Over the years, I’ve had dozens of counseling referrals for students who are “Just so angry”.
At one point, as many as 60% of the kids who were coming to my school counseling office were there because of some expression of anger.
It’s easy then to think that the easiest solution would be to teach them not to be angry. But we can thank the Disney/Pixar film, Inside Out for teaching us that anger is a natural emotion. The goal is not to eliminate the emotion but teach appropriate methods of managing and/or expressing anger. The best way to do that is through coping skills.
Coping skills are all about teaching children to do three things.
- Be aware of emotion.
- Be equipped with tools to manage emotions.
- Be willing to use the tools when needed.
Emotional awareness is when children understand what they feel and can express to others what they need. The best tip for adults witnessing emotional challenges in kids is to reflect what you see and name the emotion. From that point, modeling new skills and reinforcing the use helps imprint healthy self-regulation. Add a little self-disclosure like, “I get angry when someone breaks something that belongs to me too.” Without minimizing the feelings, you are able to often times deescalate the behavior that is being triggered and teach skills in the same interaction.
Often, I find that some of the most challenging behaviors that parents want to end, like disrespect, defiance or even aggression are often linked to kids who don’t know how to cope with what they feel.
So what coping skills should you begin with? Here are 6 that are a great start.
Breathing. This is the easiest place to start since we all do this all the time. Breathing, deep breathing, controlled breathing, round breathing, square breathing so many different methods of breathing. While older kids can follow the directions, your youngest kids only need to practice taking in air, slowly and consistently to reduce things like anxiety, blood pressure and the physical symptoms of anger and even aggression. Something as simple as blowing bubbles or making a wish with a flower can illustrate the point well. I loved the book Why Smart Kids Worry, check out this video below where the author describes the technique of square breathing.
Music. This is another easy one. Kids like music and it’s super easy to use music to change moods. Teaching kids to proactively pick music that they can use when they need to boost a mood or calm a worried heart can be as simple as asking them how the song they are listening makes them feel. As they pick words, talk about a song that always makes you smile or reminds you of a happy time, this is an easy connection to make.
Physical activity. Many people know now that physical aerobic activity like running, yoga or even walking can stimulate the production of anti-depressant chemicals in the brain and boost moods, but the awesome news now is that as little as 10 minutes of activity can impact the brain. Ask a sad kid to go for a walk with you or put on a song and dance around the living room for a few.
Progressive muscle relaxation. There is probably no less effective tool to help kids relax than telling them to relax. Making them aware of how to relax takes a conscious effort. This takes a little longer and can be harder for young kids to remember but the results are amazing. By slowly, in a very calculating way, progressively tensing and relaxing each group of muscles in the body to encourage true relaxation. You can practice this on your own, by making a fist, holding it briefly, then relaxing your hand. Doing this will all the major muscles in the body will make you aware of where you are tense and help you release that tension.
Visualization. This is again a more time consuming tool, but one that kids can use in a completely invisible from the rest of the world. By having a mental picture, in as much detail as possible, of a pleasant, happy or font memory, kids can learn to go to that place in their mind when they need to relax. This typically works better when you have prepared by picking a “happy place” in advance. Try and include sensory information as kids describe this place.
What does it smell like where you are?
Tell me about the things you see.
Is there anyone there with you?
What colors do you see?
Anchor Item. This generally happens more organically, but can be encouraged by having prepped items available. An anchor item, which can help a child feel grounded, be a needed sensory input or even remind them of a person or place they miss can be as simple as a stuffed toy or a picture. The use of the item is often not possible, for example at school, so this would be an option, but also discuss with your child when this won’t work or what they can do if the object is unavailable.
Teaching coping skills is a key component of Unlocking Better Behavior. If behavior is an issue in your home, check out this course for more tips to make things better fast.