Dealing with a child prone to anger can feel like being on a roller-coaster ride. The highs can be exceptionally high, and the lows can make you weep. While anger in children is often an expression of powerful emotions such as frustration, sadness and anxiety, failing to help your child get these emotions under control can have disastrous results.
There is much evidence to suggest that encouraging self-regulation in children can be effective in teaching them self-control. A recent study found that young children who are able to listen, pay attention, follow instructions and persist with given tasks even when faced with huge challenges achieved greater success in school. McClelland, one of the authors of the study, asserts that self-regulation is about being able to listen, pay attention, think and then act.
According to Professor Adele Diamond, to help a child develop his/her cognitive skills, the three components below must be taken into account:
a) Self-control, i.e., the ability to do what is appropriate rather than what one wants to do. This includes keeping to the task at hand, reducing impulsive behaviour, and being able to pay attention despite distractions.
b) Working memory, i.e., “holding information in mind while mentally working on it or updating it.” Working memory enables individuals to see things from different perspectives and to develop creativity.
c) Cognitive flexibility is about being able to think outside the box. It involves creative problem-solving.
So how can you help?
1) Encourage your child to express him/herself
Professor Diamond asserts that putting feelings into words can help your child develop self-regulation. Many childhood professionals agree that the problems children experience are often linked to their inability to express themselves. Replaying hidden memories can also help your child change his/her perceptions associated with specific negative memories.
What can you do? Encouraging your child to express his/her feelings and say out loud how he/she should react to them is one effective way of developing self-regulation. It’s not always easy to get younger children to express themselves. Speaking aloud to stuffed animals can be an effective way of helping them get into the habit of expressing themselves. With older children, it is important to explain. For instance, you could tell them how speaking aloud will improve their ability to remember.
2) Develop your child’s emotional intelligence
Developing your child’s emotional intelligence means
- Teaching him/her to accurately identify his/her emotions and those of others.
- Teaching him/her to express feelings appropriately
- Accepting responsibility for his/her emotions
What Can You Do? Children with poor self-regulation often have difficulty calming down when they are upset. Frequently discuss with your child how important it is to express one’s feelings. Help your child recognise different kinds of feelings. There are great resources such as Feelings flashcards that are great at illustrating different moods.
Help your child learn to identify warning signs and healthy ways he/she can express those feelings. Help him/her pair specific feelings to specific reactions. For instance, when I start to get angry, I go and ride my bike. When I start to get bored, I watch a DVD.
You could also start a “chill-out jar” in which you and your child come up with appropriate responses to anger (for example, ride my bike, paint, watch a DVD, colour a mandala, etc.). Every time your child starts to get angry, he/she can reach into the jar and pick out one appropriate response to do.
3) Manage your child’s stress
It is difficult for children to develop cognitive skills when they are experiencing anxiety or stress.
What can you do? Exercises such as breathing exercises, relaxation, imagination and distraction have been found to be effective in calming children.
Mandalas have also been found to be an excellent art therapy for anxious children. A mandala is a circular complex and abstract design that uses evenly distributed patterns to create a feeling of balance and harmony. You and your child can create these designs, or you can download them for free here.
4) Ask for help
Despite your best efforts, your child might need professional help. Don’t hesitate to speak to his/her teachers and to other qualified professionals if none of the strategies work and if your child appears to get angrier and more anxious.