A few months ago, I facilitated a group at the Youth Agency for middle and high school students. I named the group after the curriculum that I used, “Transforming Anger to Personal Power”; but when the kids came here after school, they would tell the office staff that they we here for the anger management group. They said it casually, but it bothered me. The anger management title made the issue too simple: you have anger, you learn to manage it, and you are fixed. The program I chose was about helping young people manage their anger in a big picture way that included learning to manage all of their emotions in a healthier way. This ability is referred to as Emotional Intelligence, a term first described in a 1996 book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, by Daniel Goleman.
Emotional intelligence (EI) (noun): Skill in perceiving, understanding, and managing emotions and feelings.
The first thing I tell the teens in the group is that this group is not about “fixing” them; they are not broken. I tell them that the goal of this group is to help them manage their feelings (anger included) in ways that makes their life and relationships better; that it is about taking the power of your strong feelings and using them to make good choices rather than destructive ones. They all nod their heads, understanding at least that part. They know that their reactions to angry feelings has caused them problems at home and school, and has led them to my “anger management” class after school.
Children and adults without the skills to manage their emotions are often swamped by their feelings, which can negatively impact relationships, school/work performance, and self image. A person who has trouble managing their angry feelings is also likely to have trouble managing other feelings. In group we talk about how anger is usually secondary to another primary feeling, such as frustration, disappointment, or shame. When you consider only the anger, you are ignoring what lies beneath the anger- the real feeling that needs to be addressed.
Groups like mine, in school and community settings, can be great places to teach skills for emotional intelligence. But parents provide the foundation. Families can build emotional intelligence in some simple ways:
• Help kids name their feeling. Kids tend to stick to the same few feelings words. Feelings charts can be a big help with this; find one online or ask a teacher or school counselor. . Start to expand their (and your) feelings vocabulary!
• Validation, validation, validation: (I know I am a broken record) is a powerful tool in building emotional intelligence. Hear your child and acknowledge the feeling; Remember, validating does not mean saying it is OK to do whatever you want. “You were having fun, and are disappointed that we can’t stay at the park.” “You worked hard on that lego tower, and it’s frustrating that the baby knocked it over.”
• Validating can and should go together with setting limits, especially in regards to the “hard” feelings, such as frustration/anger. “You are angry at Jake for taking your toy, but you cannot hit Jake.”
• Problem solve: What can you do instead of hitting? Give them ideas if needed, “It helps me to take 3 deep breathes. Let’s figure out what helps you.” The same thing does not work for everyone, so don’t insist on any one strategy.
• Let them brainstorm their own strategies for managing those “hot” intense feelings: Suggest they write down the ideas in a list or pictures. For older kids, or adults, there are many cell phone apps that offer short meditations, calm down suggestions, etc.
• Help your child identify their anger triggers. If a kid is used to saying, “Joey made me angry”, encourage them to say, “When Joey took the ball away from me, he triggered my anger” The difference is that “made me angry” takes all of the power away from you- he made you angry, you had no control. “He triggered” your anger means you had a choice how to respond. YOU keep the power in the situation. Help your child identify their own triggers. For some kids (and adults) it is being disrespected, or being embarrassed.
• Talk about how you manage your “hard’ feelings. “My boss made me so frustrated and angry today, I had to take a walk outside, (count to 10, take deep breaths) before I spoke to him.”
• Learn EI strategies together: If you as a parent do not have good strategies for managing your “hard”feelings it could be a good time to learn some with your child. “I have trouble calming down when I’m upset, maybe we can learn some ways to calm down together.” This is role modeling at its best. AND as your EI improves, so will your child’s.
• Talk to them about physical signs they might feel when emotions are getting intense. Physical signs start earlier than behavioral reactions, so noticing them can give a child a chance to stop the anger reaction before it gets out of hand. For example, when they start to feel tense muscles because they are upset, if they NOTICE those physical signs, they may be able to do a tense and relax exercise to calm down. (Tense all muscles, face, stomach, feet, etc. for three seconds and then completely relax all muscles, repeat)
• Review where things went wrong: When a problem does occur, where it is clear that your child did NOT manage their emotions well, sit down when they are calm, and walk them through what happened. Maybe even write it down or draw a diagram of the scene. This happened, then this, what did the other person do/say, what did you do/say, who else was involved, etc. Guide them in looking for places where the above strategies might have cooled things off. Make this a nice experience, not an intense blame placing exercise.
Recently, one of my students had to write an essay about what he learned in the “Transforming Anger” group. Here are some excerpts from his essay that illustrate how he learned some of these emotional skills and increased his Emotional Intelligence. Thank you to him for being willing to share this with our parent blog. I’m so proud!
Excerpt from student essay written after attendance at the Youth Agency “Transforming Anger to Personal Power” Class:
I have learned to notice what makes me angry. Whether someone is calling me names, picking on me for religion, yelling at me or being made to do something that I don’t want to do. The workshop has taught me signals to help me realize when I am getting angry
Some of the clues that I experience are:
1. My heart starts to pound.
2. I start to feel jumpy, my stomach gets queasy
3. My muscles start to feel tense.
That is when I need to stop and think about what exactly triggered me to feel this way. What will happen if I react? What are some ways to handle the situation?
It is important for me to cool down when I get angry and calm my thoughts. Some of the best ways to do this I find is to; draw, build Legos, ride my bike or even talk with my parents.
How I plan to deal with my anger in the future – I plan on taking a deep breath, stepping away from the situation and asking myself “Why am I angry?”
Rather than over reacting and trying to diffuse the situation, sometimes it is better to just walk away and let things go. This way, nobody gets hurt or in trouble. I have learned a lot about controlling anger from the workshop and plan on using my coping skills when I need to relax and clear my head.