Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Seeing red

Reuben's had a couple of pretty rough moments this week. Things have made him really mad, and I have watched as his body and mind explode with frustration. How can such a small body deal with the amount of anger that is coursing through it?

Heck, I don't know. My body and mind are a good bit bigger than his, and I deal with anger that is way bigger than can fit inside of me. I have learnt in recent months that anger is all about adrenalin. That it floods your body and has to find some kind of outlet. I watch this happening in Reuben and I feel for him. I recognise what's going on in there and I know what it feels like.

My patience and energy levels are pretty low and there are so many things that I don't know how to manage when it comes to helping my kids. There are other times when I do know the right way, and I still don't do it. But one time this week as Reuben's little body flapped around the floor in frustration, I think I did it the way I want to. I sat with him, I spoke gentle words in between the yelling, and I waited. That is all. When he calmed down and I got him distracted for a few minutes, I employed a technique that was suggested to me a while ago. I grabbed a pen and paper and drew a happy face, a sad face and a mad face. He knew what it was about, we've done it a couple of times in less intense situations. I asked him to tell me which one he had felt like. He smiled, pointed to the mad face, and looked up at me, his face absolutely glowing. It seems to me that it just felt so good to tell me what it had felt like. I asked him how he felt now, and he pointed to the happy face. It unlocked the door to a remarkable conversation where I discussed how bad it feels when you're mad, and he told me what it was that led to him getting in to that state. It was gold.

Parents, I wonder if you have ever tried this with your little guys. If not, you may like to give it a go. I'm sure it's an idea that is familiar to many, but I'm glad I heard about it. I'm passionate about my kids learning how to recognise their feelings and verbalise them (and "let them out" if need be), and this has been a great way for Reuben to start.

Somewhere in the midst of this rather challenging week I put a question up on my facebook page asking parents how they mange their children's anger. There were no responses. This may have been a reluctance to share private family matters in a public space, or to get in to a discussion where different approaches might be critiqued. Or it may have just been a hard one to answer. But I would love to know, simply for the sake of helping me find my place on this - how do you manage anger with your kids? Is it ok for your children to be angry? How are they allowed to express it? How are they not allowed to express it? Would you be happy to share how it works in your family and how you worked out those guidelines? We won't do any critiquing. And as I read and ponder, I'll join in and let you know where we're heading with our family guidelines. Having some seems like a good idea.


  1. Well done you. I really like that technique and hadn't heard of it before. I will definitely keep it in mind.
    I think the feelings my kids struggle with the most (during daylight hours anyway) are to do with frustration. I can't offer much, but I have always been really careful to separate the feeling from the behaviour. "I can see you are feeling so frustrated right now, and that is completely OK, but it's not OK to hit" for example. It also allows you to have a go at naming the feeling you are seeing (and providing them with the language to do so in the future). You could also offer an alternative behaviour, but I've never quite been as on to it as that in the situation!
    Actually, I do remember seeing and acknowledging anger, because I remember being careful to make sure that she knew that the anger was completely OK to feel, it's her behaviour in expressing that feeling that wasn't. I can't remember what it was about though!
    When he does it well, you could use the same technique afterwards to acknowledge how well he did. "I could see that you were feeling really angry earlier, and I was really proud of the way you....."
    I hope you get some more useful input than this!

    1. No this is awesome, thanks for contributing. I like what you said about naming the feeling so that they can identify it. It can be hard to remember to do in the heat of the moment.
      I'm really interested in your comment about it being OK to feel angry, but that the resulting behaviour was not ok. I wonder if you can remember anymore details, as in, what she was doing that was not ok. I'm especially interested in the idea of how it IS ok to express anger, and how it's not - where we draw the line.

