Parents Do Make A Difference!

6 Ways to Help Foster Kids Express Anger Constructively!

by Michele Borba, Ed.D.
It’s hard finding a parent these days who isn’t worried about their kids’ emotional well-being. And rightly so! These are scary, hard times to raise any child, but for children who have had trauma in their lives, it’s especially difficult. And there’s no doubt foster children are amongst the highest at risk.

In my work as a consultant in schools, one of the biggest trends I’m seeing with all kids is an increase in aggression and anger. Whether we care to admit it or not, the steady onslaught of violent images on television, video games, the Internet, movies, music lyrics, and in our newspapers are hurting our children. Tragically, many foster kids are not just seeing images in print or on a screen: they have personally witnessed them. The result: too many kids are becoming desensitized to violence, and have learned that anger is the only way to solve a problem.

While that’s the bad news, there is some good news and here it is: violence is learned, but so is calmness! That simply means we can teach children how to express their anger so they stay in control and out of trouble. But it’s not just that we can teach our kids anger management skills, we must teach them and we must do so deliberately, consciously and passionately. Doing so will make a significant difference in their lives, because they’ll be able to use these skills not only know but forever.

I’ve included six ideas from my new book, Parents Do Make a Difference to help teach your kids calmer more constructive ways to express their anger. These ideas have been presented to many foster parents in training sessions and the feedback has been profound: they’re simple techniques and when used consistently they will work. And the younger we teach these techniques to children, the better! It’s one of the ways we can prevent the development of aggressive, hostile behavior that is tormenting too many kids today. Here’s six ideas to get you started:

1. Model Calmness. The best way to teach kids how to deal with anger constructively is by showing them through your example! After all, you don’t learn how to calm down by reading about it in a book, but by seeing someone do it. Use those frustrating experiences as "on-the-spot lessons" of ways to calm down. Here’s an example. Suppose you get a phone call from the auto shop saying your car estimate has now doubled. You’re furious! Standing nearby is your child hearing the conversation and now watching you very closely. Muster every ounce of calmness and use it as an instant anger control lesson: "I am so angry right now" you calmly tell your child. "The auto shop just doubled the price for fixing my car." Then offer a calm-down solution: "I’m going on a quick walk so I can get back in control." You’re now a living example of calmness, and that example is what your child will copy.

2. Exit and Calm Down. One of the toughest parts of parenting is when children address their anger towards us. If you’re not careful, you find their anger fueling emotions in you that you never realized were in you. Beware: anger is contagious. It’s best to make a rule in your home from the start: "In this house we solve problems when we’re calm and in control." And then consistently reinforce the rule.

Here’s an example of how you might use it. The next time your child is angry and wants a quick solution, you might say, "I need a time out. Let’s talk about this later" and then exit calmly and don’t answer back. I had one foster mom tell me her only escape was to lock herself in the bathroom. The child continued kicking and screaming, but she would not come out until he was calm. It took a few "locked up times" for the child to realize she meant business. And from then on the child knew that mom would only talk about the problem when he was in control.

Exiting calmly then talking is especially difficult rule to uphold when you’re dealing with aggressive kids who love power struggles. I did a two-day foster training in Pasadena recently and a foster dad told me one of his teenage boys always wanted to argue everything. Too often, the father admitted, he ended up heatedly arguing with him. So he decided to try the rule that night. As predicted, the boy came up angry and immediately started yelling. Remembering the rule, the father calmly looked at him saying, "You sound upset. Let’s talk when you’re in control," and walked away. Later that evening, the teenager questioned the father, "Hey, what’s wrong with you anyway?" When the father asked what he meant, the son replied, "Well, you didn’t yell at me. Something must be the matter with you" and walked away. At the next day’s training session, the father explained how the encounter convinced him to stop getting into power struggles with his son. And he vowed from then on to exit at the first sign of confrontation, and talk later when everyone was calm.

3. Develop a Feeling Vocabulary. Many kids display anger because they simply don’t know how to express their frustrations any other way. Kicking, screaming, swearing, hitting or throwing things may be the only way they know how to show their feelings. Asking this kid to "tell me how you feel" is unrealistic, because he may not have learned the words to tell you how he is feeling! To help him express his anger, create a feeling word poster together saying: "Let’s think of all the words we could use that tell others we’re really angry" then list his ideas. Here’s a few: angry, mad, frustrated, furious, irritated, ticked off, irate, and incensed. Write them on a chart, hang it up, and practice using them often. When your child is angry, use the words so he can apply them to real life: "Looks like you’re really angry. Want to talk about it?" or "You seem really irritated. Do you need to walk it off?" Then keep adding new emotion words to the list whenever new ones come up in those great "teachable moments" opportunities throughout the day.

