Helping Children Deal with Anger
Children’s anger presents challenges to parents and teachers committed to constructive, ethical, and effective child guidance. This article explores what we know about the components of children’s anger, factors contributing to understanding and managing anger, and the ways teachers can guide children’s expressions of anger.
Three Components of Anger
Anger is believed to have three components (Lewis & Michalson, 1983):
The Emotional State of Anger. The first component is the emotion itself, defined as an affective or arousal state, or a feeling experienced when a goal is blocked or needs are frustrated. Fabes and Eisenberg (1992) describe several types of stress-producing anger provocations that young children face daily in classroom interactions:
- Conflict over possessions, which involves someone taking children’s property or invading their space.
- Physical assault, which involves one child doing something to another child, such as pushing or hitting.
- Verbal conflict, for example, a tease or a taunt.
- Rejection, which involves a child being ignored or not allowed to play with peers.
- Issues of compliance, which often involve asking or insisting that children do something that they do not want to do–for instance, wash their hands.
Expression of Anger. The second component of anger is its expression. Some children vent or express anger through facial expressions, crying, sulking, or talking, but do little to try to solve a problem or confront the provocateur. Others actively resist by physically or verbally defending their positions, self-esteem, or possessions in nonaggressive ways. Still other children express anger with aggressive revenge by physically or verbally retaliating against the provocateur. Some children express dislike by telling the offender that he or she cannot play or is not liked. Other children express anger through avoidance or attempts to escape from or evade the provocateur. And some children use adult seeking, looking for comfort or solutions from a teacher, or telling the teacher about an incident.
Teachers can use child guidance strategies to help children express angry feelings in socially constructive ways. Children develop ideas about how to express emotions (Michalson & Lewis, 1985; Russel, 1989) primarily through social interaction in their families and later by watching television or movies, playing video games, and reading books (Honig & Wittmer, 1992). Some children have learned a negative, aggressive approach to expressing anger (Cummings, 1987; Hennessy et al., 1994) and, when confronted with everyday anger conflicts, resort to using aggression in the classroom (Huesmann, 1988). A major challenge for early childhood teachers is to encourage children to acknowledge angry feelings and to help them learn to express anger in positive and effective ways.
An Understanding of Anger. The third component of the anger experience is understanding–interpreting and evaluating–the emotion. Because the ability to regulate the expression of anger is linked to an understanding of the emotion (Zeman & Shipman, 1996), and because children’s ability to reflect on their anger is somewhat limited, children need guidance from teachers and parents in understanding and managing their feelings of anger.
Understanding and Managing Anger
The development of basic cognitive processes undergirds children’s gradual development of the understanding of anger (Lewis & Saarni, 1985).
Memory. Memory improves substantially during early childhood (Perlmutter, 1986), enabling young children to better remember aspects of anger-arousing interactions. Children who have developed unhelpful ideas of how to express anger (Miller & Sperry, 1987) may retrieve the early unhelpful strategy even after teachers help them gain a more helpful perspective. This finding implies that teachers may have to remind some children, sometimes more than once or twice, about the less aggressive ways of expressing anger.