Frustrated kids: What research tells us about their thought processes - and how we should work with them

I was watching an episode of The Good Wife the other night (I know, as usual about a decade behind the times) and there was a discussion about the way some people say “sorry” when they accidentally bump into someone in the stress and others say “hey, watch out!”.

It reminded me of a topic I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and reading about lately – the relationship between cognitive appraisal and attributional style in children and their subsequent behaviour.  In other words the way children think about arguments, problems or difficult situations with their peers and the way this influences how they act - either angrily or calmly - in response to these problems. 

For those who need a quick recap, this area of research started back in 1980 when a few pioneering psychologists (eg William Nasby, Ken Dodge and Nicki Crick in particular) started a series of experiments in which they showed children pictures of or told them stories about hypothetical problems with peers – for example someone getting knocked over in a game – and then asked them to say whether they thought a child had done this deliberately and intentionally or whether it had been an accident.

They found that a subsection of children were consistently more likely to think peer problems were a result of people acting deliberately and intentionally hurtfully towards them.  In contrast, other children were more likely to think these problems happened accidentally or unintentionally.   The researchers called this first type of thinking “hostile attribution bias”.  This type of “hostile attribution bias” was also found in children asked about their real life peers/classmates level of aggression:  In other words, some children are more likely than others to believe their classmates are more frequently deliberately aggressive or mean.

But the most interesting part of these studies was this:  When experimenters looked closely at children with a hostile attribution bias, they found that these children were also more likely to act in aggressive ways themselves than children without this bias.   This finding has been replicated over 100 times in many different settings – and in adults too.

In other words, if you consistently interpret situations as being about people deliberately trying to hurt you - you are more likely to act angrily in response.

Since this research has been published, several therapeutic programs have been designed to help reduce hostile attribution bias and to help children instead see peer problems as happening accidentally or unintentionally.  These are called cognitive bias modification (CBM) therapy and research shows these program often do reduce how often children act angrily with others (see Vassilopoulos, Brouzos, & Andreou, (2015) for an example).

I’ve used this approach with children and families in the clinic myself.  When I talk to children I call this “learning to use ‘Accidents Happen’ thinking” and I work with children to generate all the ways in which annoying things can happen accidentally or unintentionally.  We play games looking for the “accidents” and create “accidents happen” thinking in advance of problem situations. 

I’ve found this useful for many children.  I have also found it helpful for myself when I’m annoyed in the traffic (“Okay Kirrilie, let’s just assume they didn’t see me!”)

Unfortunately however, like everything about the human condition, helping children manage anger is not as simple as cognitive bias modification therapy might suggest.

Here are two thoughts I have about correcting hostile attribution biases in children.

First children do of course sometimes experience deliberate aggression from others.  As professionals who work with children, we know very well that children act in intentionally rude, mean and downright horrid ways towards each other and this happens All.The.Time.  They deliberately leave each other out, insult each other, make up stories which they know are false, push, kick and punch other children. 

And more importantly:  some groups of children consistently experience more deliberately aggressive acts than others.  Its’s possible that some children who have a so called “hostile attributional bias” are actually simply accurately reporting and reflecting their own actual life experiences.  

That’s not to say it’s not important for us to help children think more neutrally about situations, just that we should be careful about using this approach as a panacea without considering other interventions.

My second point is that while creating a more neutral attribution style to problems has got a lot of press in the scientific literature I think it’s only one of potentially three important styles of thinking which may be useful in reducing to angry behaviour in children. 

For instance, a second type of thinking I think is vital in helping children deal with frustration and difficult peer events is helping them develop an understanding of why it is difficult for some people to act in kind and fair ways.

Take for example Sam who has been yelled at and insulted by Jamie.  It’s clear Jamie has deliberately and intentionally tried to hurt Sam.  However Sam, says to him/herself “I saw Jamie crying this morning, he/she seems very upset about something else today”.  Sam now doesn’t feel quite as angry as if she/he had simply thought: “Jamie is a horrible person”. 

As you may know, some psychologists call this type of thinking “empathic concern” and research consistently shows that when children have higher levels of empathic concern they are more likely to act in kind and helpful ways towards others.  And importantly -  when they can’t they are more likely to act in angry ways (eg see Wied and Boxtell, 2010)

I have found this to be true in my clinical work with children.  I work with children to help them develop what I call “Everyone has challenges” thinking.  Kids and I discuss tricky situations with peers (and adults) and try to imagine the kinds of challenges people might have which might make it tough for them to act in kind and fair ways towards them.   I find it is often easier for children to do this initially when we are discussing a more emotionally neutral topic – eg TV shows/other children’s experiences – rather than their own.

Please note, this type of thinking is not suggesting it is “ok” for difficult or aggressive behaviour to occur, and not about refusing to step in to protect kids when necessary – but simple about adding in a fuller understanding of the situation and helping children feel better and less angry.

To recap so far, I think we can use the “accidents happen” type of thinking to reduce hostile attribution bias and the “everyone has challenges” thinking to improve empathic concern.   However, there is one final type of thinking which I think helps kids cope with anger and it’s about helping children understand that even when peer difficulties happen intentionally, even when they can’t find a challenge which makes the behaviour understandable – that they can cope anyway.

Take for example Josh who has been told by Jade he needs to hand over the iPad
right now.  Like most kids in the world, this is potentially a trigger for much outrage.  However if Josh has practiced and can use a thought like “maybe I can then have a turn on the trampoline while Jade uses the iPad” or “Having a break will help my brain rest and then I’ll get an even higher score on this game when I go back” then he is less likely to react angrily to Jade.

Of course we are familiar with working to reduce catastrophic thinking when we are working with children with anxiety.  However, it seems to be less often used when supporting kids with frustration/anger management and I think this is a shame as in my experience it can make a powerful difference for these children too.   I work with children on developing what I tell them is  “Not terrible, and maybe even good” thinking and again, we develop plans for why and how they can cope when difficult peer situations happen.

In summary, to assist children to think in ways which help them to act in calm ways when they have difficulties with their friends and tricky situations, we can practice with them three types of “cool thoughts”:  Accidents happen thinking, Everyone has challenges thinking and Not Terrible and Maybe Good thinking.

It goes without saying that this is a long, slow process of skill development.  We certainly can’t expect kids to develop this style of thinking in the heat of the moment.  Instead we need increase children’s awareness of “cool thoughts” both before and after difficult situations when they are calm.  For example, I ask families/teachers to use posters with “cool thought” visual reminders, ask them to use “do-overs” to practice identifying potentially cool thoughts they might have used after a difficult situation has occurred, get families practicing “ run thoughts” before what they anticipate might be difficult situations that week and get them to talk about cool thoughts others might have (this less emotionally laden not surprisingly which leads to better skill development).

I think it’s also important to note that all of these cognitive reappraisals and development of cool thoughts are only one component of supporting kids with frustration.  They need to be used in combination with other frustration management strategies – for example shame reduction by means of psycho-education, helping children use distraction and redirection of attention, developing social problem solving, assertive communication and other strategies.  However, helping children think differently still remains one of the core strategies for managing anger over their lifetime.

If you’d like to have some resources to use with children to help them practice these skills, Calm Kid Central has a 3 minute animation I’ve made on noticing their “fighting brain” and generating “cool brain” thoughts, a discussion guide to help know the key questions to ask children about this topic to help them learn, and a poster for their bedroom/school classrooms.