“Punch pillows!” is a common piece of advice children hear regarding how to manage anger. The idea behind this advice is that people have to let their anger out or they’ll explode aggressively. Unfortunately, there’s not a shred of evidence that this is helpful (Kennedy-Moore & Watson, 2001). In fact, “venting” anger tends to rehearse and intensify it.
For example, in one study, Brad Bushman angered college student participants by giving them evaluations, supposedly from another study participant, on an essay they had written. The fake evaluations were extremely critical and included comments such as “This is one of the worst essays I have read!” as well as very poor scores on numerical ratings of qualities such as organization, originality, and clarity.
Next, participants either saw a picture of their supposed critic and hit a punching bag while thinking about that person (venting condition), hit a punching bag while thinking about exercise and physical fitness (active distraction condition), or just sat quietly for two minutes (control condition). Afterward, those in the venting condition reported feeling angrier and behaved more aggressively than the control group. The people in the active distraction group were less angry but not less aggressive than the venting group. Participants in the control group, who just waited, had the lowest levels of anger and aggression.
Understanding the Process of Emotion Regulation
So if punching pillows is likely just to intensify children’s anger, what are better strategies we can teach our kids? To answer that question, we first need to take a step back and look at how emotions come about. James Gross (2013; Gross & Thompson, 2007), in his process model of emotion regulation, outlines five points at which people can alter their emotional responses:
- Situation Selection involves seeking out or avoiding situations that are likely to trigger particular emotions.
- Situation Modification involves doing things to alter a situation in order to change its emotional impact.
- Attentional Deployment means using distraction or concentrating on something to lessen or heighten emotional responses.
- Cognitive Change means adjusting interpretations of an emotion-triggering event or judgments about an individual’s capacity to cope with it.
- Response Modulation involves doing things to alter the physiological, experiential, or behavioral aspects of an emotional reaction, after it has been generated. Some response modulation strategies may alter the situation, cycling back through earlier steps.
Parents can help children with every step of the emotion regulation process. Take the example of a child who gets angry at a sibling for knocking over a block tower. Parents could influence Situation Selection by making sure the child isn’t tired or hungry and therefore more prone to responding angrily. Situation Modification could involve anticipating the mishap and instructing the child to move the block tower to a place where it’s less likely to get knocked over. Attention Deployment might mean suggesting a snack or going outside to distract the child from the tumbled tower. Cognitive Change might involve explaining to the child that the sibling knocked it over by accident or that the tower can easily be rebuilt in an even better way. Response Modulation could involve helping the child to rebuild the tower or encouraging the child to “use her words” to ask the sibling to move over or to help pick up the blocks.
Within this framework, the first four steps constitute antecedent-focused emotion regulation, because they target processes involved in the generation of emotion. The final step is response-focused regulation because it involves adjusting what people do to cope with an emotion that has already fully emerged. It’s often easier and more effective to manage emotions earlier rather than later in the process.
Seen within this context, it’s not surprising that punching pillows to try to manage anger isn’t effective. It does nothing to alter the situation or how children view it.
How Parents Can Teach Anger Management
So, how can parents help children learn to manage their emotions? Here are some guidelines:
1. Put safety first.
When children are very angry, they may lash out in aggressive ways. When prevention wasn't possible, often the first step in anger management is to help children step away from the situation to calm down. This can also prevent further escalation. Out-of-control children need parents to step in gently—but firmly—so they don't hurt others or break things.
2. Talk things through.
Once your child has calmed down enough to think clearly, let your child tell you what happened. A recent study by Wainryb and colleagues (2018) showed that just telling a narrative of an anger-inducing event can help children and teens feel less angry both immediately and one week later. Explaining the sequence of events slows children down and engages the thinking part of their brain. Express empathy so your child feels heard and comforted.
After that, you can ask questions to help your child understand other people’s perspectives and use healthy communication or problem-solving. For example, you could ask, "What could you say to him?" "How is she likely to react if you do that?" "What can we do to prevent this from happening again?" or "What could you do to make things a little bit better right now?"
Responding to children's anger with gentleness and compassion makes it easier for children to deal with strong feelings and think things through. Angry or punitive responses to children's anger, on the other hand, add to children's stress when they're already feeling overwhelmed.
3. Model appropriate expression.
Children learn more from what we do than from what we say. When parents respond to their own anger in aggressive ways, they not only trigger more anger in children, they also teach that yelling, hitting, or being mean are appropriate ways to behave when angry. Everyone feels angry sometimes, but we want to teach our children that it's possible to feel angry and still treat others respectfully.
Overall, effective anger management requires that children learn to think about and manage the full process of emotion regulation, addressing the situation, their internal thoughts and reactions, and their external behavior and how that impacts other people or the situation.
The strategy of punching pillows implies that anger is something that needs to be gotten rid of. It's not. It's a source of information about ourselves and our environment. Children need to learn to understand it and cope with it in ways that make their lives better.
Bushman, B. J. (2002). Does venting anger feed or extinguish the flame? Catharsis, rumination, distraction, anger, and aggressive responding. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 6, 724-731.
Gross, J. J. (2013). Emotion Regulation: Taking Stock and Moving Forward. Emotion, 13, 359–365.
Gross, J. J., & Thompson, R. A. (2007). Emotion regulation: Conceptual foundations. In J. J. Gross (Ed.), Handbook of emotion regulation (pp. 3–24). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Kennedy-Moore, E., & Watson, J. C. (2001). Expressing Emotion: Myths, Realities, and Therapeutic Strategies. New York: Guilford Press.
Wainryb, C., Pasupathi, M., Bourne, S., & Oldroyd, K. (2018). Stories for all ages: Narrating anger reduces distress across childhood and adolescence. Developmental Psychology, 54, 1072-1085.