In my work with parents one of the most common questions I’m asked is ‘how do I calm my son’s anger?’. Through my own experience as a counsellor, personal research and learning I’ve discovered the best parent responses to anger, and also how to reduce the chances of future outburst. If your son is always angry the first step is to consider if he might be depressed
ANGER can mask depression
Boys emotional distress this often is expressed as anger and irritability. This is because boys often have a difficult time understanding or expressing their emotions. This inability to communicate and get their needs met simmers as frustration and annoyance which eventually boils over into rage. If your son is always angry consider getting him assessed by your family doctor or a mental health professional to see if there are underlying mental health concerns. Once you address those concerns his anger will decrease significantly. Regardless of whether he is depressed or not these techniques will still help.
Step 1: Recognize Diffuse Physiological Arousal (DPA)
John and Lisa Gottman are the foremost experts on relationships and couples counselling in North America. In their research they attached heart monitors to couples while they were arguing. When couples heart rates reached a point indicating they were in diffuse physiological arousal (another name for the survival response) they were unable to communicate effectively. Their thinking-logical brains were effectively turned off. This is why we often say things we regret and don’t mean when we are angry. The first step to helping your son calm down is to recognize when he (or you) are in DPA. The longer you try to communicate while in this state the more likely you will both say things that can damage the relationship.
Step 2: Name It
If you notice your son, or yourself, getting upset name it. Use language that makes sense for him and for you. For example “I think I’m getting a bit excited, let’s take a break”. Focusing on yourself will help to calm him as well because he won’t feel blamed. If he is past this point don’t try and communicate complicated messages he’ll only get more angry. Give him short direct instructions and don’t get dragged in to continuing the conversation.
Step 3: Take a Break and Self-Soothe
Communicate that you are taking a break to calm down and decide when you will continue the conversation. Depending on your son’s age and other factors will determine how long this takes. You can speed this process by doing something calming like deep breathing, going for a walk or listening to music. For the average adult it takes a minimum of 20 minutes. For boys it could take anywhere from an hour to a whole day. You know your son best, choose a time that will work for him. Also if your son wants to run away from the conversation respect this boundary. This is his way of communicating that he is overwhelmed and can’t continue.
Reduce Future Outbursts
Now you know how to calm your son down when he is angry. But this is only a band-aid solution. If you can’t address the underlying reasons for his anger you will continue to have conflict with him. The most effective approach to dealing with anger in kids and youth is called collaborative and proactive problem-solving (CPS) and was developed by Dr. Ross Greene. He works with the most rigid and explosive kids and has devised the best research-supported approach to dealing with them.
Kids Do Well if They Can
The foundation of CPS is that ‘kids do well if they can’. Heck, don’t we all? When parents are frustrated with their children they can take the stance that ‘kids do well if they want to’. This assumption increases anger and frustration in the parent because they believe their kid is being difficult on purpose. I’m not saying that kids are perfect. The ‘kids do well if they can’ philosophy just means that kids don’t set out to fail. Just the same way that adults aren’t trying to mess up, and yet will often fall short of their own standards. By assuming your son would do well if he could it will make you curious about what is preventing him from doing his best. If you can stay curious you’ll be able to help find what those barriers are and help him to remove them on his own.
Plan A B and C
When parents have chronic conflict with their kids there are typically three options for them. Plan A is to give their kids an ultimatum. This may be emotionally satisfying for the adult, but it will continue to make your son frustrated because he won’t feel heard. Plan C is to avoid the subject altogether. The parent is tired of fighting and gives in to the demands. This may work for a while but eventually the parents will get frustrated and conflict will ensue once again. Plan B is the CPS approach where the adult proactively addresses problems and both sides are considered.
Step 1: Listen
The first step to the CPS approach is to listen to your son. Don’t say anything and let him talk for as long as he needs to. If he has a hard time communicating go for a walk or do an activity while you talk, this will help stimulate his brain and reduce tension. Once he’s had a chance to speak try and summarize his thoughts by saying “It seems like you are saying ______ is that right?”. If he says “no” keep trying until he says “that’s right!”. Feeling understood will defuse his frustration and help calm your son’s anger. Once you understand him completely move on to empathy.
Step 2: Show Empathy
Once you understand him, validate his emotions. You validate by saying “It makes sense you feel that way because _______”. This doesn’t mean you are agreeing with his behaviour. It just means you get WHY he feels the way he does. You’ll know you got this right if he starts to soften. Feeling validated is the ultimate anger killer because he will feel understood AND supported emotionally. After listening and empathizing you can move on to step 3: Defining the problem.
Step 3: Define the Problem
This is where you talk about your concerns. You can say something like “What I’m worried about is ______”. Remember, solutions are not concerns. Don’t jump to solving the problem just yet. If you try a quick fix it will take away his opportunity to learn how to solve his own problems. After defining the problem invite him to solve it together.
Step 4: Invite Him to Solve It
Invite him to solve the problem by saying “Let’s think of how we can work this out”. If he can’t think of anything you can offer up some of your own ideas. When brain-storming it’s helpful to write it down on paper for a visual cue. Don’t judge any idea prematurely or it will kill the creative process. It doesn’t matter what the solutions are as long as they’re doable and satisfy both sides.
Keep doing this process until you’ve come up with a solution that makes both of you happy. This may take a long time but be patient, it’s worth it. If he has an idea but you’re not excited about it you can say “that may make you happy, but it doesn’t make me happy. Let’s find a solution that makes us both happy”. You may have to take a break and continue the conversation later and that’s ok.
Schedule a Time
You can use this approach in the moment if your son is not too agitated. The best way to utilize it is to have a weekly scheduled time when you can both address concerns you may have. This reduces the emotional intensity of the conversation because he won’t feel blamed. If collaboratively solving problems becomes a weekly ritual he’ll start doing it on his own and increase his ability to adapt to stress and frustration.
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