“Punch pillows!” is a common piece of advice children hear regarding how to manage anger. The idea behind this advice is that people have to let their anger out or they’ll explode aggressively. Unfortunately, there’s not a shred of evidence that this is helpful. In fact, “venting” anger tends to rehearse and intensify it.
So if punching pillows is likely just to intensify children’s anger, what are better strategies we can teach our kids?
The essential things to do for parents
Parents can help children with every step of the emotion regulation process. Take the example of a child who gets angry at a sibling for knocking over a block tower. Parents could influence Situation Selection by making sure the child isn’t tired or hungry and therefore more prone to responding angrily. Situation Modification could involve anticipating the mishap and instructing the child to move the block tower to a place where it’s less likely to get knocked over. Attention Deployment might mean suggesting a snack or going outside to distract the child from the tumbled tower. Cognitive change might involve explaining to the child that the sibling knocked it over by accident or that the tower can easily be rebuilt in an even better way. Response Modulation could involve helping the child to rebuild the tower or encouraging the child to “use her words” to ask the sibling to move over or to help pick up the blocks.
Seen within this context, it’s not surprising that punching pillows to try to manage anger isn’t effective. It does nothing to alter the situation or how children view it.
So, how can parents help children learn to manage their emotions? Here are some guidelines:
– Put safety first
When children are very angry, they may lash out in aggressive ways. When prevention wasn’t possible, often the first step in anger management is to help children step away from the situation to calm down. This can also prevent further escalation. Out-of-control children need parents to step in gently but firmly so they don’t hurt others or break things.
– Talk things through
Responding to children’s anger with gentleness and compassion makes it easier for children to deal with strong feelings and think things through. Angry or punitive responses to children’s anger, on the other hand, add to children’s stress when they’re already feeling overwhelmed.
Children learn more from what we do than from what we say. When parents respond to their own anger in aggressive ways, they not only trigger more anger in children, they also teach that yelling, hitting, or being mean are appropriate ways to behave when angry. Everyone feels angry sometimes, but we want to teach our children that it’s possible to feel angry and still treat others respectfully.
Overall, effective anger management requires that children learn to think about and manage the full process of emotion regulation, addressing the situation, their internal thoughts and reactions, and their external behavior and how that impacts other people or the situation. The strategy of punching pillows implies that anger is something that needs to be gotten rid of. It’s not. It’s a source of information about ourselves and our environment. Children need to learn to understand it and cope with it in ways that make their lives better.
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