Change is difficult, especially for children! The “thinking” part of their brains is not completely developed yet and their emotions are immature. Although children are born with distinctive dispositions, they are effected by the emotional environment in which they are raised. Thus, parents are ultimately responsible for two levels of emotional inheritance; one nature, the other, nurture.
Genetic dispositions are more difficult to identify and control. However, environmental factors are more malleable. Generally, parents are aware that their emotions, like anger, effect their children’s emotional development. Many parents reach out for help to find emotional balance and self-regulation. As parents learn skills and change, their children change too. But learning new skills for changing behavior is not limited to parents. Children can learn anger management skills as well.
Here are 5 ways to assist your children toward self-regulated emotional selves:
- Identify emotions: Make or buy a set of feeling cards which show feeling faces with feeling words. Sit down with your child and have him pick out 3-6 cards that describe his feelings. Have him explain, “I felt angry when the teacher told me to stay in at recess because everybody else got to go outside.” Do this a couple times a week so that your child can integrate feeling language as well as expression. Make sure that you listen and accept whatever feelings your child expresses.
- Role Play: Since the fight or flight response is natural, we cannot deny the urge to express our feelings in certain ways. When we feel angry, we may want to hit or yell. It is very important to let children know that they are not crazy for feeling like this. But it is also just as important for them to understand that it’s not necessary to fight or flee when distressed. One way to demonstrate the alternative feeling choices is to role-play with them. Pick a feeling card and show how your body wants to react when you see the word. Act it out. Then act out alternative behaviors for that same feeling. Then let your child role play alternative actions to various feelings. As you come up with alternatives, write a list of behaviors or thoughts on the back of each feeling card.
- Self-Talk: Children experience self-talk early on. Self-talk often reflects the feeling tone of the environment of the child. One might live in a very positive environment and thus be enable to internally express positive statements. However, self-talk can also reflect the experience of a negative environment. For instance, an internal dialogue that states, “Mommy is so mean. This is so unfair. I hate life” can become “I’ve got to do better. I’m not good enough. Nobody understands me.” Children sometimes have difficulty becoming aware of their self-talk. I try to help them by describing the two sides of self-talk: positive and negative. As a way to grasp the concept of self-talk, I suggest they watch the movie The Emperor’s New Groove, where one of the characters, Kronk, demonstrates his positive and negative self-talk through an angel on one shoulder and a devil on his other shoulder. The angel and devil engage in a running dialog throughout the movie, which is very similar to our self-talk. Children tend to identify with this and it opens up a discussion about their own internal dialogue.
- Emotional Eclipse: “Catharsis” basically means the purging of emotions. Years ago, people were encouraged to punch pillows when angry as a cathartic way to release emotions. On further reflection and study, however, it was found that punching a pillow in anger only increased angry behavior! In fact, it was discovered that angry feelings were quelled and decreased when people relaxed, reflected and refocused. When I teach children how to choose calming behavior when they feel frustrated, I call it an emotional eclipse. Using my feeling cards, I show them how angry becomes calm. To help your child learn the emotional eclipse technique, write down a list of angry behaviors versus a list of calm behaviors. Show them how they can overcome a negative feeling with positive behavior and eventually they will learn greater control over their feelings. To demonstrate the behavioral control, I have children dance or jump up and down to music. They feel their energy increase, much like when they are angry. Their heart rate increases. Their body heats up. Then I turn off the music and we sit, breath and talk low and slow. Their heart rate decreases. Their body cools down. Children then understand how they can use calming behaviors to overcome their angry feelings.
- Ultimately, children learn through modeling. How do you express your sadness? What do you do when you feel angry? If you act in ways in which you discourage your children to act, then you need to address your own issues. You might talk to them about how you too have difficulty staying calm when angry and that you want to learn how to decrease your reactions as well. If you behave calmly when you’re angry, make sure you communicate how you stay calm. Talk your children through your internal processes. You might say, “I felt really upset today at the grocery store. I was in a hurry and the clerk short changed me. I had to go back in and get her to redo the transaction. I didn’t want to be rude so I had to cope with my frustration. I just kept telling myself, she didn’t do it on purpose. It doesn’t help to get angry. Feeling upset doesn’t get me on my way any faster.” Parents have a great impact on their children. Make sure your impact is effective.
These suggestions have helped many parents teach, coach and counsel their children. Remember that teaching your children about the world of emotions gives them the tools to take care of themselves, have successful relationships and reach their goals in life.
Laura Doerflinger, a licensed mental health counselor, and the author of the audio book, Emotionally Balanced Parenting.
Copyright 2008 Parent Education Group
[TIP: Teaching a child anger management skills doesn't have to be hard. You can get expert advice, as well as useful suggestions to make your job a whole lot easier by clicking here.]