I specialize in both anxiety and anger management for a reason.
Anxiety and anger have a lot in common. If you've ever experienced feelings of anxiety before, consider those physical cues - racing heart, shortness of breath, dilated eyes, inability to focus or concentrate, muscles tensed and ready for action.
Now, think about the last time you were angry. How your face felt hot and your fists tensed up. How your heart started to beat faster because you were ready for a fight. Your brain focused only on the thing that made you feel this way.
The fight, flight, or freeze response.
When we experience a stressful event, our brain goes in to "fight or flight" mode. Our brains decide whether to stand our ground and fight, run out of the situation, or stay paralyzed.
Anxiety and anger both trigger this response in our brain and bodies. As adults, many of us have learned to identify what set us off and how to defuse the situation. We are able to experience that immediate fight/flight/freeze reaction, and then send the information to our developed pre-frontal cortex and decide the best course of action. We've already been trained in anger management and anxiety management.
Unfortunately, this rational mind is not fully developed until around age 25. So your child is literally unable to stop the overreaction - unless you train them how.
Take a step back in order to calm down.
The first thing we need to train the brain to do is to STOP and THINK. Our brain assumes we need to be ready to protect ourselves once we experience anger and anxiety. Instead of immediately letting our fight/flight/freeze response take over, we take the time to stop and assess if we're really in danger, if we really need to have a big reaction, or if we can make a different choice.
With young children, I teach a hand motion. "Remember, we have to stop (hold hand up like a stop sign) and think (point finger to front of brain)." We then explore how our impulsive reaction, such as hitting, kicking, running away, would get us in to trouble. We talk about other ways to handle the situation instead - and these solutions typically start by taking a deep breath to calm down.
Stop and Think also helps us to figure out a more wise decision to make.
Helping children identify situations where they could have used stop and think, instead of reacting right away, is crucial to their development. Point out characters who did or did not use this strategy when you watch cartoons or read a book with your child.
My favorite example for younger kids with anger or preschoolers with anxiety is this Sesame Street video.
Watch it and ask them:
1. What did Ernie do first?
2. What could Ernie have done differently?
3. How could using stop and think help Ernie and Bert?
By applying this information, your child will start to be aware of how they can use Stop and Think in real life as well!
Curious to hear more about anxiety and anger management counseling for kids? Kelsey Torgerson works with kids in St. Louis to help manage their big feelings. Her office is located in Clayton, MO. You can reach her at 314-339-7640 or firstname.lastname@example.org
As an anxiety and anger management specialist, I provide counseling for kids, teens, and college students. I work with itty-bitties in pre-school to young adults graduating college, because I know anxiety can impact all of us, at all of these different ages. Please reach out with questions at any time!
This blog was originally posted on 6.14.2017 and was updated for this post.