| Should I be worried?
Understanding My Child’s Anger
David A. Crenshaw, Ph.D
“He is usually a caring and sensitive child, but when he explodesin rage he is like a monster.” The frustrated mother was describing her8-year-old son Michael, a second grader who is liked by his teachersand his classmates — except when he has a “meltdown”. During ameltdown, Michael is like a different child and it is scary to the other children. Both his parents and teachers are worried.
Michael is typical of children who display a pattern ofimpulsive-reactive aggression as described by psychologist Ross Greenein his book The Explosive Child. These children acquire variousdiagnostic labels when they are evaluated by mental healthprofessionals — ADHD, Oppositional/Defiant Disorder, DisruptiveBehavior Disorder. As Greene explains, however, the two primaryfeatures shared by such children, regardless of diagnostic labeling,are low frustration tolerance and inflexibility. These children are notexhibiting a character flaw or a moral weakness, but simply manifestingsubtle neuro-developmental deficits related to difficulties in emotionand impulse regulation. Until neurological maturation enhances theability of these children to self-regulate in a more reliable andconsistent manner, they tend to be overwhelmed by their strong emotionsand often experience emotion in an all-or-none manner. Either the childfeels nothing at all, or experiences anger as red hot rage — withnothing between. In other words, they have not developed the capacityfor modulation.
Greene advocates an active teaching approach which I strongly endorse.
Tools for Modulation
Verbal mediation is a crucial tool for modulating anger. Childrenwho have developed the capacity to identify, label and verbalize theirfeelings are more skilled at modulating emotions. Children have to betaught a language for their feelings by parents and teachers, as theytend to have significant difficulty finding words to express theiremotional states. A respected colleague explained that children who areaggressive tend to experience emotion “like a wind blowing throughtheir system.” In other words, the feelings are non-descriptive andundifferentiated, leaving kids unable to identify or share them. Evenhighly verbal children often have a limited vocabulary when it comes toemotional states.
One of the most effective interventions for a child who explodes inrage is to teach her/him an expanded vocabulary for dealing withfeelings. The vocabulary should include not just “angry” and “mad”, butwords that capture the various levels of intensity — such as“irritated”, “annoyed”, “furious”, and “enraged”. This approach isbased on the technique of scaling. For children who do not know how tomodulate their anger, teaching them a vocabulary that expresses degreesof intensity helps them understand that emotions do not have to beexperienced in an all-or-none way.
Another way to convey the concept of scaling and degrees of anger is through the use of an anger thermometer like this one:
The child can be helped to find words to express anger at a lowlevel (blue zone), at the mid level (yellow zone), and at the highlevel (red zone). This tool can be used to help children process angerafter a situation that has triggered a meltdown. Parents and/orteachers can not only help children find words to express their angerin each zone but can teach problem solving skills that play a crucialrole in developing self-regulation. Children can be asked, for example,what choices they might have for expressing low level anger if theynotice they are only irritated or annoyed. Obviously, if children don’tnotice the signs of building anger until it is in the red zone, theirchoices are going to be limited because for most kids it is too late.When they reach the meltdown point, they are unable to reason or tothink clearly, and at that point, all the parent or teacher may be able to do is to try to keep the children safe.
It is helpful to focus kids on the early signs of anger build-up.Do they notice their voices rising, their hearts racing, the clenchingof their teeth or fists? The earlier these signs are noticed, the morelikely it is that children will be able to head off a meltdown. Since asense of personal control is important to children, it can be helpfulto frame early detection skills as ways they can maintain control oftheir anger.
The self-calming skills often cited by children as helpful are: 1)walk away; 2) use distraction to get your mind off it: 3) count to ten;4) take three deep breaths; 5) use coping statements, like, “I canhandle this,” or “I am in control here”; 6) rationalization statements,like, “I didn’t want to go to the party anyway”; and 7) displacementinto physical activities like a vigorous game of basketball withfriends.
Additional Tips for Parents and Teachers
Perhaps the most effective way parents and teachers can helpchildren develop constructive ways to express anger is to set a goodexample. If a teacher or a parent is always yelling, it will be hard tomotivate the kids to work on their own anger management issues.Conversely, if we model remaining calm even when under stress, anddemonstrate that there are constructive ways to cope with theinevitable frustrations that arise in daily life, children will want toimitate such behaviors and eventually, if they are attached to us, willinternalize adaptive coping behaviors.
We need to be careful about the way we think and talk about angerin children. Even the most furious, enraged child is not angry all thetime. Some children are angry at home, but not at school — or viceversa. Some kids only become aggressive if they are humiliated. If wethink of kids as monsters or demons, they have an uncanny way of livingup to our expectations.
It is helpful if we can identify the triggers and the specificcontexts that lead to meltdowns and then help the child be aware ofthese triggers and ways to cope when provocations are unavoidable. Ifthe child’s rage poses a risk to others or her/himself, a mental healthevaluation by a licensed psychologist, social worker, or childpsychiatrist experienced in problems of aggression in children isrecommended.
DAVID A. CRENSHAW, Ph.D., American Board of Professional Psychology(ABPP), is founder and director of Rhinebeck Child and Family Center,LLC ( www.rhinebeckcfc.com) in Rhinebeck. He is co-author of two books on aggression in children,including ‘Understanding and Treating the Aggression of Children: Fawnsin Gorilla Suits’.