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 fully developed brains) they are often expressed loud and clear.
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!”
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.
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”
Unfortunately, while it is entirely normal for young people to speak like this 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 makes them feel worse.
As parents we know this of course – and we generally hate hearing our young people speaking this way. Most of us tend to intervene quickly when we hear this kind of escalating language.
“Don’t speak to your brother like that!” or “Don’t call people that!” or “Go and calm down!” we will cry.
Unfortunately, trying to stop angry young people in the heat of the moment from speaking angrily to others is only slightly helpful. It’s true we need to try to halt the damage they are doing to others and themselves right then and there, but it does nothing to develop the more important skills they need to communicate effectively - and our timing is way off.
It’s like our young person is riding their bike full pelt down a hill trying to slow down by putting their feet on their tires – and we are yelling at them to get their feet out the wheels. Instead we should have taught them (yesterday!) how to use their brakes.
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. Here are three ideas to do this with our kids and teens.
1. Help young people know what unhelpful angry language sounds and looks like
Young people need to know in advance what language doesn’t help when they are angry - and why.
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 and others have used (sometimes I do need to reign this in J) about situations and people.
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.
Recognising unhelpful language is also very helpful for young people giving 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.
Furthermore, there are situation in which we do NOT want young people to walk away silently: we want them to assertively and kindly speak up.
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 I lost because I didn’t understand that was the rule”.
Instead of “This is unfair”, an “I think/feel..because” sentence might be “I feel frustrated that I’m not going to be able to finish this game because I’ve been working on it for an hour now and if I stop now I’ll go back to the beginning”
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 turn situations from a win/lose situations into joint problem solving situations.
It’s also interesting to note that “I think/feel…because” sentences require concentration.
Young people have to pause, and reflect and think about what they think and feel and why. This concentration and reflection in itself is helpful because it redirects energy and attention away from primitive anger centres in the brain and helps them calm down.
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 remote for now because I’ve just started this show. Then I will give you a turn in a minute”.
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.
3. And then…the practice begins!
Introducing demands, unhelpful labels, I think/feel…because and Would you please..because sentences is important for young people. There are other kinds of language we can introduce to older young people about assertively and kindly communicating when angry, but these are a good start.
But there is something more important than introducing any more concepts for young people and that is the practice. Practice looks different in different families, for children of different ages but might include:
Asking them to notice when as parents/caregivers we use demands and unhelpful labels – and to pull us up on it!
After angry conversations (when they are calm) asking them if they noticed any demands or unhelpful labels they used and how they worked.
Asking them if there were any “Would you please…because..” or “I feel/think…because” sentences which might have worked better
Having conversations where we use these cool talk sentences ourselves in front of our young people (and point it out later, in case they didn’t notice it at the time).
Noticing when young people use cool talk and thanking them for doing so – 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 to come up with some cool talk ideas they might use in these situations
Having a visual reminder in the form of a sign on the fridge with these sentences on them
We spend many hours teaching children to use their brakes, and ride bikes safely. Helping them use constructive language while angry is another task which takes our time and patience. But even just a few minutes every few weeks working on this can help avoid many crashes!
If you have a primary aged child with big feelings or life challenges who struggles with frustration - and you would like them to watch an animation about these ideas, we have a 3 minute video, plus activity sheet, poster and discussion guide – check out Calm Kid Central.