“I HATE you!” Titus yelled this at his brothers more times than I could count. Per day. The “I hate you” stage had been preceded by the kicking stage and the biting stage and had preceded that. I desperately wanted to help Titus overcome his anger, but dealing with it was just so emotionally draining. I felt like locking myself in the bathroom and just letting the kids work it out. I felt so helpless I would often find a private place to sob. Today Titus is an angsty, hormonal teenager, but everyone around him can see how incredibly far he’s come. To write the post about angry teenagers, I would have to pull from stories about clients rather than Titus, which is astounding if you knew the road we traveled to get here. I originally shared this post in the middle of a really bad season of anger for him, and today I still work with kiddos who are where Titus once was. I felt this post needed a fresh coat of paint to help the mamas who are in that stage toddler to pre-teen stage with an angry child.
1. Take care of yourself
Every mom has heard the old “put your own oxygen mask on” analogy a million times, so here’s a million and one. We know we should do it, but we usually don’t. You can’t effectively handle the stress of an angry child unless you make time to do what keeps your own emotions healthy. Even if it’s 5 minutes here and there, you have to do it. If you can’t do it for you, do it for the big picture- if you are too drained, you may lose your own cool and not have the strength to model the emotional control you’re try to teach your kiddo.
2. Look for the emotions “under” the anger
Anger is usually a secondary emotion. It’s more heated and displays itself more readily, but even in adults, it’s a blanket hiding fear, anxiety, shame, insecurity, or helplessness underneath. One way to find the emotion under the anger is to work backward. When I caught Titus in the middle of an “I hate you” tirade, I would get down to his level and calmly say, “No, you don’t hate your brother, you’re angry at him. Why are you angry at him?” Following backward through whatever the dispute was, I could determine that Titus was, for instance, feeling left out and wanting his brother’s attention.
When counseling children I use an emotions chart to help them work backward. I recently discussed an outburst with a little boy that he’d had at school. He had done poorly on a test and didn’t receive a reward that had been promised for those who did well. His teacher thought his anger was over not getting the reward, and tried to help him understand that if he had done his best he could have received it. By using the emotions chart, the little boy was able to express to me that what he actually felt was embarrassment, because by not getting the reward, all the other kids automatically knew he had not done well on the test.
3. Teach an emotional vocabulary
We tell children to “use their words,” but they can do that more effectively if we aren’t just teaching them to tell about the situation, but are also teaching them “feelings words.” There are plenty of resources out there for doing this- books, charts, games, and even apps. One of my favorite ways to help Titus understand emotions was by reading with him. I didn’t go out of my way to find special books on specific emotions but had an agenda as I read books he already liked and was interested in.
As we went along, I would ask questions like, “What do you think he was feeling that made him want to do that? How would you feel if that happened to you? Would you respond the same way he did?” We did the same when we watched movies, even if it meant having to hit pause button because Mom had found a teachable moment (*still true today, though as teenagers our topics are different!). Kids aren’t usually asked these questions until they begin to advance in reading comprehension, but by asking them early and often, we help not just their reading comprehension, but their emotional intelligence and social skills. Helping understand others’ emotions will help them understand their own, and when they understand them they can begin to learn to process them in healthier ways.
4. Use object lessons
Most kids remember things much more easily with an object lesson. My favorite uses a can of soda. I will slowly begin to shake the can, as I explain how sometimes things people say can hurt our feelings, things that happen can make us feel sad, or whatever I know might apply to that child. We sometimes don’t know how to talk about how we feel, or we’re afraid we’ll get in trouble, so we hold our feelings in, but they start to rumble around inside of us. We can’t forget the feelings because we haven’t let them out, so they just keep on rumbling. As I tell about this I am shaking the can more and more rapidly.
I explain to the child how finally, some small something happens that hurts us, and we explode- and of
course, I open the can- and discuss how all our pent-up feelings can explode into anger, which spills over onto those around us, and can hurt them. I talk to them about James 4:26- “In your anger, do not sin.” It’s okay to feel angry, but we need to be sure we don’t let our anger cause us to do the wrong thing, and hurt someone else. I always let them drink the rest, and they never forget the spewing soda eruption.
For pre-teens, I might talk about a simmering pot building up steam and eventually boiling over, unless of course the spewing soda is more applicable. Some pre-teens and teens don’t spew, but simmer, exhibiting more passive-aggressive behaviors rather than overt meltdowns.
