Excerpt from Australian Family Magazine, September 2012
Writer and Editor; Emma Reeves
When 13 year old Anton gets angry, he wants to punch holes in the walls. When two year old Jackson is angry he wants to smack or hit. Seven year old Jessica and her mum shout at each other when they lose control.
We can all get angry at times. It's just part of living alongside each other. But there are ways to manage anger so that it does not become an ongoing problem.
Both children and adults can feel anger sparked by irritation or frustration. The anger becomes a problem if it is happening continuously or if it sparks irrational behaviour or inappropriate actions.
The first step in dealing with an anger problem is to acknowledge the anger and deal with it openly. Expecting children or adults to simply suppress their emotions is emotionally unhealthy. It will often result in ongoing frustration and uncontrolled outbursts of anger at other times.
Mark Le Messurier, Adelaide-based educator, parent coach, counsellor and author of bestselling "Parenting Tough Kids" advises parents to discuss anger management with their children as a first step.
"During calmer times try to normalise the anger problem by talking to your child about what makes them lose their temper. Discuss the physiological changes they experience just before they explode and help them to start to use these as early warning signs," he says.
"Most children talk about feeling hot, breathing faster, wanting to cry or noticing a rapid heartbeat. They say it helps when their parents set up ways to remind them that they're about to explode," he says.
Mark describes anger as happening in waves. The wave is the anger rising. The key is for children (or parents of very young children) to recognise what is happening and to remove themselves from the source of frustration before the wave crests.
Instinctively, most adults want to reason and talk with children when they feel they are getting frustrated. In contrast, probably one of the best things an adult can do is to remain calm and relatively silent. Engaging in prolonged dialogue tends to fuel a child's emotions, rather than to soothe them.
"Most parents want to fix anger in the moment, but it's an impossible challenge," says Mark. Children of all ages are not capable of listening when they are feeling high emotions. The best scenario is to wait until they are calm and then to discuss the situation.
"You need to be disarming. You just say 'I can see you are upset over this, we will deal with it later.' If you engage in the argument you just ramp up the emotion. All that does is teach oppositional children to argue back."The more your child has lost control, the more important it becomes to try and provide them with a calm response.
It is very common for children from the age of around 20 months to four years to have tantrums. Often these are sparked by frustration. Try to head off tantrums by avoiding triggers such as tiredness, boredom or overstimulation.
Mark says for some older children, a poster with pictures or words, can be made which will remind them of their choices when they are starting to feel angry.
These choices are techniques which buy the child time to calm down. One technique may be to hold their breath and count to ten. Another choice might be to remove themselves from the situation by walking out of the room. Alternatively, a child might chose to go and do something physical, such as jump on the trampoline. A younger child might go and hug a favourite toy.
"When the anger gets worse the wave picks them up and they lose control. After the anger is spent they will often feel remorse, shame or embarrassment. It's the parents' role to help children to learn from the experience and to let them settle and calm themselves down."
Mark says it is useful for families to adopt a calm-down routine after a loss of anger. These routines should provide a safe opportunity for the child to recover. For example a child who is trying to calm down may wish to sit with their head on mum or dad's lap, or alternatively spend some solitary time playing in their room. Once the tantrum has subsided, it is time to talk. Mark advises against talking or blaming during these times, as it is counter-productive. Instead, focus on problem-solving and solutions.
Stephanie, mother of three children under the age of six, says that ignoring some of the smaller behavioural issues does pay off. "If the kids are having an argument mostly they'll sort it out themselves if I don't intervene. It saves me getting involved...I'm not getting annoyed with them and making things worse by nagging at them to sort it out."Mark also advises parents to "pick their battles" and reinforce the behaviours that really need to be addressed.
Stephanie agrees that saying less "can be more" when it comes to ending arguments. However, she says one important thing is for everyone to "respect" each other, even during heated exchanges. "It's never OK to hit someone, even if they are angry," she says.
Stephanie also believes in trying to fix problems before they become a long term source of anger or frustration. "If you are always arguing about the same thing, such as getting ready for kinder or school on time, then perhaps it's time to start looking at your routine. With my kids there are physical reasons that mean they are more likely to get upset, like when they are hungry or tired."
Mark does not believe that gender differences play a strong role in anger management techniques. "In our culture girls are taught to be more submissive. Boys tend to be more physical so perhaps there is more of a licence for the boys to express themselves in a physical way," he says.
"Parents tend to permit boys to be more physical, and they often exhibit quicker outbursts of emotion than we see in girls," he says. However, Mark believes this is more to do with social expectations than gender differences.
"We need to understand that for both girls and boys anger comes from feeling frustrated and overwhelmed. Kids also mirror behaviour if others around them are always angry."
Some children may have less empathy than others, but they can all learn from modelling behaviours."For kids with aspergers or autism they might not get empathy in the heart but they can intellectualise it. This means we can teach them what to do in certain circumstances. The bottom line is, if you don't live it, you can't expect your children to act it either," says Mark.
Parents should also keep in mind that children can adopt anger as an attention seeking behaviour or to win an argument. Mark suggests that providing a reward system for children when they have managed their frustration well can also be an effective tool for addressing this. For example, a child who normally has a melt down over going to bed, might get a sticker for every night they go to bed calmly.
How to parents recognise if there is a problem?
"If you are going to bed most nights feeling frustrated with child's behaviour then you have a problem you need to address," says Mark.
The problem starts to increase when parents resort to smacking and physical force as their preferred method of controlling their child's behaviour.
Mark suggests that parents can make a simple record of flare ups to place their concerns in context.
Parents can use red, green and yellow to colour code days for a month on a calendar. Red is for tantrum days and yellow is for days when anger has been disarmed. Green is for the good days. "A lot of red days mean you need some support," he says.
Many families who need help do end up seeking and benefitting from it. "Sometimes it's just a question of people being able to gain more self awareness," says Mark.
There are a variety of parenting organisations and free services that can provide help to families. A qualified family psychologist should also be able to help.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, and are you are unsure which service to contact, call Kids Help Line on 1800 55 1800. It is available from anywhere in Australia 24 hours a day (toll free) and provides general crisis counselling, information and referral services.
Parentline: Parentline is a confidential telephone counselling service providing professional counselling and support for parents and those who care for children. For a listing of phone numbers for Parentline in States and Territories across Australia, go to: www.kidshelp.com.au/grownups.