When we are angry, we have a strong instinct to express our outrage and needs in strong and emphatic ways. We use our words to defend ourselves, attack or defeat someone – or something.
As adults, we are (sometimes) able to disguise or dampen these themes, but in younger people (without the benefit of fully developed adult frontal lobes) these ideas are often expressed loudly and clearly.
James and his brother were playing a ball game which ended in them both yelling “You’re a cheater”, “this is stupid” and “Shut up!”
Jordi was furious at Sara for telling others something told to her in confidence and texted her:“You’re a liar” and “Don’t ever talk to us again”
Tom* was asked to get ready for school three times until Dad took the ipad away from him which prompted him to yell: “Give it back to me” and “You’re horrible”
Ruby wasn’t bought something she desperately wanted at the shops, and she stomped, cried and shouted “This is so unfair” and “You are so mean” to her Mum.
Unfortunately, while it is entirely normal for young people to speak in angry and aggressive ways at times - not only does it often make them feel worse, it makes people around them less likely to want to be with them, negotiate with or support them. Which in turn can lead to worse mood, poorer social relationships and more anger.
As professionals working with children and young people, we also know that there are some young people who are particularly likely to use aggressive and angry language and who struggle to remain calm. For example, this might be:
Young people who have speech or language delays
Young people who (for a range of reasons) experience anger and frustration more intensely than others
Young people with challenges (for a range of reasons) related to impulsivity
Young people who do not have the confidence they will be listened to at home/school/with peers
Young people who have not had constructive and problem solving language modelled to them
Young people who are experiencing or have experienced other psychological, emotional, or physical health – or life - challenges
Unfortunately, just trying to stop angry young people from communicating angrily to others whilst they are angry is only marginally helpful. It’s true we need to try to halt the damage they are doing to others and themselves at that point, but telling them to stop speaking in this way does nothing to develop effective communication skills - and our timing is way off.
It’s like a young person is riding their bike full pelt down a hill, trying to slow down by putting their feet on the tires – and adults are yelling at them to get their feet out of the wheels. Instead it would have been more helpful if they had been taught how to use their brakes before they got to the hill in the first place.
In other words, we need to teach young people – not just what not to say when they are angry – but how to effectively, assertively and kindly communicate their needs and wishes when they feel life is unfair.
There are no magic formulas for doing this work, but here are the strategies I use which I’ve found useful.
1. Help young people know what unhelpful angry language sounds like
I think young people need to know exactly what unhelpful language is – and why it doesn’t help.
When I’m talking with young people about this in the clinic, I tell them that when we are angry, we feel like using “fighting talk”. “Fighting talk” is when we speak more loudly than usual and use two particular types of sentences, “Negative Labels” and “Demands”.
Negative Labels are very short (often one word), simple and negative descriptions of a person or a situation. In the examples above, the negative labels are the words “cheater”, “stupid”, “Not Fair”, Horrible”.
Kids and I usually have quite a lot of fun coming up with negative labels they’ve heard others use (sometimes I do need to reign this in J) about situations and people – and those they’ve used themselves.
Demands are short sentences telling someone what to do with no explanations, no consideration of what the other person needs or feels. The demands in the examples above were “Give it back”, “Don’t talk to us again” and “Shut up”.
It’s interesting to discuss with young people the differences between demands and requests. Even younger children are often skilled at being able to distinguish between the two.
Once we’ve identified negative labels and demands, we then talk about what they do to people around us, and how they make us feel when we use them. I sometimes explain (very simply) about experiments which show that people who speak angrily about an unfair situation feel MORE angry afterwards than people who speak calmly about it.
Recognising these types of “fighting talk” can also be very helpful for giving children and young people clear clues about how they are feeling.
I talked to a teenager in the past who said to me: “I didn’t realise I was so angry until I heard myself using one of those negative labels”.
2. Help young people know what constructive and helpful language they can use when they are angry
As explained above, it’s not enough to tell young people to not use demands or negative labels – the important – and often missed – step is to tell them what to say instead.
I’ve often heard adults tell kids to just stay silent (“If you can’t say anything nice….”, “Walk away and come and get a teacher”, “Keep your mouth shut when you are mad”). As much as this is often the smart thing to do – realistically, it’s very tough for most young people to do it.
I have many memories of earlier years in my career working endlessly with smaller children about the “STOP and move away when you are angry” strategy and for some of these children with challenges with impulsivity there was a definite sense of my head hitting a brick wall more than once.
