Expressing anger: What’s appropriate—and
by Bill Thompson
It’s 3:30 p.m. in your after-school
program, and the children are settling down to work in their
chosen interest areas. Johnny, age 8, who has been looking for
triangle blocks on the shelf, explodes into a raging fit, slamming
blocks to the floor.
Your cheeks flush with anger, and you feel
you’re on the verge of losing
control. How do you handle your frustration? What resources do you have to cope
with Johnny’s outburst? How do you teach Johnny, as well as the rest of
the class, appropriate ways to deal with anger?
Handling anger is an example of many situations that arise for
caregivers and teachers during a typical day. Knowing effective
strategies that you can use on a moment’s notice can make the difference between being an effective
teacher and one who is constantly frustrated.
What is anger?
Anger is a naturally occurring emotion within the repertoire
of human experience. In most cases, it is natural and healthy.
When handled well, anger is an adaptive response to threats.
It motivates an individual to take appropriate action in many
areas of life. In some cases, anger is also a strong inducement
to protect oneself and loved ones when threatened.
defined in Webster’s dictionary as “a strong
feeling of displeasure.” This definition gives no indication
of the wide range of anger or the intensity of this emotion.
Anger can range from mild annoyance to extreme rage and fury.
It is usually in the fury stage that anger gets a bad rap. When
we don’t address our anger, it shows up in different ways.
Anger arises from frustration over internal or external events.
Traumatic memories or events that enraged a person in the past
can also trigger angry feelings.
How do we deal with anger?
People cope with anger by using a variety of methods, both conscious
and unconscious. The three most commonly used approaches are
suppression, calming, and expression.
Suppression. A common misconception
is that if one ignores anger, denies it, or does not pay attention
to it, anger will dissipate and disappear. This denial is in
fact an attempt to suppress the anger. This approach is not
effective because it can cause deeper long-term ailments.
to research on adolescents reported by MassGeneral Hospital for
Children (n.d.), anger does not necessarily correlate with high
blood pressure, but suppressed anger does. Suppressed anger can
also manifest as stress or depression.
In addition, according
to Mayo Clinic psychiatrist Daniel K. Hall-Flavin (2009), unexpressed
anger or resentment can show up as passive-aggressive behavior.
A person either is not aware of the anger or doesn’t feel
safe in expressing it.
Passive-aggressive behavior can lead to
a personality style that is excessively cynical, pessimistic,
and critical. These core personality adaptations can cause difficulty
in making and sustaining long-term relationships as an adult.
Calming. Calming techniques can be effective in dealing with
anger. One such technique is to sit or lie in a cool, dark, quiet
room while flexing and relaxing different muscle groups. You
begin with the feet and work up the body toward the head while
taking slow, deep breaths. You can also count to 10 backward.
While breathing, you imagine going into a deeper and more relaxed
Some people find it more helpful to listen to audio tapes
or compact disks that focus on relaxation techniques. Some choose
to participate in yoga or another organized form of meditation.
Some write about their feelings and the situation in a journal.
is different from suppression in that a person is aware of the
anger, acknowledges it, and acts deliberately to diffuse it.
By contrast, a person who suppresses anger is not fully aware
of the feeling and may act in a way that blocks it from consciousness,
such as by binge eating or drinking.
Often calming can be a personal
timeout, a way to get ready for thinking through a situation
and figuring out how to express the anger.
Expression. The healthiest
way to deal with anger is to express it appropriately. Typically,
this is done with “I” statements.
For example: “I feel angry when I see mud tracked in on
the floor.” This is different from criticizing or blaming
someone else by saying: “See what you did! You tracked
If no other person is involved, anger may be expressed
to a trusted friend. Instead of throwing blocks, for example,
Johnny could have expressed his anger to the teacher. Ideally,
the teacher would listen and acknowledge the feeling without
judging. Comments like “You shouldn’t get angry” can
worsen the situation.
Before expressing anger, many people, including
children, need time to think through what to say. The goal is
to avoid saying something that will raise tension and cause regret.