    2. I can't remember details to be honest. Probably she was hitting or demonstrating some other behaviour that she knows is not OK (especially if it means harming something/someone else). I have read through some of the comments below and wow! What a lot of fantastic stuff there is! I will come back to this several times I think.
      I know Reuben is not an especially angry child, but to be fair, of all the 4 year olds I know, he has the most right to be angry, and when he is angry, I can totally understand why you want to manage it well, as he will continue to have a huge right to be angry throughout his whole life.
      My random thoughts for Reuben: alone time has definitely had it's place in our family. If you have "big feeling" (whatever type of feeling that is), there is definitely a place for taking it to a space of your own to process that.
      But, sometimes anger does need to be let out in a physical way. Maybe buy a special pillow or some other object that is for when he is angry. He can punch, kick, whatever, as long as it's directed at that particular object (whatever it may be - as long as he can't get hurt!). Hell, why not even a boxing bag! (My brother has done boxing, and while I don't love it, I can see that there is a place for it for some people, so if this is an area you want to chat about, just call out).
      To me, the key is channeling emotion (what ever emotion it is) in an appropriate way. I am not an expert on doing this with my own emotions, but I would like to try to help my children learn how to do it with theirs as much as I can. I think it is totally up to you as a parent to decide what that appropriate way is.

      You are such an amazing mum. I am full of respect and admiration for the way you are raising your kids in the face of unimaginable heartache. xxx

  2. Hi there. I'm Matt Chapman's Mum and I found you via Titahi Bay Desperate Housewives on FB. I remember Kent as a teenager at Aotea College - a good mate of Matt's and their shared love of music, guitars etc. He was always so quiet and pleasant - and tall! His illness and death touched me as a mother and in knowing that his life was far, far too short.

    I do admire your skillfulness with Reuben and his meltdown. Do you know the fantastic book called "Little Volcanoes - Young children's anger and happiness. A hand book for parents and others caring for children" ? Authors Eliane Whitehouse and Warwick Pudney. It offers heaps of help around anger, the whys and the ways of safely expressing this emotion and the tone is kindly and reassuring. They have written similar books for school age and teens too!

    Doing some reading around brain development can help to understand meltdowns in small people as the limbic centre wires up.

    The ways to dilute adrenalin for all humans is water and big muscle activity!

    I see you are taking a big step in selling your house and moving. I hope it goes very smoothly for you. Reuben may be picking up on some of it all and feeling anxious which could lead to more emotional outbursts.

    You raise some interesting questions and it is a topic I am interested in. I used to facilitate community education around parenting and life skills, personal development workshops and courses. Understanding anger was a hot topic. We need to do well for our children in this area that causes a lot of discomfort.

    I've enjoyed reading your blog and been profoundly moved by your Griefprint blog. Take care. Lynley :-)

    1. Hi Lynley. Gosh. It's lovely to sort-of meet you. That book sounds like very good reading. I am a big fan of finding ways for anger to be let out. I have learnt a lot for myself about how necessary and important that is. "Safely expressing" sounds like just the right thing.

      Reuben and I talk quite often about moving house and he seems to be ok with it. I think the biggest challenges in his life right now are managing loads of testosterone, and a mother who doesn't always manage things very well! But I will keep checking in with him on the moving house thing.

      I'd be really interested in your thoughts and experiences around how to let children express their anger.

      Thank you so much for joining me in this and Griefprint.

    2. Thanks, Lynley! This is very helpful stuff.

  3. Gosh Angela, this is a hard one and I have been thinking about it since I read your post on Tues, wondering how to answer those questions. It has actually been really helpful to have been prompted to think about this a little more intentionally. I probably don't handle my kids anger very well most of the time because it often coincides with my own impatience or short temper. I think that most of their anger, particularly for O, is about feeling misunderstood or not listened to. I have come to realise that this is a big one for her and is quite central to the make up of her mood. But then isn't that key for most of us. Feeling understood, validated and listened to. I love the idea that you used with Reuben and I have been waiting for an opportunity to use it this week (it just happened to be a relatively good week so haven't had a need for it yet, but I'll report back when we do!). I find that when things have escalated out of control some alone time in her room is often helpful, just so she can cool off and get herself to a place where she is able to articulate (as well as a 3yr old can!) how she's feeling. Acknowledging the frustration helps and then we try to talk about ways that it might have been handled better. Like I said earlier though this is a work in progress!

    1. Thanks Hannah, I love to know when people are reading and thinking. I've been thinking a bit about looking at what other emotions are causing the anger, I like this idea. I'm interested in the alone time to cool off too, I am gathering this works for some kids but not all, so it is a good thing to try and work out. It sounds like you guys are doing a great job, thanks for sharing!

