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Reponding to Anger in Children

How to make stressful situations better without making them worse

Several weeks ago, I had to pick up my elementary school-aged daughter early from school for her annual flu shot. I made the appointment as late in the day as I could, to accommodate my work schedule and to minimize the time she would miss from class. As most parents can attest, there was a lot of shuffling and hurrying involved, but I multi-tasked, I juggled, and I was feeling good about having “fit it all in.”

Until I arrived at school.

The school staff was nice enough, welcoming me as I signed my daughter out and speculating on what a treat it would be for her to have a bit of an early dismissal from school. I agreed; a visit to the pediatrician’s office was never the most fun but some extra one-on-one time with my girl would be a treat nonetheless.

Until she saw me in the hall.

Rather than running to me for a hug or even smiling and saying “Hi,” she had what I can only describe as a meltdown. One minute, she was walking toward me, the next, she was dragging her body forward, propelled only by tears and heartfelt accusations: “You always make me miss everything fun! I don’t want to go! I’m not going! This always happens. You always make me leave! I never get to stay for the fun things.”

Wo. I did not see that coming.

I felt my heartbeat quicken instantly. I knew my face was getting red. Defensive thoughts were taking over my brain (“Do you know how hard I worked to rearrange my entire day for you! What do you mean I ‘always” make you miss the fun stuff? I bend over backward to do fun things for you, young lady. How dare you yell at me after all I do for you!”) I was extremely aware that the eyes of all of the school staff who had just greeted me so warmly were now completing fixed on me and my pending response to my daughter. I knew in that moment that I had two choices:

1. I could go old school and tell my daughter to lower her voice right away and show me some respect, or else…

This might even have been a reasonable parental response. I don’t think anyone in the school would have thought me unjustified in being stern with my daughter at that point or in setting a limit on her disrespect. But I also knew that for my daughter, a rebuke in the moment would have created a new stressful event, on top of the one she was already obviously experiencing, and would have triggered all sorts of additional intense feelings in her young, emotionally-hijacked brain. Meeting her pain with harshness would have made things worse—of that I was sure.

2. My second choice was to turn down my daughter’s invitation to fight.

Instead of turning up the heat on her behavior, as option 1 would have done, I made a conscious decision to tone down the emotion of the moment—to meet her pain with sympathy—and help her begin to put language to all of her emotion.

When kids become overwhelmed by stress, their limbic system (the emotional part of their brain) is activated and their ability to access the rational thoughts of their pre-frontal cortex (the logical part of their brain) is greatly hindered. In the midst of this kind of “brain freeze,” adults are most helpful to young people when they recognize the biological forces at work and make conscious efforts to “drain off” the child’s intense emotions through purposeful, planned, non-reactive responses.

So what did I do as my daughter walked down her school hallway, angrily accusing me of taking away all of her fun?

First, I took a deep breath. I am human and needed to take a moment to consciously stop my own emotional brain from taking over. My personal feelings acknowledged and owned, I then got down on my daughter’s level and hugged her. I spoke these six words softly to her: “You are really upset right now.” In little more than an instant, she pulled away from the hug, looked me in the eye, let out one long sob, then softened into my arms, pulling me into a tight embrace. After about 15 seconds, she was completely quiet, but still hugging me tightly.

Coinciding with the onset of her stillness, the school nurse walked over to us both. She had been standing observing the whole interaction and, seeing the pause in the action, approached us with a well-intentioned, but premature response, aimed at the logical part of my daughter’s brain: “Your mom is trying to keep you healthy. What would happen if you didn’t get a flu shot?” she asked.

My daughter’ sobs started up again. Big time. The nurse smiled at me and mouthed the word, “Sorry.” I smiled at her as she backed away. She was trying to do the right thing and I knew it. My daughter’s emotional brain just wasn’t calm enough yet to process it. So, in the middle of the administrative wing of my daughter’s elementary school with a growing audience watching from afar, I gave her more time. I hugged her. I wiped her tears. I validated her words instead of giving in to my defensive leanings: “You feel like I am picking you up too early and you are missing fun time with your friends in class.”

These calming responses worked. My daughter softened in my arms again and within two minutes, she was ready to leave school and head to her doctor’s office. She got her flu shot that afternoon—and didn’t even cry!

What if I had opted to go old school? Would that really have been so bad? I know there is a large group of people who argue that “parents today” are “too soft” on kids; that what young people need is more discipline and less concern over their emotions. I might concede to this group that the first option I outlined above—telling my daughter to lower her voice and show more respect—would have been appropriate for the situation in the school hallway. Yet the problem with this response is that it would have missed an invaluable opportunity to connect with my daughter in a meaningful, lasting way, helping her develop critical life skills such as the ability to calm down, control her behaviors, and put language to emotions. In other words, to practice all of the skills she needs to become a healthy adult.

Does that mean I think adults should tolerate disrespect by young people? Should emotional and behavioral outbursts be encouraged for the sake of personal growth? No, of course not. Please do not misunderstand me. I am a social worker, for goodness sake; my poor kids endure “learning experiences” all of the time. Indeed, I made it a point to talk to my daughter about the disrespect she showed me in the hallway at her school, but I did it later in the day when she was in control of her emotional brain and more receptive to learning.

Point of fact: by waiting until she had thoroughly de-escalated from the emotional intensity of those dismissal moments at school, I didn’t even have to do much of the talking. About an hour after leaving school, my daughter came to me and initiated a conversation about what had happened, saying, “Mom, I’m sorry I yelled at you in school. Mrs. S was letting us watch a movie and I just got so upset about having to miss it that I couldn’t even see straight.”

See straight? Think straight? Either way, after the emotions had settled, she was clearly getting the picture. Bottom line: some moments kids can use their logical brains and other moments they can’t—especially during periods of stress. Having an awareness of this is important because it helps adults make better choices when it comes to responding to the emotionally-charged outbursts of kids—choices that build kids' critical skills for self-regulation and emotion management in their developing young brains.