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Don’t Ask an Angry Kid to “Use Your Words”

Hey Teach,

In this really important video, Polly Bath provides some helpful insight for adults when dealing with an angry kid. When a child is upset, frustrated, or angry, telling them to use their words is not a useful suggestion. Check out this short informational video to see why.

Have you ever been in a really stressful situation? You’re a teacher so of course, you have. I know after long periods of stress I’ve hit my breaking point. After that, all I can do is cry and let out a frustrated sound that, by my best approximation, sounds like a bear crossed with some sort of falcon. Not pretty. In that moment I have no capacity for intelligent thoughts, only animalistic sounds, and leaking eyes. Depending on how frustrated I am, the tears shoot out more like daggers than welling up and rolling down my cheek. Thankfully, I have learned enough coping mechanisms the only witnesses to these expressions are my shower head and steering wheel.

Imagine yourself at that level of frustration and anger. Now, imagine someone, maybe your spouse or parent, telling you “just relax” or “calm down.” All those words do is turn the dial-up even more on your anger. Those “words of encouragement” have not had the intended effect, but rather only added a dash of resentment into your boiling anger soup.

That’s how it is for kids when we say “use your words.” They do not have words. They are already in an emotionally heightened state, their brains cannot form words. Most likely, they are frustrated, in part, because words have failed them in this situation already. Rather than giving them a task to communicate, we need to validate what they have already clearly communicated. Start by saying something like “I see you are angry.” Then, if you know what happened you can summarise and check for clarification or if you don’t know what triggered them, you can still empathize with them. For example, try saying something like “I’m not sure what caused you to feel this way, but I do understand how upset you are. When I feel this way, sometimes it helps me to take a deep breath. Would you like to take a deep breath with me? Now, would you like to talk about what happened, or do you need some space to cool off?”

By validating their feelings you address the most prominent problem. The issue that caused the feelings, unless a dangerous situation, becomes secondary. I think it is good to give the person two choices for working through their emotions healthfully. It is important not to overwhelm them with options, but to still provide them with a choice. This allows their brain to start to relax from that heightened state.

I encourage you, next time you are faced with an angry child (or adult) to try this approach. It will help to deescalate the situation while also teaching the person healthy coping mechanisms. We all get angry from time to time. The important lesson is learning to deal productively with that anger.

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