  4. Hi Angela, I've had a dig into my files and found this which might be of some use in options around the safe expression of anger:

    Helping children express angry feelings in a healthy way

    • Spend time when they are young helping them match up the feelings with the behaviours with the words.e.g. I can see by your stamping feet that you are feeling frustrated
    • Teach them to use their words e.g. “Tell Kathy, Stop it, I don’t like it when you hit me.”
    • Teach them what it is safe to hit, kick or throw
    • Encourage them to do some big muscle activity when they are angry e.g stamp to loud music, jump on a trampoline, run three times around the backyard, ride their bike
    • Offer them lots of water play. Water is very soothing
    • Watch them, spot the clues and tell them what you are seeing e.g “I can see by your clenched fists that you are feeling mad.”
    • Distract them to another activity that will help them release feelings and calm down e.g playing with play dough, drawing on big sheets of paper, playing with water
    • Encourage them to have a thinking place or to take time out when they are older
    • Reassure them that feeling angry is OK. Offer cuddles too.
    • Encourage them to find a trusted adult to be with when their feelings heat up
    • Let them talk it out. All we need to do is LISTEN!
    • Older children could develop a plan of action when they feel angry. Plan and practice the plan in calm moments
    • Encourage them to use their voice, music, arts, crafts and writing
    • Offer them time with an animal or pet
    • Counting to 10, 100 or backwards from 10, 100
    • Check out with them what feelings could be under their anger – feelings of hurt, loss, powerlessness
    • Distract them, remove them, ignore them, hold them
    • Help them monitor their feelings and encourage them to be the boss of their own anger
    • Encourage them to learn what helps them to calm down

    Hmm some of the formatting has gone a bit crazy but I think it all makes sense.

    Small children have so little power over their lives that a lot of their frustrated outbursts stem from this. The development of their limbic system is raw and new which keeps things in overwhelm for them much of the time. Heaps of love and reassurance from trusted adults is so critical. Strong feelings can be scarey until we learn that they are simply feelings.

    Another tip that I found useful as a parent and now a grandparent is the checklist HATTSS - Hungry, Attention (real undivided attention), Thirsty, teething( where age appropriate), Sleep (ie short of sleep, need a sleep, time for bed at night) and Sick ( are they getting sick, recovering from being sick?) Sometimes you could make add "C" to HATTSS for change - what has changed in their lives, going to change.

    Knowing your child is such a critical part of parenting. Their personality, temperament, preferences, stage of development and skill level ( later to begin talking can cause real frustrations and hiccups asking more of their care-givers to assist and encourage them), their current passions etc etc. So if Reuben is brim full of testosterone he may respond well to lots of big muscle activity or stomping about to music, pretending to be a roaring lion, a stamping dinosaur to release that pent up stuff and with it angry feelings.....

    I'm still learning about anger and me so perhaps it is a life-long process.....we can best aim for being "good enough" and seek growth and learning.

    This is an interesting discussion.....Take care:-)

    1. This is amazing, thank you so much! I was particularly interested in the third point above, but this gives me loads more to think about. There are some things here that look really useful. It seems to be a combination of avoiding anger if possible, then managing it and helping them to identify it when it does happen.

      This weather and your comment above has encouraged me to get the water table out again!

      I must say somewhere here that anger is not a problem for Reuben, I just feel strongly about managing it right when it does happen on occasion.

      Thank you so much for putting this up for us. I'll be checking back often and will point my friends towards it as well.

  5. Gosh, this is a great thread! Thanks Angela and friends - especially that list from Lynley!

    My boy is 22 months and sunny in temperament, so I can't speak with much authority from personal experience - who knows what things will be like at 4? or 14?

    My own approach for all things emotional is to treat him as I would an adult who is having difficult feelingsI guess I have worked professionally with a large number of people who haven't got much 'emotional literacy' and I feel strongly about helping my boy develop it.

    Some key principles I use often with adults (and now with my boy) are:

    - listen to how someone is feeling before trying to fix things
    - show you've listened well by reflecting things back, so they know they've been understood
    - be realistic about hard feelings - it's natural to feel sad or angry sometimes.

    So if he's grumpy, grizzly or upset, I ask him things like 'Are you feeling sad?' 'Are you a bit upset?' 'Are you disappointed we had to leave?' 'Is it a bit sad that Daddy's gone to work?' We try hard to give him the vocabulary for expressing how he's feeling.

