Sometimes, conventional parenting strategies just don’t work. Or they’ll work with one kid and completely backfire with another. When my son was younger, simply threatening to throw away all toys not put back in the toy chest was enough to get him to tidy up in record time. The first time we tried the same tactic with our daughter, she asked us whether she could help put the toys in the dustbin!
So, raised by the same parents under similar conditions, two different kids may respond differently to the same strategies. This can be especially frustrating when it comes to dealing with anger in children.
When handling issues revolving around discipline and anger, most parents use the same conventional methods: they yell, use time-outs or punish. Sometimes your child will be happy to get sent to his/her room. Sometimes he/she will remain unperturbed, no matter how loudly you yell. Sometimes, punishment will not lead to what you seek.
Conventional methods don’t always work. So, where do you turn to calm your child down when all else has failed?
Managing your child’s anger using “unconventional” strategies
1) The anger stone. I found out about anger stones from Darlene Riddell who would propose a shiny agate to calm angry children in her class when she was working as a teacher. An anger stone is a stone (although it could really be anything) that you give to your child and ask him/her to rub until the anger leaves.
If you decide to use an anger stone, place it where your child can easily access it by him/herself. Explain to him/her that, as soon as he/she starts to feel angry, he/she can fetch the anger stone and rub it to take the anger away.
2) A bag of nails. A bag of nails is a lovely idea I first heard about from Jon Davis who borrowed it from the Buddhist story below
“Once upon a time there was a little boy with a bad temper. His father gave him a bag of nails and told him that every time he lost his temper, he should hammer a nail in the fence. The first day the boy had driven 37 nails into the fence. But gradually, the number of daily nails dwindled down. He discovered it was easier to hold his temper than to drive those nails into the fence. Finally the first day came when the boy didn’t lose his temper at all. He proudly told his father about it and the father suggested that the boy now pull out one nail for each day that he was able to hold his temper. The days passed and the young boy was finally able to tell his father that all the nails were gone. The father took his son by the hand and led him to the fence. “You have done well, my son, but look at the holes in the fence. The fence will never be the same. When you say things in anger, they leave a scar just like this one. You can put a knife in a man and draw it out, it won’t matter how many times you say ‘I’m sorry’, the wound is still there.” Source
“A bag of nails” is really about teaching your child to express his/her anger and understand that anger can be poisonous. It is about helping your child learn how to react to anger and more importantly, how to let go of anger.
3) A calm-down jar. A calm-down jar is a jar containing appropriate ways in which a child can handle her anger. Brainstorming with your child about what goes into the calm-down jar helps her gain awareness of socially acceptable ways in which anger can be expressed.
Think of activities that have calming effects (for example colouring mandalas – you can download mandalas for free here or you can obtain a paperback version here – or sports such as jumping on the trampoline, riding a bike, etc.)
4) Hug your child. Anger and frustration are normal when your child is acting up. If you’re like most parents, you can relate to yelling in response to your child’s tantrums. The last thing you might want to do is to hold and hug your child in such a situation. Some parents have found that hugging a child when he/she is going though a bout of anger helps calm both child and parent. The next time your child is angry, get down to his/her level and try a hug. Don’t let go even when he/she tries to get away. Your child will eventually calm down in your arms.
5) Talk to your child. Talking, really talking, to your child is a powerful tool because it offers a mirror on his/her inner life.
Everyone knows that “How was school today?” or “What did you do in school today” are often terrible conversation starters (the first will often be met with “fine”, and the second, “nothing”!). Having a conversation means making it a habit to take some time and talk to your child about everything and nothing.
Talk to him about your feelings and about anger-arousing situations. Talk to him about your day, about how you dealt with anger or other emotions during your day. Ask him about his feelings. What made him happy/unhappy? How would you have dealt with it? Language is a powerful tool to help your child express himself and prevent anger from building up.
Regularly speaking to your child provides him with a safe emotional climate which allows your child to freely and appropriately express different emotions. You can read about just how powerful language is in the research here.
Don’t ignore anger in children, especially when frequent and accompanied by inappropriate behaviour such as biting, spitting and hitting. Don’t hesitate to ask for professional help if nothing seems to work with your child.
Understanding children’s anger
Anger in children is a normal human expression. It is a channel through which children express different feelings and is often manifested through tantrums, aggression, screaming or sulking. Behaviour such as biting, spitting and hitting is normal, but it is inappropriate behaviour in children. It reflects a child’s inability to express his/her emotions in a socially acceptable manner.
Much evidence suggests that most inappropriate expressions of anger are linked to children’s inability to identify their feelings and respond to those feelings in appropriate ways. (You can read about those studies here and here). Children who have learned to express anger in a negative manner will most likely resort to aggression or other negative ways when confronted with a frustrating situation. One of the most effective ways in which you can help angry children manage their emotions effectively is by helping them practice self-regulation. Self-regulation is about being aware of different emotions and the appropriate ways in which to express them. I have written a post about this which you can access here.
Is your child struggling with anger and anxiety? Join my free 4-week email course to get tools and resources to help him/her learn to identify and manage anger and anxiety.