So what do you say to an angry child?
Does it matter if the child is your client, student, or your own offspring? Do you find yourself reacting differently depending on who is in emotional distress?
It really shouldn’t matter, but all too often it does. I speak from experience on this one!
Every once in a while, it feels like working with 1,500 other people’s kids is easier than managing my own children…why is it any different? After all, I just said it shouldn’t matter…It all has to do with emotional investment.
When we are overly invested emotionally, we take on other people’s actions as a reflection of ourselves. If they go into crisis mode it feels as though there is something we should have done, said, avoided, etc.
This, in turn, brings a sense of urgency…this behavior/crisis/situation needs to end now! So we go into a heightened alert state. Our blood starts pumping…next thing we know the situation has exploded!!
What the heck just happened????
Well, I’m glad you asked…Our emotions are an accelerant to someone else’s emotional crisis. It’s like throwing kerosene on a bonfire. KABOOM
We must stay calm when working with a child who is cycling through intense anger. It is all about them…not us. We are simply the facilitator, not the puppeteer. We can’t make anyone (but ourselves) do anything.
We must give away some of our need for control before we can help children replace explosive anger with positive coping strategies.
Look at it this way, if you were having heart surgery you would want your surgeon to be thinking about the procedure…not their feelings or how bad they feel for you or on past surgeries that didn’t go well.
You want them to be present and do what needs to be done to help you heal. And so must we be present to help our students heal as well.
Let’s face it, this is harder to do than it sounds. The higher your emotional investment, the harder it is to stay neutral.
Regardless, that’s what we need to do (no matter how hard) when we are trying to de-escalate an angry child.
The minute we lose the ability to stay calm, the situation becomes about us and not teaching the child how to manage their anger.
The thing that has helped me the most, over the years, is to have something to say already planned out for when you need it. Having something “in your back pocket” is a strategy I learned at a Love and Logic training.
Below you will find a list of my most often used “go-to” responses. Pick one or two that you can use naturally and can remember easily.
Remember! Remain calm & don’t forget your poker face.
Offer an Alternate Setting
“Let’s talk about this privately.”
“Let’s walk & talk.”
“Let’s find a quieter spot.”
Do not Never work through anger with an audience. Saving face in front of peers is a strong motivator to win at all costs.
Also, it’s important to note that the above statements are not questions. The point of these directives is to guide the child to take action.
Using “let’s” creates a sense of doing something…movement. In contrast, questions need thought. Since irrationality is a part of the anger cycle, it’s best to limit questions until they are in a calm state.
It’s best to use questions to prompt a child’s problem solving and coping strategies. If you want to know about the “whys” behind a child’s anger check out this post.
Provide a Choice of Coping Skills
“Would you like a 5 or 10-minute break in the calming corner?”
“Would you like to write or draw about it?”
Teach children how to diffuse anger by suggesting coping activities. Try to stay away from open-ended questions. Specific choices provide structure while allowing the child to feel in charge. Win/Win
Let the Child Advocate for What They Need
“How can I help?”
Give the child control over their situation by letting them advocate for what they need.
Sometimes, children have easier answers…adults tend to over think situations and miss the needs of the child.
Make Them Feel Heard
“Tell me about that.”
“Tell me your point of view.”
“Anything else you would like to tell me?”
Flip the Switch from Emotional to Cognitive Response
Override the amygdala (part of the brain that regulates emotion), by engaging the hippocampus (part of the brain that regulates memory). You can read more about how the brain functions here.
“What have you done so far to help solve your problem?”
“What choices do you have?”
“What has helped before?”
“What do you think you should do?”
“Would you like to hear what some other kids have done?”
Kids are much less resistant to change when it’s their idea. Use the questions above to help them in finding the best way to manage their anger.
Set Healthy Boundaries
“I care too much about you to argue.”
“I will talk to you when your voice is as calm as mine.”
Healthy boundaries are a must. Kids will try to push your buttons. Don’t let them.
Never argue or debate.
Set parameters…give choices.
After consistent use, this strategy will save you a TON of time in the future. After children learn that arguing with you isn’t going to get them anywhere they will usually divert their attention & energy elsewhere.
Stand firm. You don’t have to “win” you just need to not waver.
If you’re not familiar with Love & Logic, I highly recommend you check it out. It’s all about setting boundaries while allowing the child to take responsibility for their actions.
“First ___________, then __________.”
“Students who _________, get to ___________.”
“As soon as _________, we can _____________.”
Using contingent statements, like the ones above, help kids in many ways:
- The child knows what they need to do to get what they want.
- The child knows that it is possible to get what they want.
- The child understands a general time frame of events.
- It focuses on the task at hand…there’s no need to go into further discussion.
This is one strategy that I used daily when I taught in the middle school self-contained room for emotionally impaired students. I pulled this gem out when my students refused to work or became noncompliance with a lot of success!
Invite Them to Rejoin the Group
“You may join us when you are ready to learn.”
The goal is ALWAYS for the child to return to their normal routine. Punitive measures that isolate angry children tend to backfire. Belonging is a basic human need. Children are more likely to lash out if they don’t feel welcome.
Providing children the opportunity to rejoin the group encourages them to regain their composure and turn their day around.