Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned. —Siddhartha Gautama Buddha
If you know how to recognize when you are in a fight-or-flight mode, you can turn it into choice instead . . . Choosing a response gives you power. Reaction takes your power away. —Naomi Drew in The Kids’ Guide to Working Out Conflicts
As my friends and I are leaving a gathering shortly after midnight, I see two boys riding bikes down the nearly empty street. A police car flags them down. One teen stops, grumbling loudly that he “wasn’t doing anything wrong.” But the kid on the blue bike takes off through the yards, trying to become invisible in the night. We linger, watching, wondering why the officer pulled them over. The boy who stopped is angry, telling the officer that he and his friend were just heading home from a friend’s house, having fun biking down streets often too congested for bikers. He is struggling to keep his temper in check, but managing. The officer asks him why his friend took off but gets no reply.
Soon another police car pulls up, bike in trunk and the other boy in the backseat. After some radio discussion, both boys are released. The first officer gives some words of advice—something about not running for no reason, but it sounds like dribble to the kids. As they begin to bike off, the one on the blue bike yells at his buddy for not joining the fun and taking off, too. “Let’s just forget it and get home,” is the only reply he gets.
The next day, local news tells of three police cars in our precinct being spray painted in the early morning hours. Surveillance video shows a boy or young man on a blue bike leaving the lot. It is an assumption, but I suspect we saw the beginning of that story earlier. The confrontation with the police officer seemed to anger both boys, but one took the path of dealing with it head on and letting go, while the other reacted impulsively and ran. If he is found to be the vandal, the consequences are about to get a lot bigger.
Keeping one’s cool when faced with a conflict is a learned skill. It is emotionally challenging, and our bodies react with adrenaline—that fight-or-flight sense of action can arise quickly. Kids may need help understanding that this reaction is natural. Learning that they can choose what to do with all that energy the adrenaline gives can be empowering. Something made the first boy keep his anger in check. He seemed to put his anger on “pause” and waited to see how the confrontation resolved. The other kid let the flight response escalate his feelings, and it increased the officer’s reactions.
Last year, National Geographic explored “The New Science of the Teenage Brain.” Recent research shows that the part of the brain that helps connect action and consequence is still developing and does not mature until the early to mid-twenties. Novelty, excitement, and risk are traits often valued by teens. The joy of risk-taking outweighs the possible effects of the risk. It is like the teenage brain lacks a “pause” button. But the same research shows that the adolescent brain may be more adaptive than an adult brain. With practice, teens can apply the same reasoning that adults do, even when angry, and make choices after considering consequences.
It is heartening to hear that, despite teen brains being wired differently, they are marvelously adaptive. Learning to temper reactions and resolve conflict is a big part of maturing. Teaching ways to keep it cool by taking a break to rethink the fight-or-flight reaction can help keep kids safe and sane while their brains are still developing.
What techniques have you found that help kids respond to their own feelings of anger?
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The Kids’ Guide to Working Out Conflicts: How to Keep Cool, Stay Safe, and Get Along by Naomi Drew, M.A.
A Leaders’ Guide to The Kids’ Guide to Working Out Conflicts by Naomi Drew, M.A.
“Beautiful Brains” by David Dobbs, National Geographic Magazine, October 2011
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