Anger resets – how to help kids who get angry (with thanks to Tammy Lenski)

Thursday, 23 June 2022

When we’re on the verge of being swamped by anger, having a pre-chosen anger reset can save the day. Anger is a messenger. It’s trying to tell us that something important doesn’t yet feel heard or understood, or that something important feels threatened. Like any good messenger, anger is persistent until we pay attention to what it’s trying to tell us. In this way, anger is useful, even welcome.

Sometimes, though, our anger emotionally swamps us, like a wave that sweeps us off our feet before we see it coming. Once we’re swamped by our anger, it’s hard to hear anger’s message right then because we’re flailing, trying to come up for air before it pulls us further from shore. As Daniel Goleman, bestselling author of Emotional Intelligence reminds us, Out-of-control emotions can make smart people stupid.

In those moments, a good option is an anger reset, an action we can take to prevent anger from swamping us further and help get us back to stable state.

Quick anger resets for low-level anger

Quick anger resets are useful to shake off low-level anger without having to take a break from the conversation. Use them when you first notice yourself feeling irritation but before it’s fully swamping you.

* Recall a happy memory. Autobiographical memories can evoke the emotions of the original experience. Even in the face of acute stress, research has shown that happy memories can “trick” us back into a better emotional state. 

* Focus on your feet. Dr. Jud Brewer of the Mindfulness Centre at Brown University says that our “anxiety zones” tend to be in our chest and throat, and that our feet are as far away from those zones as we can get in our bodies. Focus for a moment on how your feet feel — wiggle your toes, feel the soles of your feet, press your heels to the ground.

* Breathe deeply. Deep breathing, even for half a minute, helps us slow and pace our breath and gain a sense of control and calm. Box breathing is a personal favourite because it can be done almost anywhere at any time, even in the middle of a stressful meeting, and it’s easy to remember.

* Count to ten. Yes, really, grandparents are right. Keep counting if you need to. Anger researcher Brad Bushman frequently includes this as one of his go-to recommendations.
Use a focus question. A focus question is a question you develop for yourself to help you gain psychological distance, engage in cognitive reappraisal, and shake off a rattled feeling. 

* Label your strong emotion. Research has demonstrated that noticing and then labelling an emotion transforms the emotion into an object of scrutiny and disrupts the intensity. 

* Mentally watch yourself from a distance. In your mind’s eye, become like a fly on the wall and watch what’s happening as if from a distance. This is a form of psychological distancing, which has been shown to help with emotional self-regulation.

* Picture the scene or person moving away from you. Researchers Joshua Davis, James Gross, and Kevin Ochsner suggest you can reduce the emotional impact of a situation by imagining the stimulus to be moving away from you, as though it’s on a conveyor belt heading toward the horizon. To get the benefit, you’ve got to explicitly imagine the movement. This is another example of psychological distancing.

* Anger resets for big anger - The arousal caused by anger decays over time. So when anger is big, our best option is to create the space for time to pass without continuing to rehearse the anger by replaying it verbally or in our minds.

People who are highly aroused are very impulsive, they often say and do things they’ll later regret. But as time passes, that arousal level decreases and it gives people a chance to stop and think about what they might say and do before they actually do it.

*Listen to a music playlist. Create a playlist of music that relaxes you and improves your mood. Avoid music and lyrics that may feed anger.

*Play with a pet. This one is also from anger researcher Brad Bushman, who says this works because the activity is incompatible with anger and so causes the anger to subside.

*Watch or listen to something that makes you really laugh. Some keep a short little video bookmarked on their phone because it makes them laugh every single time they watch it. Like playing with your dog, cat or pet rat, this kind of deep laughter is incompatible with anger.

*Distract yourself with a short activity. Bushman recommends a crossword puzzle, if you like those. Other options include doing a real puzzle, planting the 6-pack of seedlings you just brought home from the nursery, reading a few pages of the book you’re enjoying, or photographing your dog in a funny napping pose. You get the idea. The goal here is to distract yourself, so pick an activity that will have that effect on you.

Using anger resets effectively

*Have a couple of good resets at the ready. Don’t try to figure out an anger reset at the moment you realized you’re emotionally swamped. If you’re swimming in the ocean and get caught in a rip current, it’s enormously helpful to know beforehand that your best option is to swim parallel to shore until you’re free of it. Anger works the same way: You want a useful reset at the ready for when you need it. So, if you want to use the happy memory reset, for instance, have one picked out that you can divert to on a moment’s notice.

*Experiment to find the anger resets that work best for you. Ultimately, it’s only a good reset if it works for your child, and you are not your child ……. always. Try out the suggestions to see what works for your child. Use the above list to prime the creation of additional ones if you need them.

*If you’re helping others. When I’m working with someone who anticipates feeling pretty angry in a conversation we’re heading into, I ask if they’re interested in a couple of quick anger resets they might try. I find that most people are grateful for an idea or two, and I don’t hesitate to create a break in the conversation if someone needs something more.

And speaking of taking a break from the conversation: When you’re swamped by anger, continuing the conversation at that moment has little merit. If you’re truly swamped, the anger is not likely to subside on its own and may well escalate. It’s better to take a break and use an anger reset to get your balance back.

Book a tour today!

Contact Us