Today I want to talk about Anger.
When there are lots of angry outbursts in our house, it leaves me feeling drained, frustrated and worried. Do you find that too? Drained, because those feelings take up a lot of energy! Frustrated, because sometimes, everything goes a bit pear shaped, despite best efforts. And finally, worried because I wonder what else is going on for my children that means they are so mad with the world!
Anger is acceptable, as are all feelings. But in our society, it seems anger is one of the trickier emotions – sadness or happiness are far easier to deal with or accept. For example, normally, I am much more able to comfort my children if they are sad or laugh with them when they are happy. But angry outbursts are harder to deal with for me. And I think that is because how we express anger is sometimes not acceptable – especially when it turns into aggression, or damaging things, or hurting people or ourselves.
But how do we help our children (and ourselves) with this? And find ways to express our anger in a healthy, sustainable way and teach our children to do the same... It is this balance that I have been trying to strike. Acknowledging the anger and then setting a firm boundary in terms of not allowing some of the associated negative behaviours.
As with all things parenting – sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. When I am in a good place myself, I am much more able to stay calm then when I am not, or when I have lots on myself. So none of this is about making parents feel bad – it is about acknowledging the hard stuff, exploring alternative options and being kind to ourselves as we learn.
So, first the hard stuff: I find that in our family, if my children get really frustrated or angry, they might shout, slam doors, be mean to each other, or sometimes even fight. They might also try and take the anger out on me or their siblings by talking back, being obtuse, or shoving others out of the way. And while I understand that anger needs to be expressed, hurting others or slamming doors is not acceptable.
I also understand that anger is one of the few emotions that generate excess energy really quickly – so the fight or flight response – and that energy needs to go somewhere, but how do we help each other and our children to express that anger in healthy, but acceptable ways?
So, I’ve done a bit of research…to understand some more and then explore alternative options:
First of all, what is anger?
‘Anger is a normal human emotion that arises in response to perceived threats, injustices, or frustrations. It is characterised by feelings of tension, frustration, and irritation, and can be expressed in a variety of ways, ranging from mild annoyance to intense rage.’
With all of my children, I’ve found that when the anger gets to the stage of rage, the physical outbursts are nearly impossible to curb, as the pent-up energy has to go somewhere. And I guess, it is the same for me – when I get so mad that ‘I see red’ it takes all of my (over many years learned) self-control to not slam the door. If I am honest with myself, it doesn’t always work for me – and I have a fully developed brain, years more practice and far more control over my day to day.
Anger is such a powerful emotion, it effects on our whole being – not just our bodies (increased heart rate, tension and blood pressure). It can also make it harder for us to think straight, communicate effectively and lead to impulsive behaviour. It can make us feel out of control and anxious, or when we’ve behaved inappropriately (and know it!), it can make us feel guilty and sad afterwards.
After angry outbursts in our family, it takes a while to recover and find our way back to our ‘equilibrium’. And all of that is exhausting!
But despite all of that (or maybe because of it!), I think it is one of the most important emotions to teach our children (and ourselves) to be able to accept and handle. As we said earlier, anger is just one emotion that is healthy, as long as we can figure out a way to express it appropriately. When it is expressed in a harmful or destructive way, it can have negative consequences for both the individual and those around them. So for us to teach our children to learn how to manage anger effectively is an important skill for maintaining healthy relationships and overall well-being.
What does work for me, is when I recognise the early signs of anger building up in me (my triggers) and make sure I consciously take a deep breath, take myself on a ‘time out’, or just move on.
What are your triggers?
The thing I have found the most helpful to my own emotional regulation is to figure out what triggers my anger. I know certain behaviours that my children show might trigger me – whether this is fighting amongst each other, or if two of them are picking on one, or excluding them, or if I feel that I am being bossed around or not valued.
I know some of these things will no doubt stem from my own childhood (becoming a parent is great at helping you understand and reflect on your own childhood more, isn’t it?) and sometimes what triggers me will also be influenced by how much sleep I’ve had, how much patience I have that day, or how much I feel my own needs have or have not been met.
And what do you do about it?
Since I started to get curious about these things and acknowledge them, I’ve been able to do more about them.
I now know that prioritising my own self-care – like going to the gym or for a swim, goes a long way to serving not only my happiness and wellbeing, but that of my family as well – which helps me prioritise it!