5. Give them safe times to talk to you
We can’t expect a child to have time to process their emotions with us if we don’t really listen or make opportunities to talk. Very seldom will a child sit down with us like our friend at the coffee shop and vent- especially little boys. I find I have to do something with them that allows them to not have to make eye contact with me. Coloring, building with Legos, going for a walk, or playing with Playdoh or in a sandbox are examples of “mindless” activities you can do together that can present talking opportunities. With my older kids, playing a video game with them or talking to them when driving are ways to get them to open up. Look for chances to get them one-on-one, because they aren’t likely to open up with a sibling or friend around. I used to take a different child to the grocery store with me each week and buy them a soda to make it a more special outing. Find what works for your family and schedule to build in that time on a regular basis.
6. While listening, key in on things that might elicit an emotion, and suggest what you think the child’s emotion might be
Kids will likely share only the facts- don’t hear only the facts. If my son tells me he made an A on a test I know he was anxious about, I’ll say, “Wow, I bet that made you feel much more confident in that class.” If a child tells me someone didn’t want to play with him at recess, I’ll say, “Oh, did that make you feel left out? I would feel sad if that happened to me.” Usually they will agree, but as they grow emotionally they will begin to add in other emotions- their own emotions, rather than the ones you’ve placed there by power of suggestion. Either way, they feel heard and empathized with.
7. Pray with them and for them
Praying with them will model for them how they can pray alone. Once they learn to pray alone, they can learn to pray during times they feel stress or pressure. Don’t underestimate this- even a very small child can ask God to help them when they feel angry, and prayer gives them an outlet for processing emotions they may not feel safe to talk about with adults in their lives. Praying for them will increase your spiritual and emotional strength to be able to deal with them, and stilling your heart before God can allow you to receive His wisdom and insight into what your child really needs.
8. Encourage Scripture memory
Draw on a few short ones that they can memorize, and even post them somewhere near their toys or write them inside a folder at school, if those are areas where they tend to have outbursts of anger. We’ve used things like Nehemiah 8:10, “The joy of the Lord is my strength,” James 1:19, “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry,” Psalm 28:7, The LORD is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and he helps me,” and Galatians 5:22, “The fruit of the spirit is… patience” or “self control.” The fruit of the Spirit is a great passage for character trait teaching, but it doesn’t have real meaning unless a child is able to understand what the Spirit is or means. Memorizing Scripture as an anger-management technique without teaching what it really means reduces it to nothing more than a self-help mantra, so do this wisely, with a heart towards what your child can understand. Our goal is to encourage and help them, not to set them up for a wrong view of God or of themselves.
9. Play good music
Music has a strong affect on our moods and our thought lives. Playing worship music,
classical music, or even something fun like classic rock or Broadway musical
soundtracks that you and your child enjoy in your house rather than having the tv or video games on can help their mood and mental health. Be cautious about rock and rap- for some kids this can have a mood-boosting effect, but for others it fuels anger. Also, use music wisely. Having constant noise without any quiet moments can contribute to anxiety, which sets off the fight or flight response in the same way as anger. Titus loves Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Tom Jones. Sounds so funny for a teenager, but nothing calms him down like the crooners.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. There are many great resources available to parents online and in bookstores. I simply find few that incorporate what is practical with what is spiritual- they tend to either be psychology based methods or a Sunday School lesson. Both are useful, but God has made us creatively and intricately, with physical bodies, complex minds, and deep souls, and I believe balanced care of our children’s hearts involves understanding all the “sides” of the issues that affect them.
For instance, the way I dealt with my oldest son’s anger when his dad and I divorced was more spiritually rooted, but with practical implications, such when he took his anger out on his brothers. The way I deal with Titus’ anger is more focused on his physical and mental health, like making sure he sleeps well and has exercise and downtime, especially since he is in the “special needs” category. However, I don’t neglect the spiritual, because his mental health diagnosis doesn’t diminish the need for spiritual health. Why shouldn’t Scripture memory and prayer be included in our “behavior modification strategies?” A child may have ADHD or OCD or Asperger’s and still benefit greatly from learning that God is our Helper, He can bring peace to our hearts when we feel anxious, or help us learn to be more loving when we have trouble focusing on others.
I search for good tools that are out there, but then always ask myself, “What would this technique look like in the light of God’s Word, or a Christian worldview?” I want my motive for my children’s improved behavior to be that they would learn to be more Christlike, develop a personal relationship with Him, live in obedience to God’s Word, grow into men of integrity, and learn what His purpose for their lives is- not that they would be liked or popular or make me look good in public, or even that they would behave to make my life easier today. Which means that as in every other area, change in the world around me- in this case, my children- starts with change inside of me.