I was wondering if you had some advice that could help us. We have been looking for a good way to help our son release his anger without damaging property or hurting anyone. We thought that getting him to punch a pillow or soft toy might help but we’ve noticed that when he does this it seems to keep his anger going rather get it out. We were under the impressions that this was a pretty common and effective strategy. Could you explain why this is backfiring and suggest something that may be more helpful for him?
Thanks heaps in advance,
Kim and Nate
Hi there Kim and Nate,
The first step to answering this question is to take a moment to consider what is actually going on in our bodies when we experience an emotion. When we stop and think about it, it can be pretty tricky to explain or describe.
To help people gain a clearer and more useful understanding of emotions, I often describe them as Energy in Motion (E-Motion) and encourage them to think about their emotions according to the following two characteristics:
- How the emotion impacts their energy. Does the emotion rev their energy up and trigger the fight or flight response or zap the energy out of them and slow their system down?
- How pleasant or unpleasant the emotion is to experience.
Of course, our emotions are far more complex than this but, as the table below shows, being able to categorise our emotions according to these two simple factors can help us develop a useful understanding of our emotions that can direct our options for managing them.
As you can see, when your son is in the grips of anger he has a lot of energy soaring through his little body. His body is, in fact, preparing him for battle and has triggered his fight or flight response.
Physiologically this is causing his heart and breathing to race, his muscles to become tense and his cave man brain to overpower his logical thinking centre. All in all, it is fair to say that this combination of is pretty unpleasant for him.
Unpleasant as it may be, this discomfort isn’t all bad as it gives your son the motivation to take action and the increased energy that comes with it gives him the power he needs to do so. This is fantastic if there really is a battle to fight or a beast to flee from but when there isn’t, we have to do something else with all that raging energy.
Dealing with anger: So what can we do with all that energy?
Well there are two main options: We can channel it or cool it down. Let’s have a look at each.
This option is all about harnessing the energy created by the feelings of anger and directing them into something more positive or constructive.
Of course, this is where the idea of punching a pillow, soft toy or punching bag originates and it is understandable why it might seem like a good idea. Unfortunately, the reason it often backfires is that it keeps anger at the focus of the activity and therefore maintains both the high level of energy and unpleasant experience.
A more constructive option would be to direct the energy into another physical activity that was non-aggressive, that would essentially burn off the steam (cortisol, adrenalin, excess energy). Suitable activities might include, running, going for a walk, bouncing on the trampoline or channeling (the energy but not the aggression) into sport.
If channeling the energy is not the best option at the time or is not proving to be successful, the other option is to Transform It.
This option is all about resetting the system and calming that energy down through relaxation.
There are a whole range of relaxation strategies we can use to calm ourselves, but one of the most effective, is simply taking a few quiet moments and a few deep belly breaths. As simple as this seems, it can take a bit of forethought and practice.
In my Angry Birds and Cool Kids course, I help children and their families create an entire Cool Down Plan to help them bring that energy down so that it is more manageable. If this is something that you feel would be helpful to you and your child, please feel free to send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and request a copy by putting ‘Cool Down Plan’ in the subject line.
Wishing you all the best and hoping that you find the above suggestions of help. I’d love to hear how you get on!
The Kids Coach
If you have a question about an aspect of your child’s social or emotional wellbeing that you would like answered, simply email email@example.com with the subject line “Ask The Kids Coach”