the anger-reaction process. Removing themselves from what is triggering their anger or trying to find something funny in the situation also slows down the reaction. Give permission to your children to create workable options for them—for example, the child may use exercise such as walking or running to calm down. If in a place where immediate exercising is not an option then show the child how muscle tightening and relaxation will promote tension release. Encourage the use of music to improve their mood. Any one of these strategies will work at some time or other. Encourage your children to try them all.
Communication is the key to real anger management. Staying close to the situation and trying to understand the circumstances may prevent a situation from getting out-of-control. An angry person who is talking has their thinking brain turned on and will not escalate as quickly to irrational behavior. Parents need a unified response which sends a message to the child that this behavior is not acceptable and will be dealt with appropriately.
- If children are fighting—verbally or physically, separate them immediately. Let your voice show calm, mature authority.
- Do not allow any angry verbal exchanges, and physically remove each of them to a “safe distance” apart from each other.
- Attempt to give them time to cool down. Watch facial expressions to indicate less tension.
- Calmly discuss the situation separately with each individual child. There are always two sides to every story, and the truth is likely some place in the middle. Hold a face-to-face conversation where each child describes their version without interruption from the other. Emphasize resolving the problem, not placing blame. Attempt to help each see the other side, then reconcile differences.
- Give a logical consequence if clear provocation can be established. Aim for a make-up plan and guide the true victim to assist with the consequences. Consequences must be consistent, creative and caring and it must be seen as such by those involved.
A child needs structure and they need to know what to expect in order to feel safe with their thoughts and actions.
Uninterrupted anger will always over-ride rational thought and turn off our thinking brain. In our families, we must teach children to keep their thinking brain turned on by putting focus on the situation without taking it personally, and understanding why they are feeling angry. Help children learn to think before reacting. Help them gather complete evidence about the situation before accusing or attacking someone and help them realize there are different ways to look at difficult situations. In the heat of the moment, the challenge is to see the other person’s point of view. Teach the child that there are levels of reaction to a conflict or situation. They must understand that if they allow their emotions to dictate their actions, and resort to inappropriate or aggressive actions, there may be severe consequences from authorities. A child must develop the ability to ask, “Is the result of my actions worth the consequences of possible damage to my future or my reputation?”.
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