boy screaming at his sisterWhy Angry Kids Have a Hard Time Stopping the Fight

As a parent educator I hear a lot of stories about angry aggressive kids who try and control others, hit, yell, scream, and throw tantrums. I mean I hear a l-o-t about it.

Here’s a little known fact and a method that may help reduce your child’s anger.

I switch from male to female in this post because all children can get mad.

We all know that when a child is aggressive or angry the fight or flight switch in their brain gets tripped and cortisol is distributed throughout the body. Cortisol remains in the body for 2-3 hours which means a child can easily flare-up again or get involved in another ruckus.

However, according to Janet Allison, author of Boys Alive, if a child drinks a glass of water, the cortisol leaves the body in 5 minutes—in 5 MINUTES people!

Problem: Getting an angry child to drink a glass of water. The way to get your child to drink a glass of water is to help her learn about her anger.

Method  #1: There’s a great book called the Explosive Child by Dr. Ross Greene. He suggests you help your child learn about the degrees of anger by having him use numbers to express how mad he is at the moment. You ask, “Choose a number between 1-10 that lets me know how mad you are.” Sooner, rather than later, he begins to identify the degrees of his anger instead of always thinking his anger is a 10+.

Method #2: Another way to help her learn about her anger is to introduce the concept of zones. There’s the hot, warm or cold zones, or the stand, sit or hug zones, or as Heather Chauvin suggests, the red, yellow and green zones.

Keeping Others Safe from the Anger: It’s hard to talk to, or get a response from, a child when he’s filled with anger. Parents need to respect that he’s angry and that’s where he is for the moment. Try not to talk him out of his anger at this point; he’s still in the hot zone. You need to take a breath and wait for him to move out of the intensity of that zone. You might say, “You need to stop, move away from your sister right now, and come stand beside me. Take 10 deep breaths and then we can talk.”

Drinking the Water: Having her take 10 deep breaths begins the process of moving her from the hot to the warm zone. She can still feel her anger, but isn’t fully engaged in it. After the 10 breaths you say, “You know what the rule is in our house, when anyone is angry they have to drink a glass of water before talking.” After she drinks the water she’s in the warm zone and now you can slowly begin talking about the situation. Remember it takes 5 minutes for the cortisol to be metabolized. 

Teaching: The warm zone is the zone where teaching is possible. Think about framing the conversation as an opportunity for her to ‘state her case’ instead of making her think she’s on the hot seat because of her behavior. After all she’s still learning how to deal with these powerful feelings and needs new ways to understand and express them. You might say, “Tell me why you’re mad? Why do you think your sister should do as you say? Is it okay to hurt anyone, ever?” or whatever is relevant to the situation.

Reframing things in your mind changes your tone of voice and body language. It allows your child to feel heard as she learns that compromise is the key to making relationships work.

*** It has come to my attention that the professional I quoted as having said, “if a child drinks a glass of water, the cortisol leaves the body in 5 minutes.” may not have actual research to back up her statement. There are many research studies on google that show a link between stress and drinking water. The basics are: When you’re angry your body releases cortisol. The release of cortisol and related stress hormones dehydrate the body’s organs. Drinking water replenishes the lost fluids, thereby helping to reduce the effects of cortisol. It may be circular thinking but it makes good practical sense to me.  

Bottom line, I leave the decsion as to whether or not to ask your child to drink a glass of water when (s)he is angry, up to you. Personally I’ve done research on myself. If I’m angry, I do feel much calmer after I drink a glass of water. It may be the water, or the shifting of my attention from the object of my anger back to what I need, or it might be the added oxygen. Either way, it’s an easy practical way to calm a child down. 

For even more examples of how to respond, not react, when dealing with your child’s behavior, purchase Stop Reacting and Start Responding.


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