Parents are always looking for more effective ways to help their children express and handle anger and frustration. Children who have a tough time calming down can often effectively use different sensory or therapeutic activities to help the calming process.
The first part of the calming process is to recognize and acknowledge the driving emotion (sadness, anger, etc).
“I see you are upset that it is time to go. Are you feeling sad about leaving?”
Next, parents can work with their children on developing some problem-solving skills to control their anger through therapeutic tools.
Hug It Out
“You are upset that we have to go, would you like a hug?”
Many children feel grounded by physical contact. A good hard hug, with lots of squeezing to the trunk and shoulders, can provide some powerful sensory input to their joints and help restore feelings of calm and control. This may be particularly effective if your child has sensory integration problems around the proprioceptive sense, or sense of body position.
If your child doesn’t like to be hugged, try a hug from behind: sometimes not having their faces buried relieves that “hug-panic.” If that is still too intense, try a game, like rolling your child into a burrito with blankets, or creating a pillow fort to bury themselves into, which will still provide that calming pressure sense.
Stress Ball or Sensory Play
Another effective tool to help release your child’s anger is by giving them a stress ball. Squeezing a stress ball reduces tension by allowing the muscles in your arms to to relax, particularly if combined with rhythmic breathing (breathe in & squeeze, breathe out and unclench). Results of a stress study performed with 6th grade students in a classroom setting over a seven week period, showed that using the stress balls improved the children’s ability to expend their energy and to channel their attention.
Make it a fun activity by designing your own! You can fill balloons with flour, playdoh, rice, sand, etc., and decorate them with your child.
For more options, you can combine stress balls into a “calm down box” which gives your child several choices of tools to use. Sensory play has a calming effect by allowing your child to focus on one sense and “block out” others. Another favorite is the Calm Down (Glitter) Bottle. Have your child give the bottle a great big shake (expends negative energy) and then calm down through focus and meditation, by watching the shaken-up glitter and objects settle to the bottom of the bottle.
Anger increases your blood pressure, heart rate, and respiratory rate. By controlling your breathing through exercises or games, you can reverse these effects, and ease feelings of anxiety or anger.
Start breathing exercises by instructing your child to breathe in like they are smelling flowers for 5 seconds, and exhale like they are blowing out birthday candles for 5 seconds, for up to one minute at a time, until they feel calm.
You can also try belly breathing with stones. Have your child close their eyes. Place a small stone on their belly and tell them to see if they can move the stone up and down with their breath. This move inspires immediate relaxation as the breath deepens, also teaching your child to use their full lung capacity.
Movement and Exercise
Kids can release their pent-up negative emotions through physical activities. A study tested the effect of a structured aerobic exercise program on anger expression in healthy sedentary children, and found it was an effective strategy to reduce anger expression, including a reduction of regular aggressive behavior. Physical activities such as dancing, playing basketball, or riding a bike are effective ways to prevent aggressive and harmful physical actions such as hitting.
What about during a meltdown?
“I see you are really frustrated. Would you like to stomp like a dinosaur? Wave our arms? Throw away our angry ball?”
When your child is angry in the moment, physically releasing their anger by doing harmless physical activities such as jumping jacks or taking a walk can help refocus that energy.
For a young child, motion such as rocking, walking, or using swings can help them calm down and breathe more regularly.
A Visual Chart
Use a visual chart to help children remember safe ways to manage their anger. Using language such as, “When I feel upset or angry, I can…” combined with visuals of previously learned strategies (deep breathing, taking a walk, bear hugs, calm down box tools etc.) can help your child learn how to independently manage anger appropriately. This provides the child with a static symbol of the word or idea, which can be particularly helpful if your child has difficulty with language. Additionally, presenting a visual gives your child more time to examine and process, resulting in more time to calm down.
These five tools highlight some useful strategies before, during, or after a meltdown. If your child continues to struggle with anger management, start considering what is triggering these meltdowns. Sometimes explosive behavior is due to an underlying condition that needs treatment. This could be due to any number of conditions, but most commonly: ADHD, Autism-Spectrum disorders, anxiety, Sensory-Processing disorder, delayed speech or language development, or an underlying medical condition. Talk with your pediatrician regarding your concerns about your child’s behaviors. The American Academy of Pediatrics notes that some problems with anger may require assistance from a therapist, who would provide further consultation and recommend more individualized strategies to address the issues.
Remember, these are only a few techniques to which every child will respond differently, and they will require some patience and practice until you figure out what works best for you and your child.