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What our kids can teach us about anger management

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A little mindfulness trick I learned from my children has helped me get a handle on my own emotions.

In the wake of the horrific Sutherland Springs church shooting, a 2014 Slate article has been recirculating in social media. Written by psychologist Laura Hayes after the Ft. Hood shooting, the article places the blame for violence squarely in the lap of uncontrolled anger.

I am not a psychologist and my lay understanding of the interaction between anger and violence is still developing. But what really caught my attention in this article is her call to teach children anger management skills from a young age, before inappropriate responses to anger have a chance to take root.

“The truth is, anger management skills are simple techniques that can and should be taught to children and adolescents. We should not wait to teach these skills until verbally or physically violent behavior has become habitual and, often, life-threatening.

The skills involve balancing the initial fight-or-flight response, governed by the sympathetic nervous system, with its opposite, the parasympathetic nervous system, which permits reasoning to take over again. It’s simple, but it requires a significant amount of practice. There are many techniques that can be taught to achieve this end: deliberate shifting from emotional to more objective thinking, deep breathing and other relaxation techniques, communication and listening skills, and identifying warning cues before anger boils over.”

I wasn’t taught anger management skills as a child. This isn’t a slam on my parents or anything; they had four kids and gave their whole lives over to raising us the best way they possibly could. But teaching children to handle their emotions just wasn’t a thing people did in the time and place I grew up. Teaching appropriate and inappropriate behavior? Definitely. But trying to figure out how to handle the emotions behind the behavior isn’t something I can remember anyone doing, and we didn’t have Daniel Tiger to sing us a song about it.

For whatever reason, I grew up with “a temper.” I guess Dr. Hayes would call it anger mismanagement, and she wouldn’t be wrong. I literally did not know how to accept and respond to emotional stress, so I yelled a lot. And cried. And rage-cleaned.

It took years for me to figure out how to handle anger and develop healthy coping strategies. In the interim, I taught my kids some pretty terrible anger-management skills. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve actively begun working with them on developing healthy responses to emotional stress and anger, and as in all things, I’ve learned more from them than they’ve learned from me.

One of the things they’ve taught me is that dwelling too much on the whys of their anger in the moment is a good way to escalate anger into hysteria. I used to try and talk them through why they were feeling what they were feeling as they were feeling it (if you can follow that convolution), but this was a terrible idea. They were too distraught to be detached and rational.

What they wanted to do was explain their feelings. They wanted to identify how they were feeling, and the act of doing it always managed to give them the mental space to calm down a little. We would come up with ways to express anger or channel it into something productive, like exercise or drawing. It was only when the heat of the emotion faded that they were able to talk through the cause — dwelling on the cause before that created a seemingly endless negative feedback loop.

I’ll be honest, it was really only after implementing this little mindfulness trick my kids taught me that I really began to get a handle on my own anger. Once I realized that it was essential to identify the emotion without the impetus, I could accept it and let it pass enough to examine the cause. Basically, acknowledging that I was feeling anger cooled my sympathetic nervous system enough to let the parasympathetic nervous system take over again. My kids don’t even know what those words mean, but they instinctively knew how to react when I gave them the lead.

So yes, teach your kids about anger management. But watch and listen, too, because sometimes they can teach you a few things. Children are much wiser than we give them credit for.

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