Cool thoughts for angry kids: how kids who get mad think differently - and what to do about it

Dear Calm Kid Central member,

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 way children think about or understand arguments, problems or difficult situations with their peers (psychologists sometimes call this thinking “attribution style”) and how this influences how they act - either angrily or calmly - in response to these problems.  

Research on this topic started back in 1980 when some 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 another child had hurt someone deliberately and intentionally or whether it had been an accident.

They found that some children were consistently more likely to think peer problems were a result of deliberately and intentionally actions by others.  In contrast, most children were more likely to think these problems just happened accidentally or unintentionally.   They 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 is this:  When experimenters looked closely at children with a hostile attribution bias, they found that these children were 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 - and not surprisingly - 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, programs have been designed to help children with hostile attribution bias to instead see peer problems as happening accidentally or unintentionally.  These are called cognitive bias modification (CBM) therapy programs and research shows they often do help children think more calmly and act less angrily when problems with peers happen.

I’ve used this approach many times with children and families.  I call it “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 a parent/caregiver you will know that children do this 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 this aggression – more than others.  Its’s possible that some children who have so called “hostile attribution bias” are simply accurately reporting and reflecting their own actual life experiences.   

My second point is that while helping children to see the accidental and unintentional nature of some problems is important, I think this bias in thinking is not the only one we should be trying to reduce in kids.  I think there are are at least two other styles which are also useful in helping children act calmly.

The first is a style of thinking I think is vital in helping children deal with frustration and difficult peer events and this is an thoughts about why it might be difficult for other people to act in kind and fair ways towards us.

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”.  Now Sam doesn’t feel quite as angry as if she/he had this thought: “Jamie is a horrible person”.  

Some psychologists call this type of thinking “empathic concern”. Researchers have found 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 are not able to think like this - they are more likely to act in angry ways.

Because of this, I work with children to help them develop what I call “Everyone has challenges” thinking.  To do this, 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 “fine” for difficult or aggressive behavior to occur.  It is not about adults refusing to step in to protect kids when necessary.  It is simply about helping children develop a fuller understanding of the situation which often helps them 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.  

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.

If you have read about helping children with anxiety you might have come across this idea of reducing “catastrophic thinking” in helping kids who feel anxious.  However, in my experience reducing catastrophic thoughts and increase coping thoughts can make a powerful difference for children with struggles with frustration too.   

I work with children on developing what I talk to them about being  “Not terrible, and maybe even good” thinking. We think about potentially tricky and frustrating situations and come up with sentences and plans for why they are not terrible, and how they can cope when these things happen.

If you have a child who struggles with frustration, it might be useful for you to discuss with them these three types of “cool thoughts”:  Accidents happen thinking, Everyone has challenges thinking and Not Terrible and Maybe Good thinking.

Other ideas for helping children learn about these ideas are as follows:  

  • Make a poster with your child with these three types of thinking on it and illustrations.  

  • Write or draw examples of each of these thoughts with them - for potentially tricky and frustrating situations you know they might experience in the next week.

  • Next time they get angry or upset about something – later when they are calm- generate some cool thoughts in each of these categories about the situation.  

  • Talk with them about cool thoughts for difficult situations their friends experience or potentially frustrating situations you see on TV/movies etc (when it hasn’t happened to them directly, they often are able to do this more skilfully – which eventually helps them do it for themselves).

  • When you encounter something frustrating yourself – think of a “Accidents Happen”, “Everyone has Challenges” and “Not terrible and Maybe Good” sentence – and not only describe it to them, but tell them which category it is.

It’s important to note that helping children develop cool thoughts is only one component of supporting kids with frustration.  We also need to help children manage frustration in other ways – for example reducing shame, explaining anger, helping children use distraction strategies, helping them to do good social problem solving, using assertive communication and other strategies. However, helping children think differently still remains one of the core strategies for managing anger over their lifetime.

All the best in helping your child develop cool thoughts.

PS 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, an activity sheet for them to help them do this and a poster for their bedroom/the fridge to remind them about it. Click below to read more about Calm Kid Central below.