It helps to focus on solutions rather than on the inflaming incident.
Some people like to inject a little humor, as long as it’s
not sarcastic or belittling.
Helping children deal with emotions
Teaching children to deal effectively with their emotions is
a complex task that changes as developmental needs change.
Toddlers, for example, often display anger or have tantrums
when they test the limits of behavior. They learn acceptable
behavior as a result of adults consistently enforcing boundaries
(Texas Child Care 2009).
Actually, much of the learning in early
childhood is about self-regulating the emotions. One effective
technique is to help a child acknowledge the emotion and name
it: “Mandy, you’re banging the
table. It looks like you’re angry.” The next step
is to either redirect the behavior or offer comfort in the form
of compassion: “Everyone gets angry now and then. I know
it’s frustrating. Let’s clear off the table so you
can play with clay.” The goal is that children internalize
this regulation so they develop the ability to self-regulate.
As children grow emotionally through developmental stages, it’s
not unusual for them to get angry because they feel helpless,
and anger is the natural response. In addition to feeling helpless,
children may feel embarrassed, isolated, lonely, anxious, or
hurt. All of these feelings can emerge out of frustrations, which
appear as anger in a child.
Therefore, when guiding children
who get angry, it’s important
to discover the underlying cause. Talking through the frustration
may take patience and perseverance and can depend on a child’s
developmental stage. Even school-age children may not have the
vocabulary or patience to expound on their feelings in detail.
In addition, there may be confounding factors in the child’s
home. In some families, for example, parents may not understand
that there are more effective guidance techniques than hitting.
If parents were hit as children, they are likely to carry forward
that behavior by hitting their children. Teachers can refer parents
to parenting education classes in the community or school district
or offer parent meetings on the topic.
Teaching children about anger
Besides helping identify and express emotions, teachers can deepen
children’s cognitive awareness of their feelings and
actions. Some suggestions:
Ask specific, rather than
general, questions. Asking open-ended
questions encourages a child to think beyond a yes-no response.
But children need to learn to process information on a deeper
For example, instead of asking a child “How do you
feel today?” a teacher might say, “Tell me one thing
that went well at school (or home) this morning and one thing
that didn’t go well.” This request for specific information
causes the child to think more deeply about what happened and
distinguish between positive and negative events. Keeping an
open line of communication with children in regard to their anger
is an important element in this process.
Distinguish between anger and aggression. Anger
is an acceptable and healthy emotion, but aggression is not an
acceptable method of expressing one’s anger. For example,
if Caroline gets mad and hits or attempts to hit Kenisha, Caroline
needs to learn that getting angry is OK, but hitting is aggression
and not OK. In effect, Caroline needs help in reassessing her
In this case, the teacher can remind Caroline about
the classroom rule of treating others with kindness and state
the consequence for breaking the rule. A logical consequence
might be to remove Caroline from the setting, as in a timeout.
A timeout helps Caroline regain control of her feelings, but
it does not teach an alternative method of handling her anger.
One alternative method is problem solving. The teacher can ask
what the problem was and how both children felt. “I can
tell when I’m getting angry because my face feels hot and
my heart beats faster. Did you feel anything like that when you
got angry just now?”
The teacher can then involve the two
children in brainstorming: “What
else could you have done?” Choices might include “Using
words instead of hitting,” “Telling the teacher,” and “Finding
someone else to play with.” Children do best when given
different choices in expressing their emotions.
Model appropriate behavior. A most effective
technique for how to appropriately process and express one’s
anger is modeling. This method provides children with a road
map. Obviously it requires the teacher and other adults to demonstrate
this skill. One must remain calm, be able to modulate or tone
down, and gain internal control.
This is easier said than done.
Life events, both personal and professional, arise throughout
the day and cause frustration. A teacher must be able to identify
and transform these issues quickly and not let these emotions
boil over into the teaching role.
In some situations, a child’s inappropriate response
to anger can trigger a bad experience in the teacher’s
past. For example, Becky throws a temper tantrum in a public
environment, such as on the playground or in front of other staff.
