I bet you’ve heard the story about the smart fish. If you haven’t, this is how it goes
(Important disclaimer: I did not write this metaphorical story and I have been unable to find the original version. This is my adapted version after reading one version of the story here):
There once lived a fisherman who would always fish at the same spot. Every day he’d go fishing, and every day he’d catch a fish. But the fish were soon onto his game. They began to notice that every time one of them would bite his bait, he would disappear.
The fish got very angry and decided to hurt the fisherman but they soon realized that to hurt him, they would have to let themselves get caught first. Bad idea. So they decided to come up with other solutions.
As they were looking at the fisherman’s bait, they saw that there was a hidden hook. They, therefore, decided to avoid the bait because if they bit it, they would surely be caught.
The next day the fisherman went fishing, he caught no fish – none of the fish would bite. He didn’t understand what was going on. How come the fish didn’t bite yet all the other days he had used the same bait and this had never failed to catch him fish. “I know what I’ll do”, he said to himself, “tomorrow I’ll put more bait.”
So determined was the fisherman to catch a fish that he put twice as much bait the next day. The fish were tempted and as they approached to taste the tasty bait, they remembered about the hook and swam away.
The fisherman was at his wit’s end. He didn’t know what to think. “I know what I’ll do,” he thought to himself, “I’ll put thrice as much bait.” But even with his new trick, the fisherman was unable to catch any fish. The fish knew that the fisherman was only baiting them.
The fisherman knew when he had lost. He realized that he would no longer be able to catch any fish at that spot. He packed up his fishing gear and changed spots, leaving the little fish in peace.
Teaching our kids to be “smart fish” is a difficult but important process.
Teaching them not only to “walk away” but also to develop a “toolkit” they can refer to when they need to manage strong emotions enables them to manage those emotions effectively in childhood years and beyond.
While teaching your child to manage her strong emotions better will not get rid of all meltdowns, it can give her the tools to communicate more effectively and reduce the frequency and intensity of what we often put down to acting-out.
Much evidence suggests that children who have learned to understand what triggers strong emotions such as anger and anxiety and respond to those emotions appropriately are more accountable.
They are also more likely to be happier and more successful in life. So how do you teach your child to become a “smart fish”?
First, a few things should be kept in mind:
- Teaching children to manage and respond appropriately to strong emotions is difficult and takes time. Practice makes perfect. Be patient.
- Some strategies will work better than others depending on your specific context. Fortunately, many strategies exist. Choose the ones that are most in line with your child’s personality.
- Talking about anger frequently but over short periods is likely to have better results that referring to anger management infrequently or over-focusing on anger management strategies.
Teaching children to manage anger and anxiety: 3 important phases
Helping your child identify emotions
Young children are not always able to differentiate between emotions. Teaching them about different emotions is the first step to help them understand those emotions in themselves and respond to them in appropriate ways.
Teaching a child about addressing strong emotions appropriately requires her to be aware of those emotions first. Simple games such as “The Emotions Game” are great to help kids talk about their emotions.
Introduce your child to different emotions when she’s calm rather than when she’s in the middle of a meltdown. Remember that there are resources to help, especially if your child is struggling with anger.
One activity you can try with your kids to help them learn to identify emotions is the “emotions detective” game
The emotions detective game
Teaching children about emotions by teaching them to observe other people is a fun way to help them identify and differentiate between different emotions.
First, you need to teach your child about the different emotions. Printable brightly colored cards with animals depicting different emotions are available here.
1) Choose an appropriate place to observe people. An appropriate place is where there are neither too many nor too few people.
2) Give your child an “emotions detective worksheet” or different cards or pictures portraying different emotions. A free printable worksheet can be downloaded here.
3) Ask your child to look for people with the emotions displayed on the worksheet or the cards.
4) To validate the response, ask your child what makes them think the emotions expressed correspond to what is displayed on the worksheet. For example, is the person crying, shouting, smiling, laughing, frowning, etc.
5) Relate the feeling to your child by asking when she felt that way and what she did.
6) You can also ask your child to make up a story about the people she observed explaining why they felt the way they did. Role-playing is a powerful tool to teach about emotions.
Helping your child understand what triggers strong emotions
One of the most effective ways to teach your child to manage his anger is to help him identify the triggers and to manage those triggers before they get out of hand.
Depending on their age, different activities can help children learn to identify their triggers. For example, an older child who is able to write can use an anger diary to learn about what makes him angry.
An anger diary
An anger diary is a useful tool that can help your child better understand what triggers her anger. It is best suited for older kids who can already write with ease.
Using an anger (or anxiety) diary
1) Give your child a diary and ask him to note down the things that make him angry or anxious every day.
Offer guidance by proposing what she should be attentive to:
• Exactly what happened?
• How did you feel?
• Rate your anger on a scale of 1 to 10
• How did your body feel (a headache, stomach ache, nervous, sweaty palms, heart racing)?
• What did you do?
2) Decide together the number of days your child has to note down his “anger or anxiety feelings”. For instance, he can note them for a week or 10 days.
3) When the period has elapsed, ask him to go through his diary and identify the most frequent triggers (the similarities). Tell him you’re available if he wants your help.
4) Ask him to write down what triggers his anger based on what he’s identified.
Helping your child identify appropriate ways to respond to anger and anxiety
Anger and anxiety are normal human reactions and can even be beneficial. Addressing these emotions is not about suppressing them: it is about teaching your child how to manage them effectively.
As far as possible, let your child choose her own calm-down strategy and propose many options to allow her to change if need be. If she’s having trouble choosing a strategy, don’t hesitate to propose something.
A calm-down jar is an effective tool which can help your child learn to manage her anger by herself. It is a jar in which you place different activities your child can refer to in order to manage strong emotions such as anger or anxiety.
The more ideas you have the better!
Brainstorm with your child and come up with appropriate and acceptable activities she can engage in when facing strong emotions.
Place the ideas in an easily accessible jar your child can use when need be.
An effective jar should have:
- Visually calming activities: sand-timer, sensory jar, indoor fountain, etc.
- Activities to unwind: Blow bubbles, blow a balloon, color a mandala, read a book, listen to music, etc.
- Activities to comfort: Favourite toys, hugs
- Activities to focus attention elsewhere: Painting, dot-to-dot pictures, whistling, etc
- Physical activities to release tension: skip rope, jump on a trampoline, push against a wall, etc.
- Things to hold or squeeze: Stress balls, slime, etc.
- Oral sensory activities: chew gum, apples, etc.
You can also use ready-made resources such as Temper Tamers In a Jar.
Although anger and anxiety are normal human reactions, they can also point to more serious issues that need professional intervention. It is important to know when to seek professional help.
If you’d like more practical ideas to help teach your kids to manage his or her difficult emotions more effectively, check out my Emotions Kit for Ages 4 to 9.