By James J. Crist, Ph.D., author of Mad: How to Deal with Your Anger and Get Respect.
It seems that anger is becoming an increasingly troubling problem for today’s kids and teens. We hear of kids expressing their anger inappropriately, including awful acts of violence. I have heard from parents repeatedly in my practice that if they ever talked to their parents the way their kids talk to them, the consequences would have been so great that they’d never have dared to do so.
The causes for this are many. Today’s kids are facing much greater stress than most of us ever dealt with in our childhoods. Kids are exposed to graphic images on the news and Internet and routinely hear about war, riots, hate crimes, and school shootings. We’ve also seen a troubling increase in bullying and name-calling. Violence in video games is another concern. We know that when kids are exposed to violence, they are at greater risk to act out on it, although this does not apply to everyone. Finally, many parents don’t know how to react to their children’s anger without getting angry themselves. Fortunately, there is much that parents and teachers can do to help kids manage their anger more constructively.
Kids and teenagers get angry for many of the same reasons that adults do. Frustration at not being able to do something correctly and stress over feeling like there is not enough time to get schoolwork done are common sources of stress and anger. Not having control over things that happen to you or feeling unfairly treated cause anger. Conflict over possessions is a common theme in most families. Finally, feeling neglected can also cause anger. Let’s face it—parents spend less time with their kids than ever before due to competing pressures of work, long commutes, and home responsibilities. Kids are more likely to isolate themselves in front of various screens. This does not teach kids constructive coping strategies for dealing with stress or anger.
Anger in and of itself is not unhealthy. We are hardwired to respond with anger when we feel threatened. There is a lot of focus today on the biological underpinnings of human emotions. The amygdala in the brain is our fear switch and is triggered when we perceive a threat. Our brain responds by getting our muscles pumped up and our fists clenched, preparing us to fight or flee whatever danger we perceive. Unfortunately, these responses are not very helpful with the sources of today’s stresses. We also know that the frontal lobes of the brain, which are responsible for controlling the emotional parts of the brains, are not fully developed in kids and teenagers. That part of the brain does not mature until the early 20s.
Adults dealing with angry kids may have their own issues that make the situation harder. If you have your own issues with anger, such as overreacting to things and responding to frustration by yelling, it’s natural that your kids will respond similarly when they get angry. If you’re burned out with all the stresses you’re dealing with, your temper is going to be shorter. It’s simply human nature. If you expect your kids to obey you blindly without questioning, and don’t give them any input into decisions, you are more likely to get defiance and anger because kids also need to feel heard. Finally, if you’re suffering from disorders of your own such as ADHD or depression, you’re more likely to react impulsively.
Following are suggestions for helping kids deal with their anger.
- Showing that you can keep your cool, even when you’re frustrated, helps your children learn self-control. Responding calmly to your child’s anger is like using a fire extinguisher to put out a fire. If you are too angry to talk to your child at the time, it is perfectly fine to say to them, “I’m too mad to talk to you about this right now. I need to take some time first to calm down.”
- Redirecting your child’s anger is one of the most helpful strategies. Telling them, “Don’t you dare talk to me that way!” only provokes more anger. It’s more helpful to say, “I see how angry you are and I really want to hear about it. But I can’t listen when you’re yelling at me and saying mean things. If you can lower your tone and say it more respectfully, I’m happy to listen and see if we can figure something out together.”
- You can also practice anger management skills with your kids. Deep breathing, counting to ten, or going for a walk—or even doing fifty jumping jacks—are all ways of calming down. You can also teach kids how to think about things differently. Try asking your child, “Is there another way that you can think about this that might cause you to feel less angry about it?”
- Be sure to recognize and praise when your child is making attempts to control his or her anger. You can say “I see how angry you are and I really admire how hard you’re working and keeping it under control. I know it isn’t easy.”
- Finally, remember that learning to manage anger takes practice, and you and your children will make mistakes. Try to be as forgiving of their mistakes as you are of your own.
How do you help kids and teens cope with anger?
Dr. James J. Crist is a psychologist specializing in children with ADHD, depression, and anxiety disorders. He is the clinical director and a staff psychologist at the Child and Family Counseling Center in Woodbridge, Virginia, where he provides psychological testing and individual, couples, and family psychotherapy for children, adolescents, and adults. He has authored several books, including Mad: How to Deal with Your Anger and Get Respect and What to Do When You’re Cranky & Blue. Visit his website at jamescrist.com.
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