When children are young emotions are very black and white. Most situations can be attributed to the four main emotions, happy, sad, angry or scared. Teaching children these emotions is very important. They need to understand that they have different emotions and develop a language around these so they can discuss them freely. However, just having an understanding of these four emotions will become limiting. As children develop they need to understand the many colours of emotions. There isn't just happy, there is content, joyful, cheerful, elated and so many more. Anger can be annoyed, upset, frustrated, angry and furious. The intensity of an emotion will vary and so will the child's response to the situation around them. It is particularly important for children to understand the progression of anger and the consequences that poor anger regulation can have.
I often hear parents say "they just go from calm to exploding in no time". Well they don't really, they just don't know how to recognise the changes of the increasing intensity of anger. If they only know happy, sad, angry and scared, then they may only have one way to respond to what they recognise this feeling to be too. By giving children clues to what they are feeling at the various stages of anger, we are also giving them opportunities to manage the anger before they are out of control.
Always start with body clues
For any work involving emotions I always start with what their body is telling them. It is important that children are connected with what their body's reactions mean. By being connected and aware of they changes, they are able to to have control of what is happening, not just be swept away with the rush of emotion to a point where they can't control it.
Start by drawing the shape of a body with the intention of drawing all the things that happens to their body when they are angry. For children who really struggle to manage their anger you need to start backwards. Ask what do you do, say and feel like when you are?
Usually what you get first will be hitting, kicking, yelling, swearing etc. Then try and dig deeper, what did their head, stomach, heart feel like? Eventually you will find most of the body clues.
Once you have all the body clues, see if you can work out some sort of order. What were their first changes that made them feel uncomfortable. They may want to jump to the end again such as "I hit them", but try and bring them back to their body. Usually the first signs of anger are heart rate, breathing and muscle responses. Try and number the body changes in order.
Now you have your levels of the emotion. At this point I like to ask the child at which point will they usually be in trouble. Will they be in trouble for having their heart beat fast or breathing too quick? Obviously not. Will they be in trouble for having tight muscles or making a fist? Not usually but these are good clues that things are about to get out of control. Then you go into the the yelling, swearing, hitting etc. By doing this you help the child see that they did have warning signs, they are able to make choices earlier.
Then choose the body clue that has progressed but not caused harm. In this case it was the child having tight muscles and making a fist and maybe yelling. This is their red alert warning sign. They must do something to help calm if their anger gets this far, much further and there will probably be some consequences that they don't want. By having this point, they have something to work with, they can have a plan.
Now you have something to work with. When you notice that your muscles are tight, you make a fist and you start to yell, what can you do? Brainstorm as many calming activities as you can. Always have a breathing strategy. Slowing breathing has been proven to calm the body. Find one that works for the child, I went into detail of some relaxation strategies in a previous blog post if you get stuck for ideas. Try and brainstorm ideas that could work for different situations. At home going on a trampoline, kicking a ball, punching a pillow or listening to music could help. This is a bit more limiting at school. But they could ask to have a break, go and get a drink, talk to someone they trust etc.
By decoding the body cues for the child you are giving them an understanding of the vastness of anger and also empowering them to have control of the rising storm that sometimes overtakes them.