When I see the my children exhibit the behaviours that I know are triggering to me and I understand my triggers in that way, I am now far more able to stop myself and take a deep breath to calm down before I react (not always of course!).
Re-framing my children’s behaviours has also been incredibly helpful for me – so rather than seeing them as being ‘mean’ to each other I try and see all behaviour as a form of communication and figure out what it is that they are trying to tell me. Have they had a hard day themselves? Are they projecting this onto their siblings? That empathy helps me react more calmly than I normally would. I’ve also started to verbalise some of this to the children and might say something like: “Josh, it looks like you’ve had a hard time today. I am here to talk to you about that. But I cannot let you take it out on your sister. That is not acceptable.”
I’ve overheard the children talk to each other that way more as a result too – the other day my daughter said to my youngest: “Come, let’s play on the trampoline, it looks like [a friend’s child] has had a hard day. He is being mean and needs some time.” I think it helps them draw a line on behaviours they find unacceptable in others, without getting sucked into a fight.
Setting Boundaries earlier than I used to – and these not being overstepped – means I can communicate much more calmly and lovingly than if I feel like I’ve given far too much and ‘enough is enough’!
Children can’t regulate their own emotions: they need you
Another thing that has really helped me be more empathetic to my children’s big feelings, is when I realised that they are not actually able to calm themselves down until they are much older. This is because their prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for emotional regulation, is still developing – in fact it is not until the young adult years that our brains are fully developed! There is a great book, that I am sure you will have heard of, that explains this in more detail, called The Whole Brain Child, by Dr Siegel and Dr Payne.
Knowing this helps me to realise just how important it is for me to be able to stay calm so that I can help both of us calm down!
Not only that, children learn how to regulate their emotions by watching and imitating their parents' behaviour too, right? So, if I, as a parent can model healthy emotional regulation skills, it can help children learn to manage their own emotions more effectively… although for me, that is sometimes far easier said than done – especially in the heat of the moment!
What triggers your child?
The next thing I found helpful was to get interested in when my children tend to bicker or get mad – and it is often for the same reasons – they are either tired, hungry, overwhelmed or frustrated (or all four things).
Or sometimes, it is when they’ve had a bad day at school and need to decompress at home to switch off properly and let go of their troubles.
I’ve also noticed that it triggers them when they pick up on my own emotions – so when I’m stressed or busy or overwhelmed myself, they are more likely to have a hard time (and I am more likely to react to them) than if I am in a good place.
When we manage to do this well, I’ll be organised and have a snack ready for them straight after school, and I’ll be able to read their body language quickly enough to be able to spend time with them and connect so that they can work through what is bothering them with me before it spills out into anger.
But as we all know, life gets busy, so often I am running late, or my mind is still thinking about the deadline I need to meet for work, or the shopping that still needs doing, or the washing that’s been forgotten and nobody’s hung up yet… so I miss the cues, and one thing leads to another, and somebody explodes!
So – when that happens – what are some ideas to deal with anger in a healthy way?
Healthy role models for how to deal with anger – some ideas
1. Take a break: When you feel angry, take a break from the situation or conversation. This will give you time to cool off and collect your thoughts.
We take ourselves on a ‘time out’ when we need it – not to punish, but to consciously be able to remove ourselves from a situation and calm down. Only the person themselves can do this – nobody is ‘sent away’ as I don’t believe it is good to let your child be alone with their big feelings. I might say to them: “Ok, take your time – I can see you are really mad. I am here for you, when you are ready. We’ll get through this together, you are not alone (although that’s not always what happens in the heat of the moment!)”
2. Write it down: Writing about your anger can help you process your emotions and gain clarity about the situation. You can write about what made you angry, how you feel about it, and what you can do about it.
In the past I’ve written a letter to the person I am mad at. Often, I won’t even need to send it off, but simply getting the anger out helps me deal with it. Nowadays, I’ll write in a diary for example and encourage my (older) children to do the same.
3. Talk it out: Talk to a trusted friend or family member about what made you angry. They can offer a listening ear, support, and advice.
Often, this happens when we’ve all calmed down. We used to do what was called ‘sofa time’ – so a bit like taking yourself off to calm down, but staying close, maybe sitting in silence for several moments, while we calm down and then talk about what was going on for us. And when we do, we make sure we use "I" statements, instead of "you" statements. As this means we can express our feelings without blaming or attacking the other person.
