Taming the Tiger: Helping Children with Anger Control
by Stephen Rothenberg, PsyD
Many children with learning disabilities and attentional problems also struggle with modulating their feelings. They can feel easily overwhelmed by emotions and can sometimes act out impulsively. This, in turn, can affect their feelings about themselves. Children build their sense of self-esteem from mastery of their environments and themselves. If they find that they often cannot control themselves, they may feel quite bad about that. Impulsively acting upon feelings, particularly anger, can quickly affect peer relationships in a very negative manner. This can result in a downward, negative spiral. The child may feel bad about him or herself, act negatively in relationships, and worsen their self-esteem. If a child is more stressed, he or she will be less likely to be able to respond in a constructive manner to negative feelings.
Children with expressive language problems may not have the facility with language to be able to express what they need to quickly enough. As a result, they may end up acting out their feelings instead. Interestingly, children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder appear to have a "language problems" themselves. these children often do not have the inner language that would enable them to delay acting on feelings, that "inner voice" that enables many children to stop and think and consider their behavior and the consequences before they act.
Many children (whether they have learning disabilities, attentional problems, or autistic spectrum disorders) also have problems with sensory integration. This means that they have difficulty organizing sensations and stimulation from outside and/or within. It can be very difficult to put together and make sense of all of the sensory information that is coming at them. It can also be very difficult organizing and understanding the sensory information that is occurring within them. For these reasons, it can be easy to misinterpret social information from outside and emotional information from inside. This may then result in an inappropriate response to the situation at hand.
It is easy for us to forget all the steps involved in managing feelings. Think about it - we need to identify and organize feelings within ourselves, identify and interpret social information from outside, integrate that information into something meaningful, and then formulate the appropriate response in a controlled, socially acceptable manner. This is difficult enough for adults without learning or attentional difficulties. It is extremely difficult for a child who DOES have learning and attentional difficulties.
In social skills therapy, whether individual or in a group, we attempt to help the child learn to appropriately organize and interpret cues from outside and identify, organize and express emotions from the inside. The first task for some children is to learn to pair the physiological response from inside them with the label of "angry." Some children need to know that tightness in their muscles, or that feeling that their head is about to blow off, is what we call "angry" or "mad." (This may sound like something that you would do with a younger child. Since children with learning and/or attention problems may experience some delays in their cognitive development, they also tend to experience some delays in their emotional development.)
Putting the Puzzle Together
Once a child is able to identify his or her own feelings, they can begin to work on identifying the feelings of others. In order to accurately identify what other people are feeling, a child needs to be cognizant of body language, facial cues, tone of voice, and context. Much like putting together the pieces of a puzzle, a child needs to assemble all information into an emotional picture that makes sense. If the puzzle is put together incorrectly, it will result in an inappropriate response. Children with language processing problems may actually be quite aware of the non-verbal cues but may have trouble with comprehending the spoken message. Children who have non-verbal learning disabilities have great difficulty synthesizing body language and visual cues, as it requires the ability to utilize "right brain", perceptual-organization functions. Those who are more impulsive, without the processing difficulties, may get the whole picture but selectively attend only to isolated details. They may also tend to just go with what they want at the moment, rather than what the situation calls for.
Taming the Tiger
For younger children, helping them to get some distance on their anger can help them maintain positive feelings about themselves. Helping a child to "tame the tiger" or calm down their "angry monster" helps a child to work on the feelings without experiencing a loss of self-esteem.
Help the child identify what he/she is feeling. Help them be aware of the signals they receive from their bodies that tell them "I am mad", "I am happy", etc. "You know when he took that toy you like and you hit him? You were feeling mad."
Help your child to identify what others are feeling. Point out the various cues that are available and help the child put them together into a meaningful puzzle. "See when his eyebrows went down and his face scrunched together like that? I think he was mad."
Help your child to communicate anger in an effective manner. This depends upon their developmental abilities. Some children need to find ways to discharge their anger appropriately, as they are not yet able to use inner language to delay their actions. They may need to learn to break something (something safe in a supervised setting, like having balloons ready to pop) before they are able to say, or have you help them label, what they are feeling.
In individual and group therapy, we attempt to help children build in a "delay mechanism" using the Stop Light Technique. When they identify that they are feeling angry, they:
STOP (picture a stop sign in their heads) and take three deep breaths or count to 40,
THINK (Think about what is making them angry so they can make a plan. This includes thinking about what the other person intended. "Did she do that on purpose?"), and
GO (go ahead with the plan and see how it works).
Taming the tiger depends a lot upon "language." Reading non-verbal cues, processing nuances of spoken words, and developing an inner voice. For many children, developing this ability is akin to learning a foreign language. It takes time and patience, but is a very worthwhile enterprise if it can result in improvements in a child's relationships and self-esteem.
© 1997, Learning Disabilities Association of Massachusetts. All rights reserved.
This article originally appeared in the November 1997 issue of the Gazette, the Journal of the Learning Disabilities Association of Massachusetts (LDAM), and is posted on NLD on the Web! with the express permission of the Editor, Teresa Allissa Citro. Reproduction of this material in any form other than for individual educational purposes, without the express written permission of the LDAM, is prohibited.
About the author - Stephen Rothenberg, PsyD, is a graduate of the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology. He completed a postdoctoral practicum in Child Neuropsychology at Massachusetts Mental Health Center. Dr. Rothenberg specializes in learning and attentional disorders, and relationship difficulties. He has over 35 years of psychotherapy experience.