By Molly Breen
In Molly Bang’s beautifully illustrated book, When Sophie Gets Angry—Really, Really Angry . . . , we see the young title character process through various stages of nuanced anger. She is an enormous and destructive figure, a fire-breathing dragon, and a volcano ready to explode, among other things. We see Sophie embody the big feelings that are coursing through her nervous system after experiencing a disappointment.
When I read this story to my preschoolers, they are rapt, studying the illustrations with an intensity that can only be attributed to the familiar territory: everyone gets angry. But what does anger mean, and where does it begin?
In the midst of an emotional storm like Sophie’s, it can be hard for even the most enlightened and aware of us to sort through everything that is happening. We all certainly know adults who have challenges regulating their emotions—or even naming them—when the going gets tough.
What about young children? How can we help them build an emotional literacy that is both aware and nonjudgmental, equipping them for life challenges which range from the mundane to the major?
Like all the basic emotions, anger has many points of origin. What we generally observe are the associated active behaviors: shouting, physical aggression, crying, opposition, and so on. And whether we are teachers or parents (or both), we generally respond by trying to “fix,” or at the very least quiet, the angry feelings.
I would like to propose something radical instead. What if we were to acknowledge that anger, and its underlying more subtle emotions, is OKAY? Feeling angry is natural and normal. The active behaviors (acting angry) can take us by surprise, but we can differentiate: “It’s okay to feel angry, but it’s not okay to hit. Let’s figure out what you’re feeling and why.”
The next step in this approach is to listen for understanding: “Tell me more about what happened (or how you’re feeling).” And then actively listen and summarize: “You felt disappointed when your friend walked away with the ball while you were talking about the game. It hurt your feelings—is that it?”
When we summarize what we have heard (and, to be clear, if this is an altercation between two children, we have to listen to and summarize both sides), we can include more descriptive emotional language, like frustration, disappointment, guilt, shame, and jealousy, or even recategorize emotions as more sadness or fear than anger.
If we react too quickly and rush to calm children’s behavior, without reassuring them that it’s natural to have a response like anger, we may unintentionally send a message that 1) big feelings are not okay and, perhaps even more damaging, 2) the child is not okay.
In Fred Rogers’s famous 1969 testimony to Congress in defense of federal funding for public television, he ingeniously illustrates the importance of emotional intelligence and the content of his program with this song:
What do you do with the mad that you feel
When you feel so mad you could bite?
When the whole wide world seems oh, so wrong . . .
And nothing you do seems very right?
The song goes on to highlight the importance of two features of managing big feelings, and they still ring true today: coping (what do you do) and understanding/emotional literacy (nothing you do seems very right).
Although some of the language in the song is a bit dated, Mr. Rogers’s simple reassurance that we are not our feelings is a powerful message:
I can stop when I want to
Can stop when I wish
Can stop, stop, stop anytime.
And what a good feeling to feel like this
And know that the feeling is really mine.
This message is empowering to a child who may feel out of control. But if singing through this song isn’t in the cards when we are facing the wrath of an angry preschooler, we can still lean on the wisdom of Mr. Rogers and search for a solution with the child: “What can we do with the mad feelings right now?”
Experienced practitioners likely already have some calming techniques for preschoolers in their bag of tricks: breathing balls, glitter jars, fidgets, and even calming areas of the classroom. In our setting, we write angry notes (transcribing the actual words of an upset child onto paper), we do a body scan to ease physical tension, and use facial recognition posters to help us outwardly identify the internal experience.
Seeking out resources, such as Take Charge of Anger, that provide a social story and helpful lists of coping methods can ease the burden on teachers or parents to come up with new ideas.
The final piece of this radical approach to anger and other big feelings is to close the feedback loop during a neutral moment. Closing the loop means taking time to reflect on what happened before and to acknowledge that the big feelings have passed, and even think about what to do next time angry feelings come up.
During a calm moment, ask questions like, “Do you remember your angry feelings earlier? How are you feeling now?” These simple questions are just general enough to open the door for a little reflection and a reminder that we aren’t our emotions. Affirming statements like, “I knew you could figure out how to feel calm,” or, “I see that you are aware of your big feelings and how they come and go,” can help build up children’s confidence around navigating emotions.
In Sophie’s story, she spends some time alone to be angry, and then sad, and then hopeful and calm again. In the Mr. Rogers song, there is hope in the resolution that we are all growing toward a new version of ourselves—a better version—because we are allowed to feel all our feelings. And in our work with children, we must maintain a hopeful disposition about emotional development—our own and that of the children we work with. Take a radical approach to big feelings!
Molly Breen, M.A., ECE, has worked with kids and families for nearly two decades as an educator. A believer in lifelong learning, her heart is in early childhood, where the seeds of curiosity, character, and community are planted. Through her work with children as a practitioner in the classroom, Molly has developed broad expertise in curriculum development and instruction, behavior guidance, and social and emotional learning. In her role as a program director, she has created innovative approaches to professional and program development, family engagement, and community outreach. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with her husband and three kids.
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Such an amazing approach and article. I really appreciate your work.