    Lynley's suggestions of adding to this our observations connecting the physical to the feelings is brilliant - thank you.

    I don't think he gets angry, as such, very often. If he gets a bit yelly it tends to be frustration that something hasn't gone his way or he hasn't been understood. We tend to ask him to 'use nice words' which has ended up being code for 'calm down and try again' and this almost always does reset things - perhaps partly because he knows, both in the moment, and perhaps from experience, that we are listening and want to try again too.

    My thoughts are really more on emotional stuff generally rather than anger, specifically, Angela, but here they are for what they're worth.

    Oh, also, something basic that really makes a huge difference for us is physically getting down to his level when getting to the bottom of an outburst.

    Thanks again for this discussion! Great stuff!

    1. Loads of lovely ideas that I get to see you putting in to practice often!

  6. I've hesitated about commenting because i'm not a parent. But I read a cool book recently and it had some good ideas, it was called "How to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk" by Faber and Mazlish. It was a good read and the first chapter was all about how to help kids deal with their feelings. Essentially the chapter was about empathy, it recommended listening with full attention, acknowledging the feelings and naming the feelings - these have all been suggested already. The last recommendation though was quite surprising and worth considering - to grant a child's wishes in fantasy. So if your kid is frustrated and angry because they can't do what they want to do right now because you need to be somewhere else you can say I wish we could magically create another hour in the day so you could keep playing and enjoying yourself. You take their wants and feelings into account, and acknowledge them, just letting them know that you would like to help them makes a difference. In a later chapter there was also a discussion of showing respect for a child's struggle. Even to say, I can see you feel frustrated I feel like that too when I have to stop doing something i'm really enjoying. It helps the child to know that to struggle is normal and that you don't just think they are being silly or annoying.

    1. Oh yes! So good to have you a part of this discussion and I love that book! The first chapter really hit home for me as it's stuff I feel strongly about. I read it when Reuben was little and all this stuff was really ahead of us, and have recently got it off the bookshelf and started again. It's so packed with information I think I meed to make notes!

    2. I'm so pleased that people still know Faber and Mazlish's book. It is fantastic and their techniques really work with children. The comic summaries are helpful to busy parents as a quick flick reminder.

    3. Yes, I also love the book, and was also struck by the 'give them their wish in fantasy' tip, which I now use a lot.

  7. Reuben was really mad about something this evening and I took him to my room and let him bash a pillow. He said he wanted to throw something, so we went to his room, got a soft ball and he threw it at the cupboard doors. It turned in to peels of laughter as the ball went (safely) all over the place. We did a lot of talking at the same time about how he was feeling and how best to help, and how to let his frustrations out in a controlled way. This is probably not a common thing to do but I have been giving it a lot of thought and feel good about it. It was wonderfully successful too. We'll be continuing to work in this way.

  8. It would be interesting to know a bit more about the value of using fantasy after acknowledging feelings etc. But it works, it is fun and a positive and it stimulates those wonderful imaginations so it is good no matter what effects it is having on brain development and stress chemicals.
    I've been thinking a lot during the week about how boys need to have emotional literacy and be allowed to feel and express all the emotions we are blessed with. Emotions such as sadness, vulnerability, hurt. And be allowed to not know everything and thereby feel the uncomfy stuff around uncertainty. When a knee gets grazed it HURTS and with acknowledgement of that, a big cuddle and attention, lots of soothing words the child(especially boys) get to feel and experience reality in a named and supported way. Being tough endlessly isn't particularly real or helpful....
    Has anyone read a good book on emotional literacy please? I'd like to find one.

    1. Lynley, are you after a book for kids or adults?

      Oh, also this great Sesame Street song about feelings!

  9. Angela, I still think a lot about this.

    I came across this article today with some good ideas, and it also reminded me of this YouTube clip that worked really well with a five-year-old I know who had anxiety problems. We use it with J too when he's tizzifying.


    1. This is great thank you! I've tried the breathing thing with Reuben and it hasn't worked (so far). I think it feels too far from the topic at hand, and not enough of an acknowledgment of what he is feeling. But I am passionate about good breathing in general, and would love to try some of her techniques for both my kids when they're in a good frame of mind.

      She has some other great ideas that I am keen to try though, and I love the idea of having everything that's needed to express anger in one place. It's so good to read that people are acknowledging the need for an anger outlet.