A few days ago, a friend asked me for some hints on dealing with the anger her young son, diagnosed on the autistic spectrum, was experiencing.
My first thought was, ‘What can I teach her? She’s an amazing mum.’ Then I realised that, over the long years of working with kids, I’d actually amassed quite a range of strategies and insights. So while fully accepting that I don’t have all the answers, or any special training, I’m going to use this post to throw in some ideas that may help parents, teachers and carers to cope with anger in children.
If you hate anecdotes, by all means skip to the bullet point below, but I’m including Jason’s story because he did such a brilliant job of teaching me how, given the chance, children can often find their own ways to deal with extreme anger.
The eight-year-old was beside himself in the days and weeks after his father’s death, from an alcohol-related illness. He was violent, loud, abusive and unable to listen, concentrate, discuss or acknowledge his problem. I found him prowling the school corridors with a dangerous glint in his eyes.
“Come on Jason,” I said. “Let’s go and have a chat.”
To my surprise, he followed me into the play room quite readily.
“Want to talk?” I asked, aiming to sound interested but ‘cool’.
Jason yelled, screamed a lot, thumped the sofa and swore profusely. He clearly didn’t.
I threw him a cuddly toy monster – bright blue fur fabric body, a truly horrible face and wearing plastic handcuffs; ideal for expressing deep fears in a totally safe way – like Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things.
“He looks really angry,” I said. “Maybe you could tell me a story about him. I’ll write it down and draw it if you like.”
I suppose on some subliminal level I’d done the shrink bit and decided that Jason couldn’t handle his own emotions and needed to dump them somewhere else. I could never have guessed what would follow, though. It turned out to be a great example of how using puppets, toys, pictures and so on can help children to explore feelings they are unable to address in themselves.
“He’s a horrible monster! He wants to KILL people. He’s nasty and ugly and he should be sent to prison.”
He paused and looked at me. “Draw the monster on your page.” he commanded. “Write ‘His name is Bignose’ over the top.”
I made a lame but honest attempt to create some sort of likeness of the monster. Jason continued to berate Bignose. “Look at his face! He’s really ugly. Everyone says he’s horrible and he’s so angry, he just wants to kill everyone. He ain’t got any friends.”
His mood softened slightly. “That’s quite a good picture. It looks just like him. The hair’s a different red, but it doesn’t matter.”
Then, quite suddenly, he embarked on his story. “ He used to be alright. He was a dog. He was all right then but he drank too much beer and whisky and that turned him into a monster. Now the police are after him. He has to go to prison because he’s so bad.”
(While he was saying this, Jason took the monster’s handcuffs off and placed them on himself. Hmmm.)
He turned and took another cuddly toy – a rather demented but harmless looking red thing with lots of legs. He told me it was a spider.
“Now draw the spider. He’s scared of the monster. The monster wants to eat him. Draw him in his garden and do a fence – no – I’ll do it! Give me the pens. I’ll make a fence right round the spider, like this…”
I watched as Jason took great care to completely encircle the spider with closely packed, black fence panels.
“Now it looks like the spider’s in prison,” I commented.
“No! He’s in his garden! He likes the fence. Draw a big smile on his face. Write ‘The spider is happy because he is safe in his garden and the monster can’t get him.’ Now draw the handcuffs on the monster,” and, you’ve guessed it, he removed the remaining handcuff from his own wrist and put it on to the monster.
We don’t need a psychoanalyst to tell us what all that was about.
In a 15-minute session Jason had shown me his own uncontrollable anger, his guilt and self-disgust, his desire to be separated from the angry beast inside himself and his need for firm boundaries – the one thing that made him feel safe and happy. Not a bad start.
So now to some practical strategies:
Expressing anger is important. Ex-press, as in press it out of your body, rather than bottling it up and leaving it to simmer and grow until it finally explodes or leads to other problems.
When a child is having a fully-fledged tantrum or attack of rage, trying to ‘take them on’ doesn’t help. I’ve tried to sit with them, telling them gently that I understand the feelings they have and reassuring them that although it feels bad right now, that feeling will pass.
Once they’ve calmed down a bit, I’ve asked them to work with me to come up with some safe and useful anger-management strategies that will work for that child. I’ve given them the following list to test out. They then rate each strategy from useless to helpful:
- ‘Run out of anger’ – literally! Get the kid racing round a playing field until they are gasping for breath, probably giggling, and able to tell you they’ve totally run out of anger.
- ‘Draw out the anger’ – red and black are great colours and huge sheets of scrap paper or even old newspapers. Experiment with crazy scribbling, ugly faces or whatever the child needs to express. (Try not to judge – Jason’s early attempts showed furious gun-toting gangsters on roller skates ‘so they can go fast and kill more people’ but after a few sessions his figures dispensed with the skates, then the guns and began looking sad and – eventually – calm.)
- Hitting safely. Crash mats, punch bags, cushions etc. are good – little brothers, pets and brick walls are not. Discuss the golden rules – don’t hurt yourself or anything that’s alive. One parent I know bought her son a drum kit!
- Screaming into a pillow or in the shower. Warning others in the house that you’re about to do this is often helpful, though.
- Finding your own boundaries. Unsurprisingly, this one worked well for Jason. Walk round the bedroom/garden/school grounds, touching the walls or fences all the way around, telling yourself you’re in a safe place.
- Safe throwing. I’ve used a realistic-looking foam brick from a joke shop, but screwing up newspaper and hurling it at a target is just as good.
- Shredding! Our very understanding school secretary would often agree to hand over a stack of unwanted papers to one of the angry small people, who could sit and feed them into the shredder. Very therapeutic!
- Pounding play dough – or bread mix, which can be put aside to rise and become light and airy, and eventually be transformed into something good.
Remember that strategies to control anger are exactly that. I feel it’s important to keep checking back with the child: ‘How are you feeling now? Has the anger gone away?’ Once they are feeling calm, the activity should stop. It’s easy to get locked into throwing/screaming/hitting behaviours and that can actually cause more aggression.
A final word on what children can teach us about anger:
The friend who contacted me for advice commented on her young autistic son that the battle seemed always to be in his own head, rather than with anyone else. I thought about that and realised that that’s where it really is with all of us. People and situations don’t actually ‘make’ us mad. We react to them and project our anger on to them.
In my experience, young children – and particularly those on the autistic spectrum – don’t blame others, they just look for ways to express their own feelings. We should help and maybe learn from them. Just look around the world at the crazy things that happen when righteous anger is projected on to other people…