By Katie Hurley, LCSW
Adapted from The Happy Kid Handbook
All kids experience anger and frustration, but learning how to channel these highly charged emotions can take time.
It’s natural for parents to want to quiet feelings of anger at first, as it tends to present as loud and imposing. It’s also difficult to watch kids endure these complicated emotions. For the most part, parents want to help restore happiness.
Emotional regulation develops over time, and young children do take their cues from their caregivers. This can feel like a pressure cooker for parents. We don’t always have the best reactions in the heat of the moment. The good news is that when we go back and process what we did, and what we might have done instead, we teach our kids that learning to cope with big feelings takes time and practice, and it’s okay to make a mistake as long as we apologize, take responsibility, and figure out a new way to handle a similar problem in the future.
That said, there are a few strategies you can use at home to help your kids learn to work through anger. Anger can actually be a useful emotion at times; it’s what we do with that emotion that matters.
The Anger Thermometer
This simple tool, when used daily, helps kids keep tabs on their emotional thermometer. When kids learn to take their feelings temperature regularly throughout the day, they begin to recognize when they’re feeling anger and frustration. When they feel their temperatures rising, they can evaluate whether they can cope independently or need assistance.
You can draw or download an image of a thermometer and write varying degrees of warming up and cooling down along the side. Ask your child to color where they “feel” on the thermometer throughout the day.
Frequent check-ins gets your child in the habit of getting in touch with emotions and seeking help when necessary. It’s a good idea to write your child’s top three favorite calming strategies along the other side for easy-to-use strategies in the moment.
Pro Tip: This thermometer can be adapted for worry/anxiety, sadness, and various other emotions.
Color Your Day
There’s a reason those relaxing coloring books continue to pop up everywhere: coloring works! The combination of tension relief from the act of coloring and using colors to express emotions is a great strategy for coping with anger.
Here’s how this works:
First, ask your child to assign emotions to a variety of colors. Many kids choose red for anger and yellow for happiness, but it’s important to give your child the opportunity to match colors to feelings.
Next, ask your child to color on a blank piece of paper how much of each emotion he felt that day. If your child had a great day, for example, it might be primarily yellow (happy) or green (calm.) If your child had a hard day, you might see a lot of red (angry) or blue (sad.)
Finally, comment on the colors on the page. Resist the urge to ask a ton of questions. Instead, try empathic phrases like, “I see a lot of red. It looks like it might have been a hard day,” or, “There’s a lot of blue on that page. I know what that feels like.” Empathic responses invite further exploration while providing much-needed comfort.
Create a “Mad List”
Sometimes kids are so frustrated that they struggle to find the words to even verbalize what they’re thinking. This is where a “mad list” comes in handy…especially for frustrated preschoolers.
First, respond with empathy. It might be hard to stay calm when your child is feeling out of control, but the best thing you can do for child in the heat of the moment is meet her anger with your calm. Be the sunshine to your child’s stormy weather.
Next, meet your child at eye level and comment on what you see. “It looks like you feel really mad right now. You must feel so frustrated!” Keep repeating some version of this until your child sees that you understand. Follow this up with, “I wonder why you’re feeling so frustrated?”
Give it time. Yelling and crying are natural reactions to feel angry. Your child needs to relieve the tension inside of her before she can work through it.
Finally, say, “Let’s make a list of all the things that make us mad and tear it right up?” Make one for you and one for your child. Start writing down things that make you frustrated (traffic, losing your keys, etc.) and ask your child to start thinking of things that make her mad. Write them all down and tear them up together! This helps your child verbalize her emotions and triggers and relieve pent up tension by tearing the paper.
This exercise helps with anger, anxiety, worry, and just about any other uncomfortable emotion. I tell kids and parents every day that if you can learn to regulate your emotional responses through deep breathing, you can find healthy ways to cope with the ups and downs on any given day.
It’s super easy and, with daily practice, it really works:
Ask your child to think about what color/design balloon he wants to blow up. It can be any shape and design he wants. Tell him that to blow up a balloon (even an imaginary one) you have to bring the balloon to your lips, take a really slow deep breath in to get enough air in your lungs, and exhale very slowly into the balloon. You can demonstrate the first time, and then count in for four, hold for four, and out for four when he tries.
To make your balloon so big that it floats off into balloon land, it helps to use three really deep breaths before you tie it off and send it on an adventure.
Pro Tip: Practice when calm to be able to use this strategy during a moment of anger.
Create a Calming Kit
Calming sensory activities come in handy, and it helps to have a dedicated calming box at the ready to use when you sense that frustration is rising. You know your child best, so you know what calms your child.
Some ideas include finger paints, a stress ball, a coloring book, Play Doh, a favorite book, and something soft and cuddly.
Learning to cope with anger is a process, and it’s natural for kids to have explosive reactions to feeling upset. Empathize in the moment and practice strategies to release tension and anger when they’re calm to help build this skill.
For more information on helping kids learn to cope with anger and frustration, get your copy of The Happy Kid Handbook.