Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Ask a Behavior Analyst: Anger Management.

Angry Miss M. (and yes, I am proud of my tiger face painting)
Several moms over the past month have asked me for advice on handling anger issues with their preschooler/school aged child.  I think we've all been there.  Just yesterday a plate of toast got shoved to the floor because I "didn't cut it right".   The parents I have been talking to have been concerned about a short fuse with siblings as well as melt downs in anticipation of transitions (leaving the park, getting read for school etc).

As with all behaviors, the first step is figuring out what the child gets out the behavior.  So let's run down our functions of behavior.

  1. Attention:  Is your child screaming because you pay attention to her when she screams?  This may seem like a silly question but I have seen it a lot.  Heck, I'm guilty of this scenario at least once a day:  My two kids are playing quietly, so I try and get some work done.  I completely ignore them until one of them screams, then I come over to intervene.  If my child is feeling attention-starved, I have just taught her that screaming is the fastest way to get me to interact.  The fix:  If you think this is the case, start making an effort to interact with your child when she is not yelling.  Catch her being good and shower her with praise and attention.  Also, try to minimize the attention you give when she yells.  
  2. Escape/Avoidance:  Maybe your son screams and throws himself on the floor every time you ask him to do his homework.  Because you have two other kids to help as well, you just tell your son he can play for 10 more minutes but then he "is doing homework for sure".  Sound familiar?  This is such an easy trap to fall into.  But letting a kid off the hook for screaming is just teaching him that tantrums work.  The fix: I know it's easier said than done but you cannot let your child escape a task because they melt down.  If you have been letting him off in the past, sit him down and explain that crying is no longer going to work.  But also explain that you want him to be successful.  So set the timer for 5 minutes and let him know he can get a break when it rings.  Start small and then increase the time.  
  3. Tangible:  I see this in stores all the time.  Your daughter really wants a candy bar, you say no and the crying begins.  People are staring and you are feeling judged.  You can't take it anymore and really need to just get through the shopping so you can get home in time to make dinner.  You give in and give her the candy.  Presto, you've just inadvertently taught your daughter that crying works.  The fix: Don't do it.  Ha.  Easier said than done, I know.  I admit I have given into tantrums in similar situations.   Here are some strategies to make it easier.  Prep the child before you enter the store.  "We are going shopping and we are not going to get any treats"  or, "we are going shopping and if you are cheerful you can pick out a treat at the end".  Make your expectations clear and then stick to them.  If it is an especially stressful/important trip, just give them a treat to begin with.  We get a churro at the beginning of every Costco trip.  Best dollar I spend all week.  
  4. Sensory:  Your son just gets upset.  He may be tired or sick or just overstimulated.  His meltdown has to do with something going on inside him.  The fix:  Give your child some tools to regulate emotions on his own.  I will talk about these in more detail.  
I'm hoping that if your child is melting down for attention or escape or to get something, you now have a good idea of what needs to happen.  Sensory is (as always) a little more tricky.  and the thing is, in my experience, all kids go through melt downs for sensory reasons at some point.  If I think my daughter is crying simply to get attention, I ignore her but I don't ignore when I know she is just overstimulated and upset.  The following are some general strategies to help your child learn to regulate some of those emotions on their own.  

The first thing I would suggest is talking to your child about what to do "when their feelings get too big".  I really like the above book, but when I read it, I always change "worries" to "feelings" (I want it to be all inclusive).  My favorite thing about this book is that it has a very visual scale of upsetness with 1 being calm and 5 being super angry.  I explain to my daughter that I can't be around her when she's a 5 (it's not safe) but I will come help her as soon as she's at a 4.  

The next thing that I love is the Mind Jars.  I learned about them from this site.  There are several ways to make them but basically you add glitter and water and a thickening agent.  You can use glue or corn syrup or glycerin.  The idea is that you want the glitter to take several minutes to settle to the bottom. You'll probably have to experiment.  I would also let your child pick the color of glitter.  The more involved in the process they are, the more likely they are to buy into it. You then explain to your child that shaking the jar makes the glitter fly everywhere just like what happens inside his head when his "feelings get too big." As he breaths and calms down, his thoughts settle just like the glitter.  The jar can also serve as a timeout timer.  You child should stay in his room until the glitter settles.   As a warning, if your kid is prone to throwing things, I would not give him a glass jar. 

The book Moody Cow Meditates is about an angry cow who's Grandpa makes him a mind jar and can be a good way to introduce the jar.

My last suggestion is one I just introduced for my 6 year old.  She was yelling at least 10 times a day, at either myself or her brother.  I explained to her what the problem was and we made a chart together.  (Don't you love the grumpy hearts?) This chart represents 15 minutes of computer game time before bed.  Every time she yells, she moves the magnet down one block and then only has 14 minutes of computer time etc.  It is really important to give them something that they can loose incrementally rather than all or nothing.  That way if they yell at 9am, they don't give up for the rest of the day.  You could also do this with minutes you can stay up past bedtime, or number of M&Ms or whatever you think would motivate your child.

The chart has worked wonders in our household.  It turns out just seeing the magnet move down is motivational enough.  We no longer do the minutes, she just doesn't like it to move down.


  1. I love this! I am making those mind jars STAT... for my kids but maybe for myself, too.

  2. I really needed to read this, Taylor. I've been dealing with a lot of BIG emotions with 4 year old Gid. It's tricky. Thank you for this. I've got some new tools and ideas to use with him.

  3. I love this post. Thanks for all the great advice.

    We received the worst news ever yesterday: no more churro's at Costco. They are making room for the new Italian Sub and had to take something off the menu.

  4. this is why I always call you for advice! you are brilliant.

  5. Thank you!! I definitely needed to read this - I just wish I had this information when I had my first four year old :) !! I have LOVED this series! Keep the posts coming!

  6. A good reminder of how to react (or not react) to their behavior, whatever it may be. Thanks for tips, T.

  7. I will follow your step by step guideline. anger management