Caregivers often first discover their child is having problems with anger when they get sent home from school or a teacher makes contact about aggressive behaviours. In some cases, defiance presents in the home, perhaps in the form of tantrums or refusing to do simple tasks requested by parents.

In many cases, the child doesn’t necessary “like” their behaviour or the negative feedback they receive. But they feel that they are on “automatic,” with little control over their emotions or actions. Ogden says caregivers need to learn new ways to help their angry child instead of admonishing, criticizing or punishing. “Often when a child misbehaves, the tendency is to scold, send to time-out, or take away privileges; sometimes these are effective, but more than often they are not,” she explains. “What they often do is create distance between the caregiver and child.”

Ogden offers seven techniques to explore with your child:

  1. Find a more acceptable way to express anger. Traditionally, caregivers are taught to stop the behaviour using a range of methods, including restraint. But this often doesn’t work or it comes out stronger later. An alternative is to teach your child to push against a wall. It is recommended the caregiver do this exercise with the child so that he feels less isolated. And it retains the connection with the caregiver. Another option is to scream into a pillow.
  2. Notice reflex behaviours. Ogden tells us that we should be aware of what is a reflex reaction and what is intentional violence. Sometimes hitting out with a hand is in fact just a reflex and it is important to differentiate between what is intentional and what is not.
  3. Devise a physical gesture or boundary. Often children are unable to “hear” words when they are triggered. Choosing a gesture to illustrate when your child is crossing a boundary can be useful. It may be a scarf that you swing around your body, showing your boundary space. Or it might be a “stop” or “no” signal. Practice with your child in a fun way; he needs to feel what it is like when you come into his space as well as understanding where other people’s limits lie.
  4. Never respond or walk away in anger. “The impulse is to meet the defiant or aggressive behaviour but this often escalates the pattern,” says Ogden. She suggests caregivers practice looking at your child with compassion (that is, notice the wounded or “stuck” part). This will help you regulate your emotions in the moment so that you can calmly walk away (thus preventing the child from following).
  5. Give your child a sensory item. If you need to talk to your child about a behaviour or you notice that your child is agitated, having a sensory item is critical. It is also important that you regulate your voice and facial expressions and come down to his level. Another great tool is a bouncy ball. It helps to contain agitated energy so that your child can take in what you are saying and express themselves.
  6. Practice how emotions feel. In calm moments, play animal games. Be the angry gorilla and explain how the emotion feels in the body: growl, stomp, look ferocious. This helps children to become familiar with feelings (particularly anger and rage) so that they can “catch it” before it turns into an action.
  7. Get ahead of triggers. Take some time to identify triggers and plan ahead. If mornings are a problem, lay your child’s clothing out and have breakfast prepared. A gentle wake-up time with music or one-on-one connection is also a great way to navigate the transition from a quiet safe state to the bustle of getting ready.

(c) Felicia Stewart, 2019