I should also add that there are situation in which we do NOT want young people to walk away silently in any case: we want them to (assertively and kindly) speak up about injustice.
I talk with young people less about “not talking” when they are angry - and more about the idea of using “cool talk”. Cool talk is expressing how we feel, what we would like and what is happening for us – but in a calm and kind way.
Here are two types of cool talk I teach to young people.
First, the “I think and I feel…because….” sentences.
These are sentences which start with the words “I think” and “I feel”, and have “because” (or sometimes “when”) in the middle (I feel I may have overexplained that).
“I think/I feel …because..” sentences express an opinion or an emotion and also give some details and explanation about those thoughts and feelings. They go beyond a simple “I’m angry” and let others have more information about what is happening for us.
For example, instead of “You’re a cheater”, an “I think/feel…because” sentence might be “I feel disappointed because I didn’t understand that was the rule”.
Instead of “This is so unfair!”, an “I think/feel..because” sentence might be “I feel frustrated that I’m not going to be able to finish this drawing because I’ve been working on it for an hour now and I’m so close to finishing”
Instead of “Shut up!”, an “I think/feel..because” sentence is: “I feel worried that you are going to talk about that thing that happened which will make me feel really embarrassed”
Using “I think/feel….because…” sentences invites others to connect with us. They provide information to other people which help them understand us. They can turn situations from win/lose propositions into joint problem solving situations.
It’s also interesting to note that “I think/feel…because” sentences require concentration. To use these young people have to pause, and reflect and think about what they think and feel and why. This concentration and reflection is helpful in itself because it redirects energy and attention away from primitive anger centres in the brain and helps them calm down. Of course, many young people need to pre-prepare and practice these sentences (more on this in a minute) but if they can learn to do this it can be a form of redirection of attention/distraction exercise.
Another type of cool talk is the “Would you please….because…” sentences.
“Would you please….because…” sentences are sentences which assertively express what we would like from others, but in a way which acknowledges other people’s needs, and respectfully provide context and background to the request.
For example, instead of “Go away” a “Would you please….because” sentence might be “Would you please let me have the toy for now because I’ve been waiting for it for a long time”.
Instead of “give it to me” a “Would you please….because’ sentence is “Would you please let me show you how to use it first because I am worried that will break.”.
Instead of “I hate you”, a “Would you please….because sentence might be: “Would you please let me have some space for a few minutes, because I feel really overwhelmed”
A personal favourite of mine of these “Would You please sentences” is the (shortened) and simple “Would you please give me a hug?” Obviously it’s not always appropriate for all situations – however I have many families who have told me they’ve had a lot of success after teaching their children to use this simple sentence when they are angry.
There are other kinds of assertive and constructive sentence structures we can teach young people to use when they feel life is unfair (including those in which they ask others how they feel, invite problem solving, stick to one topic and so on) but I’ve found starting with these:
“I think/feel…because” and
“Would you please…because..”
Sentences are a simple and effective way to start.
3. And then…the practice begins!
Just as important as introducing these concepts to young people is to help them practice using it.
Here are practice methods I’ve used:
I always write or draw the cool talk and fighting talk examples on the whiteboard to provide visual cues as we practice.
Role playing potentially unfair conversations and asking young people to come up with cool talk examples (using puppets with younger children)
Writing out cool talk sentences on slips of paper and pulling them out a container and then coming up with an unfair situation in which they could be effectively used
Using comic style drawings with a “fighting talk” speech bubble in the last “box” and generating a story to go with it and then doing the same with a “cool talk” in the last “box”
Having young people tell me about an example of a difficult conversation went well and identifying the cool talk sentences they used
Asking parents/caregivers to notice when young people use cool talk and thanking them – and pointing out how these sentences helped them and others.
Asking kids/teens to think about what might make them frustrated in the next day, and what are some cool talk ideas they might use in these situations
Inviting parents/caregivers to allow young people to notice when THEY use demands and unhelpful labels – and to pull them up on it (needs to be done carefully!)
Having a visual reminder in the form of posters to take home with these sentences on them
This is a long road of course for some families, but in my experience I’ve found it to be more helpful in managing frustration constructively than the strategies which focus on simply recognizing the intensity of anger for a young person.
I have a slightly shorter and “parent-friendly” article on this topic, you are welcome to print it out and distribute however you see fit.
If you work with primary aged children who particularly struggle with frustration and would like to show them a short animation about these ideas, we have a 3 minute video, plus activity sheet, poster and discussion guide in Calm Kid Central.