4. Create a Calm Down Poster.
There’s dozens of ways to help kids calm down when they first start to get angry. Unfortunately, many kids have never been given the opportunity to think of those other possibilities. And so they keep getting into trouble because the only way they know inappropriate ways to express their anger So talk with your child about more acceptable "replacer" behaviors. You might want to make a big poster listing them. Here’s a few ideas a group of fourth graders thought of: walk away, think of a peaceful place, run a lap, listen to music, hit a pillow, shoot baskets, draw pictures, talk to someone, or sing a song. Once the child chooses his "calm down" technique, encourage him to use the same strategy each time he starts to get angry. Repetition of the new anger management strategy again and again is the best way for it to become a habit.

5. Develop an Awareness of Early Warning Signs. Explain to your child that we all have little signs that warn us when we’re getting angry. We should listen to them because they can help us stay out of trouble. Next, help your child recognize what specific warning signs she may have that tells her she’s starting to get upset such as, "I talk louder, my cheeks get flushed, I clench my fists, my heart pounds, my mouth gets dry and I breathe faster." Once she’s aware of them, start pointing them out to her whenever she first starts to get frustrated. "Looks like you’re starting to get out of control." or "Your hands are in a fist now. Do you feel yourself starting to get angry?" You may want to develop a secret signal between the two of you like touching your ear or tapping your head that you can use in public.

The more we help kids recognize those early angry warning signs when their anger is first triggered, the better they will be able to calm themselves down. It’s also the time when anger management strategies are most effective. Anger escalates very quickly, and waiting until a child is already in "melt down" to try to get her back into control is usually too late.

6. Teach Anger Control Strategies. A very effective strategy for helping kids to calm down is called "3 + 10." You might want to print the formula on large pieces of paper and hang them all around your house. Then tell the child how to use the formula: "As soon as you feel your body sending you a warning sign that says you’re losing control, do two things. First, take 3 deep slow breaths from your tummy." (Please, please model this with your child. Show her how to take a deep breath. Tell him to pretend she’s riding an escalator. Start at the bottom step and as you take the breath ride up the escalator slowly. Hold it! Now ride slowly down the escalator releasing your breath steadily at the same time). "That’s 3. Now count slowly to ten inside your head. That’s 10. Put them all together, it’s 3 + 10 and it helps you calm down."

Final Thoughts:
Teaching kids a new way to deal with their anger constructively is not easy-- especially if they have only practiced aggressive ways to deal with their frustrations. Research tells us learning new behaviors--such as recognizing anger triggers, exiting then talking, 3 +10--take a minimum of 21 days of repetition. So here’s my recommendation: Choose one skill your child needs to be more successful and emphasize the same skill a few minutes every day for at least 21 days! After he learns that skill, then teach the next (and the next and the next). Think of your teaching as "one minute a day for 21 days" and it instantly becomes more realistic. Besides, the possibility your child will really learn the new skill will be much stronger, because he’s been practicing the same technique over and over, and that’s exactly the way you learn any new skill. It’s also the best way to stem the onslaught of violence and help our kids lead more successful, peaceful lives. You do make a difference!

Michele Borba, Ed.D. is an internationally-recognized consultant on increasing children’s self-esteem and achievement and is the author of 24 publications including Parents Do Make A Difference: How to Raise Kids with Solid Character, Strong Minds, and Caring Hearts. A former classroom teacher and parent of three sons, she has presented keynotes and workshops to over half a million participants worldwide and is a frequent guest on radio and television talk shows.

© 1999 by Michele Borba. Adapted from Parents Do Make A Difference: How to Raise Kids with Solid Character, Strong Minds, and Caring Hearts. Jossey-Bass Publishers, 350 Sansome Street, San Francisco, CA 94104. 1999. $18.00 paperback, 320 pages. ISBN 0-7879-4605-2 Order: Call: 916-939-8246 or fax 916-939-8246. Please contact for permission to reprint.

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