Calming the angry child

By Kathy Kuhl

How do you help an angry child? To help the child exercise self-control, we have to control ourselves, keep everyone safe, and then consider what will settle them.

One mother I interviewed for Homeschooling Your Struggling Learner told a story illustrating this. At a playground, a child took something from her son. He shoved the other child, and both started crying. Though her son had done wrong, the mother knew that with his disabilities, she first had to hold him firmly to help him calm down. To the other playground moms, it looked like she was hugging her son for being aggressive. She was not!

In my last post, I described helping children recognize and name feelings, understand they can have several feelings at once, and talk out their feelings, as first steps to managing those emotions. Here are some other strategies:

  1. Recognize their stress:

Children with learning challenges face many frustrations. Some days when I asked my son to put away his backpack after school, he would explode. His reading teacher understood. “He’s emotionally exhausted,” she explained.

That was one reason I began to homeschool, to reduce his stress. Homeschooling reduces stress (for parents, too, according to other parents I interviewed), but doesn’t eliminate it. Don’t forget how hard trying to write, struggling to read, or straining to remember can be. So help your child to:

  1. Reduce their stress
  • Make sure your child gets plenty of exercise. It will help them feel happier. It will help them sleep—which makes it easier for them to regulate their emotions. It will also help the child with AD/HD or other attention problems improve their ability to focus.
  • Let your child get outdoors. Unstructured outdoor play lets a child imagine and manage instead of always being managed: even if all they control is their toy trucks in the sandpit.
  • Consider getting a pet. Petting or sitting with the animal is very soothing.
  • Look for ways to reduce stress in your homeschool. For example, eliminate timed math facts tests for the child with math learning disabilities. Incorporate math games in your drills instead.
  1. Let your child find imperfect solutions to what’s angering them.

If you’re like me, you always want the best for your child. Sometimes that costs you an opportunity to let them solve problems. John Gottman’s book, Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, has an excellent section on encouraging kids to consider their proposed solutions.

I admit sometimes when my young son would come up with a second-rate solution to a problem, I’d be very quick to point out its drawbacks. But I’m learning we don’t always have to do it my way.

It’s helpful to look at solutions on a continuum. We should insist our kids not commit immoral acts or act violently against others. We don’t want our kids to break the law, either. But other things they choose to do in their anger may only be unwise or somewhat ineffective or, from our perspective, second-best.

Temple Grandin and Sean Barron’s book, Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships, has an interesting chapter on managing anger, including short pieces from several adults with autism.

What surprised me was some of the solutions these adults employed. Dr. Grandin, for instance, was infuriated by people driving fuel-guzzling SUVs, but she said she might express that anger by putting notes on their windshields: “GAS HOG! OINK! OINK!” Or she might imagine creating customized license plate holders with a snout and pig-tail. These humorous ideas calm her.

She also suggests walking away from deliberately provoking people, complaining to a friend about a difficult client, and best of all, “having lots of interesting things to do with interesting people.”

Other contributors to that chapter suggest diffusing their anger with creativity. Some try to breathe slowly or keep a small beloved object in a pocket so they can touch it and be soothed.

Writer Jennifer McIlwee Myers, diagnosed with AS at age thirty six, recorded her strategy of journalling:
I will write down all of the things I think I should do about it and the particulars of who is wrong about things. I then put these notes away for consideration after a good night’s sleep. This way I know I will still remember all of the ‘brilliant’ thoughts associated with my anger and will be able to make use of them later. When it is later, I usually realize that all of my ideas were pretty unrealistic and overwrought.” (p. 360).

How do you help your child manage anger? Please comment below.

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