Step 1: Recognising and accepting anger
Possibly the worst thing you can say to someone who is angry, yet we've all said it. Think back to a time when you have been angry. Did 'calm down' help you to feel better? Usually it adds fuel to the fire!
Anger gets a lot of bad press. We see it as an ugly, negative emotion that is best avoided. Because of this we often feel its 'wrong' to be angry and afterwards there can be a sense of shame.
The thing is, its normal to feel angry and it is an emotion experienced by us all at some time or another. The very best way to help an angry child, or any angry person, is to validate how they feel. "I can see you feel angry right now...." "It's ok to feel angry right now..." "I know that [insert event/cause here] has made you feel angry right now and that's ok."
Taking this approach does 3 things: it names the emotion, it reassures the child that what they feel is okay and adding "right now" reinforces that this feeling is temporary, it may feel horrible but it will come to an end.
A good activity to do if you have a child struggling with anger at times, is to discuss how it feels in their body (do this at a time where they are feeling calm). Anger is an emotion that takes a physical toll on the body: tense muscles, headaches, feeling hot and sweaty amongst so many other physical reactions. At a time when your child feels calm, talk to them about how their body feels when they are angry. Do they clench their fists? Do they scowl? Does it cause them to cry and hide or jump up and want to fight?
Create an image similar to the ones below relating to your child. This will be a picture of their 'anger signals' so they know when they feel some of these physical reactions it means they are feeling angry. This is the first step in managing anger, it is very difficult to control an emotion if you cannot name it or cannot recognise the signals in your own body.
Step 2: Scaling the anger and knowing my triggers.
(Note: There are lots of images here - you don't need to use them all - they are just examples - choose what works for you and your child)
Once your child can understand what anger feels like in their body and can identify anger as an emotion we can begin to try and manage it.
It is important to scale anger - some things cause irritation, others frustration. By scaling you have more control over preventing some huge blow outs whilst helping your child to take action before their feelings lead them to feel out of control.
Get your child to think of lots of different words relating to anger (e.g - frustrated, stressed, annoyed, fed up, irritated, out of control, furious) or alternatively, provide them with these words on post its or slips of paper. Put them in order from most angry to least. Discuss what sorts of things cause them to feel these emotions you could offer suggestions (see examples in photos) if your child isn't very forthcoming. Include Covid 19 related things such as: not seeing friends, being at home all the time, not going to school, learning at home etc. Some things will cause mild anger, others may cause fury. These are known as your child's triggers.
Use one of the templates to create a 5 point scale or feelings thermometer. You don't have to include all the words you have previously discussed, just the 3 'angry' words that resonate most with your child and then something like 'okay' and 'great/relaxed and happy.' As long as they are scaled these will work.
Next to the feelings on your scale/thermometer jot down some of the triggers that invoke these feelings. This scale/thermometer now provides you with an insight to how your child's angry outbursts can build up and help to build self awareness in your child. Place this scale/thermometer in an easy to access, visible place (on the fridge is great!)
Any time your child appears angry or irritated or you notice one of their anger triggers has occurred/bothered them, refer to their scale. "How are you feeling? Where on the scale are you?" This allows you to nip anger in the bud rather than allowing it to build up to them feeling furious and out of control. They could say "I'm at 3, I'm feeling irritated," or "I'm at 4, I'm stressed out." At this point you need to validate their feelings: 'I can understand why you are stressed out right now, as you are finding this maths work hard and miss your teacher." Avoid discussing the trigger too much. Keep communication short and sweet here - your child won't be in the right frame of mind to talk about the problem too much. Suggest an activity that may help them to calm down and move down the scale (without actually saying those dreaded words "calm down"). Activities like listening to music, going for a run/walk, calling a friend.
Once your child appears less angry, return to the scale. Ask again how they are feeling so that you can check they feel better and also so they know that their uncomfortable angry feeling really was temporary. It is when your child is feeling calmer (1 or 2 on the scale) that you can then offer to discuss what happened further.