4. Practice deep breathing: Deep breathing can help you calm down when you're feeling angry. Breathe in slowly through your nose, hold it for a few seconds, and then exhale slowly through your mouth.
I really want to do more of this with my children. At the moment, I’ve encouraged them to hit a cushion to get their anger out, or jump vigorously on the trampoline, but sometimes I feel this is still quite an aggressive way to express the feeling – and maybe taking deep breathes will help calm their (and my) nervous system down more quickly? When the anger is caught early on, this really works for us. And when I do this myself, I will verbalise it and say: “I can feel myself getting really, really mad, so I am going to take a few deep breaths to help me calm down.” I’ve noticed that especially my two older children are role-modelling that – taking themselves off to the sofa and just sitting and taking some deep breaths before coming back again.
5. Get between them and on their level: When they are trying to fight and hurt each other, I will get between them and either just say something like ‘Pause’ over and over again until they stop and are calm enough to talk it through, or I might say: “I can see you are really mad. You are so mad right now. I understand that. I can’t let you hurt your brother, though. Let’s work this out together.”
6. Boundaries and Self-care for kids: Finally, and I guess this is more of a pre-emptive thing. There is something about helping children practice self-care and setting boundaries themselves too, isn’t there? So that they don’t get as frustrated, but also so that their little bodies get the movement and positive endorphins from regular exercise or relaxation that will help them self-regulate as well.
The benefits of a calm home
One final thought. I was watching a movie the other day, where there was lots of fighting and squabbling going on between the different family members and it really put me on edge. It was not a nice way to live at all. And I know we all fight sometimes, and that is healthy and fine and normal but having a home environment that is generally calm, is really important for children. That, and to see how we ‘make up’ too – so that they know how to repair the relationship in a healthy way after an argument.
And here is why.
A calm home can have a significant impact on their overall well-being and development. It can help reduce stress for children. Children who are exposed to high levels of stress in the home environment may have difficulty regulating their emotions, and this can lead to behavioural problems, anxiety, and depression. A calm home environment can also help promote healthy sleep patterns, leading to improved overall health and well-being. Children who grow up in a calm and predictable environment feel safe and secure, which can help them develop a positive sense of self-worth and confidence. Children who grow up in a calm home environment are more likely to have positive relationships with their parents and siblings. They are also more likely to develop positive social skills and have healthy relationships with others later in life. And finally, a calm home environment can also enhance a child's ability to learn. When children are not distracted by stress, noise, or other negative environmental factors, they can focus more easily on their studies and develop a love for learning.
So, as Parents we can help to create a calm home environment by providing consistent routines, creating clear boundaries, practicing positive communication, and modelling healthy emotional regulation skills.
But how do we Form new habits?
This is all well and good, but I have found actually reacting differently in the red-hot minute things are getting emotional, is really quite hard! And I guess that is to be expected, as the behaviours and habits are ones we’ve picked up over decades and may even be role-modelled to us when we were children…
So, how do we change our habits? I’ve been reading a really interesting book lately and they suggest the following 4 steps that I’ve found really helpful:
1. Understand your triggers – we’ve covered that above and it’s made a huge difference to me, as I am much more likely to see a tricky situation coming now than I used to
2. Pick one thing to do in the moment that is really quick and easy to do – i.e. a new habit to replace the old one. And this is important to do in advance. So in my case, it might be ‘Rather than yelling, I am going to shake my hands or breathe deeply until I feel more calm and able to react’. Then I don’t have to think about it in the moment!
3. Make it about somebody else – this one was an interesting one for me, but apparently, if we make changing a habit about something bigger than just ourselves, we are more likely to change it – i.e. I want to learn to regulate my emotions better, so that my kids can learn to do this too
4. Know that you will fail – and that’s ok – this is about anticipating set backs from the outset, so that you don’t give up, but instead are kind to yourself. You are learning, building resilience and doing your best. That is what counts. Mistakes are part of the process and owning those mistakes and going back to your children when they happen too and saying something like ‘I didn’t handle that situation very well, I’m sorry. Can we have a ‘do over’ – is also a really important and powerful thing for your children to learn and see.
So, that’s all from me today. I’d love to hear how you deal with frustration and anger in your family and what does and doesn’t work for you.