The teacher or caregiver may become embarrassed, which hinders
the opportunity to effectively extinguish Becky’s behavior
or teach an alternative method of appropriately expressing anger.
Another example: Caroline’s attempt to hit another child
may bring up a memory of a past incident when the teacher struck
out in anger and received negative consequences. Remembering
that incident causes the teacher to overreact to Caroline’s
behavior. Children give adults an abundance of opportunities
to re-experience old wounds that have been long forgotten. In
such situations, teachers need to differentiate between their
own issues with anger and a child’s.
to understand that adults don’t have
to be perfect to model appropriate behavior in response to anger.
If a teacher can model appropriate behavior most of the time,
children will have adequate examples of appropriate and inappropriate
methods of dealing with anger, and the choice of deciding which
method is most effective and efficient.
In addition to distinguishing
between past events and present behavior, teachers need to understand
that an issue that does not trigger their anger one day may cause
considerable anger another day. For example, a headache can make
a person more susceptible to anger than when feeling well. In
this case, a teacher can detach from her emotions long enough
to briefly explain to a child what emotional or mental state
and if necessary ask for a temporary reprieve. But it’s
crucial to check back in with the child at a later time, so that
the request is seen as honest and dependable.
Use analogies in teaching. An analogy is
a similarity or comparison between two dissimilar things. One
common analogy is referring to a computer’s central processing
unit (CPU) as its “brain.”
In teaching children about
anger, a teacher might use this analogy: “Imagine
you have a large burlap bag as you go through the day. In the
morning when you wake up, the bag is empty. As you go through
the day and someone makes you angry, you put a rock in the bag.
If you keep adding rocks, what will the bag be like at the end
of the day? Heavy, right?” This analogy illustrates the
fact that when we don’t address our anger, it can (and
After explaining this analogy, the teacher could
offer instructions on effective ways to stay aware of situations
or issues that cause a child to be angry. At the end of the day,
the teacher reviews the situations that made the child angry
and brainstorms effective methods of discharging anger.
Teaching requires patience
It’s important to help the child distinguish between which
situations would be suitable for verbally addressing anger with
the person who prompted it and which situations would not. It
wouldn’t be wise to verbally address a bully during free
time at school, for example. In that case, the teacher can suggest
that the child walk away and seek other resources.
In some cases,
a teacher could ask the child to write about the different situations
that cause anger and brainstorm different methods of effectively
coping with it. For preschoolers and toddlers, art therapy such
as painting or working with clay are useful tools for evoking
Teaching children to deal with their anger requires
abundant patience by both the teacher and children. There is
no single perfect model for teaching effective anger management
Being an effective teacher requires one to fit within
a broad spectrum of “goodness of fit,” which provides
lots of room for mistakes. It’s also important to remember
that kids are resilient and that we are all human.
Hall-Flavin, Daniel K. April 8, 2009. What are the signs and
symptoms of passive-aggressive behavior? www.mayoclinic.com/health/passive-aggressive-behavior/AN01563.
MassGeneral Hospital for Children. n.d. Adolescent Health Topics
(anger, depression). www.massgeneral.org/children/adolescenthealth.
Mayo Clinic staff. June 25, 2009. Anger management tips: 10 ways
to tame your temper. www.mayoclinic.com/health/anger-management/MH00102.
Player, Marty S.; Dana E. King; Arch G. Mainous III; and Mark
E. Geesey. 2007. Psychosocial factors and progression from prehypertension
to hypertension or coronary heart disease. Annals
of Family Medicine 5 (5):403-411.
Guiding toddlers—Questions and answers about autonomy and
self-control. Texas Child Care 33 (1): 16-21. www.childcarequarterly.com/summer09_story1.html.
About the author
Bill Thompson is a licensed professional counselor who works
with school-age children and teenagers in Austin. He holds master
of education degree in school psychology from Texas State University
in San Marcos, Texas. He has had three years of experience teaching
at the middle school level and one year as a special education
coordinator at the high school level. Has been in private practice
for the past five years.