Step 3: Calming strategies for anger and adding them to the scale
Once you have your scale and have identified your child's triggers for each stage, you can add calming strategies to it. This is really a trial and error exercise as it will take time to find out which strategies actually work.
If a child is mildly irritated, the strategy can be a relatively short one (maybe counting to 10 with deep breaths in between). If your child is furious/at the top of their anger scale, the calming strategy will likely take longer and you may even need multiple strategies. Strategies that tend to work here are things like going for a walk, jumping on the trampoline, walking away and having some quiet alone time (as long as it takes for them to feel calmer).
These images show ideas for strategies and also an example scale with strategies attached (some strategies are repeated lots but there are a range across the images). It's really important that you discuss with your child which strategies they think may help them. Refer back to your drawing of how anger feels in their body. If their heart races then a physical strategy will help, if they become very teary then quiet alone time is likely to be more useful.
These scales and strategies will not work instantly. They have to be practiced and used consistently when your child feels angry/frustrated/irritated. You may need to change strategies sometimes, or have more than one for each scale level for your child to choose from.
Once used and practiced, these scales become your child's support and guide in identifying how they feel, why they feel that way and how to help themselves feel better and move down the scale.
Step 4: Talking through and reflecting upon an angry episode with your child
Talking to a child during an angry episode doesn't usually help the situation. Even if your child has acted unreasonably or their angry behaviour has caused you to feel frustration, discussing it in the heat of the moment is likely to make matters worse. Angry behaviours are likely to escalate.
It is more effective to discuss what happened with your child later on, once they are calm. The best approach is one where you let the child reflect on their behaviour themselves rather than tell them what went wrong. They are more likely to learn from the experience this way.
Anger is just the tip of the iceberg that we can see. Very often, there are a host of other emotions below the surface. If we use this reflection time to tell the child off and shame them for their anger, they probably won't feel comfortable to discuss any underlying worries or emotions. Having a discussion where they are encouraged to express their point of view is more effective in getting to the root of the anger.
If your child has used their scale and strategies to help calm themselves down, make sure you praise them for it. In this case, the discussion needs to just be going over what happened. Ask: How did you feel before? What caused you to feel that way? How do you feel now? What helped you to feel better? Give your child a hug and let them know that they did the right thing. Reinforce again that it is okay to be angry and that choosing to use their strategies was the right choice.
If your child has 'lost control' and has behaved in a way that has hurt themselves, another person or damaged property, then your discussion will be a bit longer. Ask: How did you feel before? What caused you to feel that way? Do you think you acted reasonably? What could you have done differently?How do you feel now? What can you do now to 'fix' it? The fix it here is usually an apology. You need to praise your child for being sensible and talking over the situation even though it was difficult. Give them a big hug and explain that its okay to feel angry but we must try and make the right behaviour choices to keep everybody safe. If their behaviour during their angry episode was very poor then you may also want to apply a sanction/consequence. Its important you do this with a clear reason why. Example: "Because you hit your brother, you need to have a time out and write him an apology." Reassure them that if they use their strategies next time they feel angry, they could avoid a repeat of what has just happened.
Two important things:
1. If your child throughout this discussion is becoming angry or is very reluctant, consider returning to the talk later on. You could also consider asking them to use drawings/writing to work through the reflection themselves, then bring that to share with you (I'll upload a template). They may find this easier than talking.
2. Once the discussion is over, its over. Try your best not to keep referring back and talking about the episode. If we keep bringing it back up or 'over talk' it then we run the risk of invoking shame and undoing all the positive work.
Please note that the advice here is just guidance. Its a suggestion of something you can try if you feel you need an approach to support you and your child with bouts of anger. There may be times that it won't always work or you try to implement it and feel you are not getting it right. Please don't beat yourselves up - you are all doing a brilliant job in unprecedented circumstances.