Understanding and dealing with anger
Edna Rooth of the Schools Development Unit at UCT helps us to teach young children constructive ways of dealing with anger
U nga timi ndzilo hi ndzilo
Do not extinguish a fire with fire
Anger is a normal emotion or feeling. Anger may be a very useful feeling as it can motivate and energise. It can also lead to change where change is necessary. However, how we act while we are angry may not always be good and useful. Anger may lead to aggressive and destructive behaviour. Our task is to help children to express their anger and behave in acceptable ways while they are angry. Children model their behaviour on what adults do and say. This means we have to be skilled in dealing with our own anger.
Quick anger self-check
You may want to discuss your answers with a friend or colleague to get some feedback. Perhaps you react differently to anger, depending on the situation. Talk about the situations where you find it difficult to cope with anger.
Anger is a very powerful emotion that many have many causes. Anger is often used as a defence for some other feelings. Sometimes children feel angry because they are afraid, frustrated, confused, shy, or anxious. In children, anger is often a reaction to sadness. We need to understand that anger may have deeper causes than we can immediately see. Unresolved anger can lead to rage, aggression and uncontrolled behaviour. Frequently children react to anger with aggression. This is usually because they have seen and experienced people modelling aggressive behaviour.
Activities to help children deal with anger
Note that these are not punishments. Rather, they are fun activities offering learning opportunities. It is useful to have a brief discussion about anger and other feelings after each activity. Get the children used to talking freely about their feelings, without fear of punishment or ridicule.
This is removing the child from the situation where she may hurt herself or others, or distract others. This is not a punishment, but rather creating a space for the child to sit alone, quietly and collect herself. The time-out should not be too long, as it may give the child too much time to dwell on the anger without thinking of ways to resolve the anger. A few minutes are usually enough.
It is useful if children get used to the idea of a time-out, and even have the knowledge to ask for a time-out when they feel the need. You may also give yourself a time-out!
In children, anger is often a reaction to sadness.
Listening in and out
Ask the child to sit quietly and close her eyes. She has to send her listening out and listen to the furthest sounds she can hear. She has to listen to sounds that are beyond the room, beyond the house, beyond the street.
After a minute, gently ask the child to bring her listening in and listen to the closest sounds she can hear: her own sounds, her breathing, and her heartbeat.
After half a minute, gently tell the child to send the listening out again and listen to the furthest, far away sounds she can hear. After another 30 seconds, ask her to bring her listening in again and listen to the closest sounds she can hear in the room.
Very slowly ask the child to stretch, sigh and yawn as she opens her eyes. Do not rush the child or speak in a loud voice.
Conclude by asking the child if she would like to say anything about how she is feeling.
This exercise can also be used with a group of children. It calms then down and helps them to listen to each other. It is useful for preventing a loss of self-control.
Get the child to stand or lie down. Ask the child to breath in deeply, put his hands on his tummy to feel the breath, and hold for 3 seconds. Then slowly breathe out. Repeat a few times. The focus is on breathing slowly and deeply. When we are angry, we often breathe very shallowly and deprive the brain of oxygen. Then it becomes difficult to control our anger.
After a few deep breathing exercises, ask the child to talk about his feelings.
Try to get a drum for the programme. If you cannot get one, use an upturned rubbish bin or a cake tin or a cardboard box.
Allow the angry child to beat the drum. Tell him to beat the drum as much as he wants and to develop a drum beat that explains what he is feeling.
After a few minutes, ask the child to express himself in words.
It is a good idea to leave the drum in the same place. Children can use the drum when they feel the need. Also make sure you let them use the drum for expressing other emotions. You do not want them to associate the drum only with anger.
The drum serves as an outlet for anger and may prevent the child hitting out at other children. The child is also learning to express his feelings.
Pass the frown/smile
Get the children to stand in a circle. Start the group off by giving a serious frown and say that the child next to you must pass the frown on. Give each child a chance to frown and pass on.
Ask the children to talk about the implications of this exercise. Sometimes we get angry because others are angry but do we need to? It is important that children realise that it is their choice to feel angry or not.
End this exercise by passing the smile on. It usually ends in giggles!
Physical activity is a way to channel anger. It is essential that children have an outlet for their feelings. Physical activity not only prevents anger, but also helps children to cope with anger.
This is a useful game for indoors when it is raining or dark.
Get the children to stand in their own space. They have to run on the spot according to instructions you will give them. If you have music available, you can use music to help.
First run on the spot to get the feel of running on the spot this means you do not run around the room, but stay in one place. If children find it difficult or keep bumping into each other, draw a chalk circle for each child on the floor they have to stay in that circle.
Now run very fast, still running on the spot. Swing your arms, move those legs!
Slow down and stand still.
Now you need to get fit, so run with your knees up, imagine you are running up steps.
And lastly, imagine you are running a lap of honour after winning the Olympic gold medal! The fans are cheering, trumpets are blaring, and you are the star of the show! Wave to the crowds, smile for the photographers!
Walk the walk!
Get the children to walk by stamping their feet. Call out the different walks for them to walk. You can use music to go with the different walks, but that is not essential. Allow them to make as much noise as they want by stamping their feet!
Walk an angry walk.
Walk a scared walk.
Walk a peaceful walk.
Walk a happy walk.
[You can add to this activity by getting the children to sing songs to go with each walk they make up the words themselves!]
Mimes and movements
This is a similar activity. Call out instructions:
Make a fist
Clench your teeth
Shout as loudly as you can
Jump up and down
Laugh as much as you can
Briefly discuss with the children. Ask them how they felt during this activity.
Angry dance/happy dance
Get children into small groups. Ask them to develop and present a dance that shows anger. They can call it their angry dance. Get each small group to present their dance and get the other children to join in each dance.
Have a brief discussion afterwards. Get the children to talk about what their dances meant, how they felt and ask them to suggest ways of coping with anger.
End off by getting the children in the same groups, and asking them to develop and present a happy dance.
It is important that both anger and happy feelings are accepted, but try to always end an exercise on a happier note, so as not to leave the children with unresolved feelings of anger.
Hints for dealing with anger
If we control ourselves in one moment of anger, we could stop ourselves feeling a thousand moments of regret.
It is essential to make an action plan to decide how you will resolve whatever it is that made you angry. Do something constructive about your anger.
Acknowledge your anger accept the fact that you are angry. To deny it makes it worse.
Try to recognise what made you feel angry.
Share your anger with a friend tell them why you are angry have a whine and moan session.
Go outside for a short walk.
Breathe in and out very slowly until you become aware of your breathing.
Listen to music you find peaceful.
Write a letter and vent your anger then toss it away!
Tell the other party that you need time to calm down before you respond. However, do not wait too long before you deal with the situation.
Go for a run.
Watch your self-talk so that you do not say destructive things to yourself.
Spend time with people who affirm you.
Get perspective is this really that important in the bigger scheme of things?
Add your own hints to this list and ask the children to draw up lists for themselves. Keep adding to the list. Have regular discussions on which hints work, when and how. Get children to talk about their own coping strategies. When children get aggressive or act unacceptably, use the incident as a learning experience in a non-punitive way. By showing understanding and offering more acceptable ways of behaviour, the children will have an opportunity to learn how to deal with their own anger.
"Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal
with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets
This article is reprinted from Child & Youth Care 19.2 February 2001
The author may be mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org