Written by: Cortney Ricks, LCSW
One of my most frequent jobs as a child therapist is to help children with anger. Most children describe
anger as “a big, hot emotion!” It is a strong and powerful feeling that has the potential to make us and
others around us very unhappy in life. Fortunately, we don’t have to let anger control us or ruin our
lives. There are simple techniques we can use to help us overcome “learned emotional bad habits.” The
techniques I use with children are simple and easy to understand and the great news is that adults can
benefit and use these techniques too!
The first thing I talk to children about is the fact that anger is a normal emotion that we need in our
lives. Anger can be a helpful emotion if we let it. It does serve a purpose, but we need to make sure
that we are in control of anger and not the other way around in order for anger to serve its correct
purpose. We can become angry when we are being threatened or attacked, when we think we are
being treated unfairly or feel powerless in a situation or when people are not respecting us or our
feelings. If used in the right way, anger can help us make positive changes to these situations.
Unfortunately, we usually let anger take control over us and don’t get very far in making positive
changes in our lives. We learn as young children to react to our anger and develop negative habits in
our lives. The great news is that tempers can be unlearned and bad habits can be replaced with good
Our brain is a phenomenal machine. It gets things done really quickly by creating short-cuts which turn
into habits. For example, after many years of driving a car, we don’t get in our cars and go through each
step of how the car works and how we operate it. You just get in and get yourself to where you need to
be and it’s the same thing with anger. Our brain creates a short-cut so that it doesn’t’ have to think of
what to do every single time you get angry (our brains don’t like tedious tasks because our brain wants
to be efficient as possible). So when we react over and over again in negative ways (yelling, slamming
doors, physical aggression) we are setting ourselves up in a pattern of negative and unhealthy anger.
The first step is for children and adults alike to know that anger is normal and can be healthy. The
second step is to figure out what to do when you are angry and practice it over and over. And then
practice it over and over again because chances are you’ve been practicing negative ways of dealing
with anger for many years. When I work with a child, we begin by going over different possibilities that
might help them deal with their anger. It takes time to figure out what’s right for each person. For
some children, deep breathing does the trick. But for most people, I find that it’s best to try and remove
yourself from the situation in order to calm down – even for just a few moments. And then when we’re
calm, we need to make sure to come back to the situation and work things out.
I also like to teach children about their “upstairs and downstairs brain”. Our emotions take place in the
“downstairs brain”; children also like to call it the “lizard brain”, and in more sophisticated terms, the
amygdala. When we are in this part of our brain, it is hard for us to think logically and make good
decisions. We are overcome by our emotions and need time to let the emotion process. Even if only for
a few moments, we need to be aware that we are having a strong feeling and need a bit of time to calm
down before we do or say anything we regret. When we start to notice our feelings and give them
validation, we begin the process of being in control and using our emotions to benefit us, rather than
the other way around.
I also have children tell me where they feel anger most in their bodies. Lots of children describe anger
residing in their hands or faces. I then have them describe what color anger is to them and what temperature it is. Sometimes I have them name the anger or draw a picture of it. This also helps them to become more attuned to their emotions and begin the process of being in control.
Another helpful technique I use with children is reading them a book called “When Sophie Gets Really
Really Angry”. In the book, Sophie demonstrates what works for her when she feels anger starting to
overcome her. She goes outside and climbs an old beech tree and comes back down when she’s calm. I
like this book for adults too because it shows us that there are different ways to calm down – maybe it’s
going out for a walk, digging in our garden, turning on our favorite music, taking a bath or just a few
really good deep breaths. We have options and we don’t have to let anger take over our lives.
A lot of children and adults feel like anger is just part of their lives, however. Maybe be they’ve been
told that they inherited or learned their temper from their own father and his father before him. This is
not a good message because it tells us that we are not in control of our own decisions and emotions –
only that anger is in charge and will always be. This is false, false, false!! It takes time and practice to
get out of bad habits – it’s the same with anger. We have to overcome negative anger habits by
becoming aware and practicing over and over the right way. And beware of your brain telling you, “Oh
that won’t work for me or I’ve tried that before and nothing happened!” These are messages created to
protect you and keep things easy for you. We have to retrain our brains!
If you are struggling with anger and being overcome by it, I challenge you to start with doing one thing
differently next time and see how it works for you. But remember you have to keep doing it until it
becomes a habit for you. Start today and document your progress in a notebook or journal – you will
begin to see results as you work hard and stay focused. It’s worth it, I promise.