Excerpted from Chapter 3
“Tools Kids Need to Manage Intense Feelings”
It has been our experience in our practice that many times parents will try a new skill for a few weeks, and return discouraged that it “doesn’t work.” This happens for several reasons. First, if the skill is new to you, it will take time for you to become proficient in teaching the skill to your child. Second, your child will take some time to learn the skill as well. And third, most children respond to change with resistance and limit testing. It is important to note that nothing works every time. Frankly, even if you had built all of these skills into your child’s life from birth, they still would not work every time. However, if you consistently use these skills and model appropriate behavior in your family, your child will very likely learn over time to express his thoughts and feelings in healthy ways. He is more likely to show empathy in his relationships, be capable of positive problem solving, and feel good about himself and others.
Regardless of how proactive you are at helping your child understand and express his intense feelings, every child will from time to time lose control. Your role at these times is that of coach, reminding him of the skills you have taught and practiced at other calm, neutral times through role plays and modeling.
The following skills for calming oneself are some of our favorite techniques that you can use to coach your child through her anger. Knowing your child’s personality and strengths can guide you in choosing those that will be the most effective for her. Just like everything else, know that nothing works immediately or every time. Expect to teach and practice these many times before you see your child using them successfully.
Take Deep Breaths
Teaching children to take deep breaths when they begin to get upset may seem simplistic, but it is a life-long skill for managing stress that has emotional, behavioral, and biological benefits.
How to teach it before you need it: There are many opportunities to teach deep breathing during the course of the day. You can model it: “Oh, dear, I’m so frustrated! I think I’ll take a deep breath.” You can role play about it: “This dinosaur is disappointed he didn’t get to go first— he’s going to go take three deep breaths to help him calm down.”
How to coach it in the moment: Guess what your child is feeling and offer the skill. “Wow, you look like you’re getting frustrated with that tower. Now might be a great time for three deep breaths. Let’s take them together.”
Count to Ten
Counting to ten (or whatever number is developmentally appropriate for your child) has many of the same benefits of deep breaths. The most valuable part of teaching children to count to ten is that it creates a few moments for them to calm down before they react to a situation.
How to teach it before you need it: The same techniques for teaching deep breathing can work for counting to ten. “I’m getting so frustrated! I’m going to count to ten.”
While reading a book, discuss a character’s feelings, and comment, “I bet that boy could take a deep breath and count to five to calm down.” It is always powerful for your children to see you try out a skill: “You know, Justin, Mommy is getting frustrated. I’m going to go count to ten to calm down and then I’ll come back and we’ll solve this problem.”
How to coach it in the moment: “Kaylee, you look pretty angry—do you want to count to five or ten to calm down?”
Positive self-talk is a way for kids to coach themselves. We know that what we tell ourselves about our situation or our ability to handle it creates our beliefs and has a major impact on what happens next. Coming up with developmentally appropriate positive statements that a child can say or think right after taking deep breaths and counting helps him calm down and eventually be able to problem solve in the situation.
How to teach it before you need it: You can point out times in real life, the media, sports, or stories when people can give themselves positive messages. “Julian, you know what? I’m getting frustrated trying to make this cake turn out right. I am going to take three deep breaths and count to five. Now I’m going to tell myself, ‘I know I can do this. It’s okay if it’s not perfect.’ ” With older children, you can talk about how baseball batters, after they swing through a strike, are coaching themselves, “I know I can hit this next ball.”
How to coach it in the moment: “James, I know you’re disappointed about striking out. I’m so glad you were able to take a deep breath and count to five. Now how about saying to yourself, ‘I know I’m a good player. Even professional players strike out. I know I can do it next time.’ ”
Visualization is the skill of being able to take oneself quickly to a calm place, such as being able to visualize being on a beach, or under a protective tree in some forest, in order to gain a few moments of emotional escape.
How to teach it before you need it: You can take advantage of bedtime, when children often need help to relax to fall asleep. Ask your child to tell you about a place or places where she feels safe and calm. Ask her to paint a picture of that place in her head and imagine herself there. Remind her that this is her special place, and that she can go there any time she is feeling afraid, lonely, angry, etc.
How to coach it in the moment: “Rachel, I can tell you are feeling really overwhelmed. Now might be a great time for you to take a moment to picture that place that makes you feel calm. Do you want to take some time to do that by yourself, or would you like us to draw a picture of your place together?”
Positive Outcome Visualization
This is visualizing a positive outcome to the current difficult situation, such as a child visualizing assertively asking for a turn on the swings rather than shoving his brother off them.
How to teach it before you need it: For a young child who is having trouble waiting his turn at school, you might teach him to create a “mind picture” of himself standing in line for the drinking fountain, singing the ABC song in his head to help him successfully wait his turn. For older children, using an example of sports offers a great opportunity to teach kids about the idea of visualization, because it is a common method used by many of the great coaches. While watching a basketball game, you can talk with your child about the ways that coaches not only teach their players to physically practice skills, but to also visualize themselves making progress and having positive outcomes.
How to coach it in the moment: This skill is best used when a child is relatively calm. Once a child has taken deep breaths and counted to ten, then you can remind him of his visualizing a positive outcome in the past. This may be enough to help him revisit that vision, and attempt to make the vision come true.
Ask for Help
It’s important to remind children, regardless of their age, that it is okay to ask for help. While we all want children to work toward self-mastery, we also need to teach them how and when to reach out.
How to teach it before you need it: One of the most effective ways to teach children that it’s okay to ask for help is to model it for them. Be sure that they see you asking others for help when you are frustrated. For example, when you feel you are reaching your limit with an angry child, you might say to your parenting partner, “I’m feeling frustrated right now. Can you please come help Jacob pick up his toys for me?” Then be sure to model an appropriate self-calming method, such as breathing deeply or taking a time-out in your room.
How to coach it in the moment: “Cole, you are looking pretty frustrated with tying that shoe. I noticed you’ve done a great job taking deep breaths and counting to five. Remember that it’s okay to ask for help if you need it.”
Making Good Decisions While Angry
An important concept for children to learn is that being angry and making a good decision need not be mutually exclusive processes. Learning how to maintain good judgment even when emotion runs high is a sign of maturity. Children can learn over time that they can separate their feelings from their behavior. Making a good decision may mean taking steps to calm down; other times it may mean making a decision to successfully solve the problem. It is particularly important for children to see you model this skill. And it is one you will want to coach them through often until they get the hang of it.
Jennifer Anne Brown, MSW, and Pam Provonsha Hopkins, MSW are mental health therapists in private practice in the Seattle suburbs. You may use this article as long as you credit the authors, include Parenting Press’s copyright notice and reference the Parenting Press URL, www.ParentingPress.com.