By Barbara Gruener
Okay, I’ll admit it: When I was growing up, I had no idea how to deal with my anger well. Not one little bit. During my formative years, I was sent to my room to get over my bad attitude more times than I care to admit. (Bad attitude was code for being angry.) It was so out of control that when I got to college, I overheard my sister warn my roommates: Just don’t make her mad.
I shudder to think back to those years, but I share my story to give you a glimpse at why it’s so important to me that children learn at an early age how to process their feelings in healthy ways, especially those uncomfortable ones like frustration and anger.
Looking back, I wish I’d had someone to talk through those emotions with me, to validate and normalize those wayward thoughts, to help me understand how the thoughts were connected to my feelings, and to teach me to recognize the physical cues that my anger was starting to boil. Without that point person, I was secluded in my sanctuary, where my number one bad-attitude-busting coping skill was journaling. I wrote letters, I made lists, and I scribbled. Furiously. And super hard. I found it soothing to scream and shout through the pen. When words escaped me, I drew pictures. Pictures of storms like the one raging inside of my head, heart, and hands. I found strength in the power of the pen to stay mindfully aware of what was happening in the moment and to lean into the pain of my anger appropriately.
Another therapeutic resource that I turned to during those angry years was music. Listening to new-age music during those times alone in my room helped me de-escalate and find my way back from my explosive emotions. As an alternative, I would go to my piano and bang away on the keys, furiously fingering the ivories, and emoting like crazy, until the chaos in my soul was released and a calm would move from my heart through my head to my fingertips, the tune being played changing to match my mood. Turns out, music is an instrumental way to stay fully present and in the moment as we process our uncomfortable feelings.
A third strategy that helped me work through anger was physical activity. I’d put on my workout clothes, lace up my shoes, and go running, jump rope, get on the swing in our barn’s hayloft, or hop on my bike and ride away my frustrations. It’s no secret that exercise feels good, but it also has benefits for our brains. Dr. John Medina, author of Brain Rules, likens physical activity to cognitive candy, so it follows that moving can serve as a healthy response to cognitively understanding our explosive emotions.
As you might imagine, my Mount Vesuvius behavior eventually landed me in therapy, during which a wise counselor challenged me to think about anger not as something that I was choosing, but rather as an emotion that was choosing me. He added not to think of anger as good or bad, but just to accept it as it is. What’s important, he repeatedly reminded me, is how we react when anger attaches itself to us. Once I learned some additional coping strategies to keep my angry feelings in check, life started to feel so much better for me because relationships became easier to make and keep.
What are some other ways in which we might help our children process their big feelings of frustration and anger? When we know how we want to handle our anger and when we practice these calming resources ahead of time, we’ll be more equipped to choose an effective technique when anger threatens to overcome and overwhelm us.
Ask students to highlight at least five strategies from this list that they might be willing to try next time the angries sneak up and choose them.
- Talk it out with someone you trust.
- Go to a calm-down corner and wrap up in a weighted blanket.
- Soak in a warm bath; blow bubbles for an added deep-breathing benefit.
- Take a run through a nature preserve or a park.
- Squeeze a stress ball or manipulate play dough, putty, or clay.
- Watch something funny and laugh (out loud!).
- Punch a punching bag, pillow, mattress, or couch.
- Slowly count up to 10 (or 50 or 100) and back down again.
- Take deep cleansing breaths. Exhale for twice as long as you inhale.
- Spend some time with a pet or a favorite stuffed animal.
- Go outside for fresh air; find a swing or a rocker to soothe you.
- Dance. Make it silly. Or serious. Or both.
- Walk briskly around a labyrinth or a track.
- Bake something. Then share it with someone special.
- Do 100 jumping jacks. Add push-ups or other exercise as needed.
- Dig in the dirt or do some weeding outside in a flower or vegetable garden.
- Paint or engage in meditative coloring.
- Use fuse beads to create something. Ask a parent to iron it for you.
- Breathe with intention through your favorite yoga stretches or poses.
- Write a poem or a story.
- Sing your favorite song. Or hum or whistle.
- Make a list of everything you’re grateful for.
- Scent rice or cotton balls with essential oils to run your fingers through.
- Go for a swim. Or just find a strong waterfall to listen to and enjoy.
- Escape with a good book.
Once students have identified the strategies they’d be willing to try, encourage them to identify two additional strategies not on the list that they think could also help them.
Since anger tends to choose us based on the thoughts we have about something that doesn’t quite seem right to us, one final suggestion to stay in the moment while processing anger is to unlock those thoughts with thought-stopping or thought-switching. To thought-stop, say “Stop” out loud each time your mind takes you back to the angry thought. If simply telling your brain to stop thinking something isn’t quite sufficient, try switching the thought to something more pleasant. Looking for the bright side, the blessings in the burden, isn’t easy to do, especially in the throes of anger, but with practice, it can be an effective way to understand, embrace, and walk through those difficult emotions without judgment before they get you sent to your room.
Consider these picture books to mindfully increase emotional literacy.
- Cool Down and Work Through Anger by Cheri J. Meiners, M.Ed.
- Danny, the Angry Lion by Dorothea Lachner
- Grandfather Gandhi by Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus
- Mouse Was Mad by Linda Urban
- The Forgiveness Garden by Lauren Thompson
- Visiting Feelings by Lauren Rubenstein
- What Does It Mean to Be Present? By Rana DiOrio
Currently in her 34th year as an educator, Barbara Gruener, a school counselor and character coach at Bales Intermediate School in Friendswood, Texas, has had the pleasure of working with kids from every grade level. Author of the blog The Corner on Character and the book What’s Under Your Cape? SUPERHEROES of the Character Kind, Barbara enjoys positively influencing change through her inspirational keynotes and interactive workshops. When she’s not working, you can bet Barbara is knitting, baking, writing, reading, walking, gardening, napping, or spending time with her husband and their three children.
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