When kids (and adults) experience tangled and confusing emotions that are difficult to express, what often comes out is anger. It feels vulnerable to be anxious, ashamed, sad, embarrassed, disappointed, discouraged, overwhelmed, confused, hurt or rejected. A typical response is to self-protect by avoiding or hiding those emotions under a layer of anger. We may not even be aware of those emotions. Unfortunately, when what we show is our anger, that’s usually what we get back from others, and it escalates the conflict instead of solving it.
Helping kids understand this emotional dynamic can be a challenge. We’ve designed a fun activity for you, adaptable for different ages or learning styles to equip your kids with the insight they’ll need for less meltdowns now, and healthy relationships in the future.
Paper Plate Activity (for visual or concrete learners)
- Name a few common unhappy or heavy emotions your child might experience (i.e. from the list above or a google search).
- Draw a face on the rounded back of a paper plate to represent each emotion, and talk about them until you feel your child understands. (see other options below for age adaptations and styles of learning)
- Draw an angry face on a paper plate. You can say: “Sometimes when we are angry, that anger makes us feel more powerful, but it covers up the real emotions we are feeling.” (Set the angry plate on top of one of the other plates.) “But the anger doesn’t actually make us more powerful, and it often causes more problems when people get angry back at us. Covering up with anger also keeps us from solving the real problems underneath.”
- Share with your kids about a time when you covered up an unhappy emotion with anger and what happened as a result. Demonstrate with the plates, and talk about what you wish you had done in your situation. For example, if you had understood how you really felt, how might you have solved the problem or calmed down more easily?
- Ask your child about a time when they might have covered up an emotion with anger. You can recount an example if they can’t remember, and ask them about it. Help your child figure out what was underneath the anger, and how they might solve the problem, or feel better about that kind of situation. For example, “When I’m worried and lonely, I can remember that Mommy is coming back after snack time.”
Once your kids understand the idea, keep modeling; refer back to this activity when you are having a hard time or feeling angry, and even let your kids help you figure out your emotions hiding under your anger. For example,
“I had my angry face on just now, but I realized that underneath…
- I’m worried we will be late for your doctor appointment.”
- I’m sad you’ve hurt each other’s feelings.”
- I’m overwhelmed that the house is such a mess.”
If parents work this into everyday, casual conversation, kids will understand this is an activity that is helping everyone learn and grow, not a parental plot to “fix my bad behavior.”
Over time, if you continue to model this, your kids will probably spontaneously identify their underlying emotions, or be open to your gentle question, “You seem really angry! I feel that way sometimes. Do you think there is another emotion plate under your anger? Figuring that out could help us make things better.”
Key points for success:
- Affirm any attempt your child makes to identify or be honest about underlying feelings.
- Poke a little fun at yourself and keep it all light-hearted.
- Lead the way with your authenticity and vulnerability.
- Keep it short; “leave ‘em wanting more.” Start with a few basic emotions.
- Be sure to model it several times before using with an upset child!
- Don’t give up. Even if kids were resistant, silly or distracted at first, many parents we’ve coached had good results later.
When you persevere with this important teaching, your kids will learn to thoughtfully understand what is going on inside of them so they can work toward a solution with others. Picture your child as an adult, working through a conflict in an important relationship. Most certainly your hope is not for a raging, destructive argument, but rather an insightful conversation revealing real feelings and desires, aimed at solving the problem. There is hardly a more important skill if you want to equip your kids for a lifetime of rich relationships!
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Read more for ideas on learning style/age adaptations, and fun examples from families using this idea.
Learning style/age adaptations:
- Non-readers: follow directions above.
- Grade-school readers: instead of a stack of plates, you can just have one plate, or let kids draw an angry face. Write the hidden emotions written on the back.
- Tweens or teens: use a visual of the anger iceberg – either print, draw it out, or just talk about the concept. Parents, focus on humbly modeling this before you ask them about their underlying feelings.
- Make it a family movie night as you watch Inside Out and talk about what you relate to. This might lead to deeper discussions about other things that we use to cover up vulnerable feelings, like withdrawal or isolation, or working overly hard at something to distract us, etc.
Here are a few statements from parents we have mentored who used this activity with their kids:
- “I had a good laugh with my 11 and 13-year-old girls when we showed each other our angry plates; they insisted I needed hair standing straight up on mine! We had some great discussions, and several months later when I was in an argument with my mom (their grandma), they light-heartedly asked if we needed to get out some paper plates.” – Stacy, mom of two girls
- “A week after our discussion, my 6-year-old was furious that she didn’t get a chance to roll out her crust for our homemade pizza. After I apologized and she had cooled down, I grabbed the plate stack. She pulled out the ones she felt that matched her emotions: concern and fear that it wouldn’t taste as good since she didn’t make it, frustration and jealousy because she had missed out on a favorite activity.” – Lisa, mom of one boy and one girl
- “Now when either of the kids is mad about something, without needing to refer back to the plates, I acknowledge their ‘mad’ and ask what else they think is going on underneath it. We are doing much better at solving conflicts.” Laura, mom of one boy and one girl.