Have you ever directed an angry child to go punch a pillow, hoping that would provide some release of their frustration? Parents have even bought their angry kids punching bags in hopes it will help. Good idea. Bad plan. It turns out this usually backfires.
Here’s why: Punching a pillow or yelling loudly to let off steam does nothing to constructively direct the anger. It gets a kid all worked up, adrenaline flowing, with no real resolution to their anger. After the punching and yelling are done, the problem is still there, and the child has learned to aggressively vent their anger at something they’re not really angry at. This usually teaches kids to be passive aggressive.
So if your idea is to truly help your kids constructively express their anger, help them make a plan that involves expressing it at the object of their anger. Help them learn new skills for constructively expressing anger.
Following this popular belief, my wife Lynne recalls the time she went out into the garage, and screamed and kicked the tires of the car. “I was hoping to subdue my intense anger at my kids. Instead of releasing my tension I added a sore throat, stubbed toe and feelings of foolishness to my anger.”
Taking out anger on inanimate objects is an improper way to direct the anger. It communicates the message, “Harming something will help you feel back in control.” In fact, research shows that recommending “”catharsis” as a good method of dealing with anger actually may foster aggression by giving people permission to relax their self-control.” (NY Times, 1999, emphasis added)
A better message is, “If you figure out what you’re feeling and take responsibility for that, it will help you feel back in control. Then you can constructively resolve your anger.” (See action points below for specific suggestions on how to teach this.)
A note about intense kids:
Some kids can’t process their feelings until their body calms down. Physical movement that has a purpose other than aggression certainly can help to calm a nervous system that is riled up in a “fight/flight” response. For example, one mom used to go for a run with her intense daughter when she was upset and struggling with aggressive tendencies. While running they would talk about the problem – identifying feelings and problem solving them.
Apply it now:
Model identifying and problem-solving difficult feelings yourself. “I’m really mad! I don’t know how to solve this problem, so I’m going to take some time to think about it.”Here are some practical alternatives that help kids to deal with their anger without punching anything — inanimate or otherwise.
- Suggest physical movement that has a constructive end goal. “Let’s go play a little catch (or “You can ride your bike for a bit”), and then we can talk about this issue.”
- Ask kids questions that help them identify feelings. “You seem really upset. Tell me about that.” If they can’t figure it out, offer some choices – “Do you feel more angry or hurt by what just happened?” Then ask, “What would you like to do about that? What would you feel good about as you look back on it?”