The flash of anger in my tween daughter’s eyes surprised me. We’d been camping, and Maddie’s 6-year-old sister, Aly, had just burned her finger on hot ash. As I treat the wound, Maddie strode up. “I hurt myself, too,” she said, with attitude. “Last night when we were making S’mores.”
“Hold on,” I said. As Aly screamed beside me, I tried not to show my frustration. “I need to help your sister first.” This was the first I’d heard of Maddie’s burn.
Maddie’s anger flared. “You always help her first! You don’t care for me at all!” She rushed back to our cabin as I finished bandaging Aly’s hand.
I walked back to the cabin, dreading the confrontation ahead. I could see how the next few minutes would play out: pleas and demands from me, mounting anger and accusations from her. There had to be a better way to manage these cycles of anger. It was making all of us weary, especially Maddie.
The angry cycle
Once a child is angry, it’s easy for him to stay in a cycle of thoughts, emotions and physical responses that feed his rage. Here’s what the angry cycle looks like:
- An event creates pain or distress that sets off the child’s anger. This event can be something another person says or does, or an unmet expectation.
- The pain triggers thoughts or memories that focus the child’s angry response on another person. For example, he may think you don’t understand his life or that you care more about a sibling.
- These “trigger thoughts” lead to a negative emotional response. Your child feels frustrated, rejected, fearful or enraged.
- These emotions cause a physical response, such as a flushed face, tense jaw, pounding heart and clenched fists. As anger takes control, a child finds it difficult to think rationally.
- Finally, a behavioral response occurs. The trigger thoughts, emotions, and physical reaction evoke a fight, flight or freeze response.
Stopping the angry cycle
We often try to lecture our children or teach them a lesson in the midst of their angry cycle — right when they cannot think rationally. Our best efforts at correction will likely not get through when our child is in this highly emotional state; harsh discipline often makes things worse.
This is true of kids of all ages: An emotional, angry teen can’t be any more rational than an emotional, angry toddler. When one of my children is angry, I know I have to first stop the angry cycle before anything else can happen. I use some of these phrases instead of escalating the interaction:
- “I see you’re angry.”
- “I am sorry that happened to you. I’ll be here to talk about it when you’re ready.”
- “I get angry, too. How can I help?”
- “When you’re ready, I can tell you how I handle things when I get mad.”
- “It’s OK to be angry, but think about how you act next. Make good choices.”
- “I understand you’re angry. But can you try to understand my point?”
When I acknowledge my children’s anger, they see that I’m paying attention. And when I make myself available, my kids can turn to me for help. They do want to make good choices; they just need extra guidance, and they are often grateful for my offer to help instead of simply sending them to their rooms or giving them consequences.
Being available and attentive always works better than simply telling a child to calm down. And choosing the right words in the midst of your child’s angry cycle can defuse the situation and lead to healthy resolution.
Training kids to recognize and stop their own angry cycles
When a child gets angry, multiple physical reactions are occurring inside her body. According to one public health organization, “The adrenal glands flood the body with stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. The brain shunts blood away from the gut and towards the muscles, in preparation for physical exertion. Heart rate, blood pressure and respiration increase.”
We can help our kids understand what’s happening inside their minds and bodies when negative thoughts are triggered so that they don’t get caught up in the angry cycle, which can become a habit….(to read the rest of this article please visit Focus On The Family by clicking on the image below.)
If you have a child who struggles with anger, or if you know a family that does, be sure to order Calming Angry Kids today. Each of us needs to wake up with hope and lay down in peace—you do, your kids do. Each of us needs to discover that with the right tools, overcoming anger is possible.
There is help. There is hope. There can be calm.
“I felt as though Tricia was sitting next to me sharing her personal stories and giving me help, guidance, and encouragement for my own parenting journey. If you have a child who struggles with anger, sit with Tricia and let her encourage you as well.”
Bestselling author of If You Only Knew, host of the podcast The Happy Hour with Jamie Ivey