What’s Below the Anger? It’s Not What You Think: 10 Tips to a Calming a Tantrum

Most adults assume that what we see is what we get. I’ve had a number of conversations over the years with teachers (and parents) who were completely perplexed by a child that had “gone off” seemingly without provocation. These poor people were totally bewildered, “I told him to get his book out, and he started screaming. I don’t know what happened or why he is so angry at me.

Building relationships with clear boundaries is the key to reducing, if not eliminating outbursts, but for those moments when tempers flair, I’ve got you covered with these 10 tips.

1. Help them name their emotions.

As a school counselor and mother, I am constantly asking kids to “check-in” with themselves. What do they notice about their bodies? Where are they feeling tense? Can they name what they are feeling? By reflecting on a children’s emotions, “You’re really frustrated right now.” it is possible to allow them to dig deeper into their own mind about how they are feeling.

Giving children an emotional vocabulary allows them to notice and name their emotions as they arise–before they become overwhelming and boil over into an outburst.

I’ll admit it is usually pretty easy for me to get children to name the feeling simmering below the anger, but it is much more difficult to get parents, teachers, and administrators to be curious about the anger of a young person.

2. Get Curious.

What if we were curious about the anger of another person? What if we let ourselves explore other emotions that might be causing the outward display of anger? What emotions might we find?

When we look beyond the anger, we often find someone who has been hurt is feeling shame, jealousy, fear, or guilt. There are so many emotions that often resemble anger, but often, they are just outward projections and not the real issue at hand.

In most cases, it isn’t about you, although, sometimes it is, but that’s a different (and much longer) conversation. My best advice to parents or newbies in the helping or education field–get curious. Look beyond what the other person is saying and try to find the root feeling. It’s okay to guess at it an get it wrong.

A curious conversation might go like this:

Me: “I noticed that you just yelled at your teacher. You must be feeling pretty overwhelmed right now.”

Student: “No! I’m mad that she didn’t make Jake do any of the work!”

Now, what’s the underlying emotion? Jealousy!

If you avoid making assumptions and just get curious, most people, adults included, will fill you in on the situation.

3. Meet them where they are physically.

Remember when you’re dealing with littles, you’ll need to get on their level. We are tall folks, it is super intimidating to stand over a child. I have often put myself below the eye line of the student to ensure that they felt safe. I am often on the floor despite being a total germaphobe…do you know what those kiddos do on the floor? (Insert disgusted shiver.) You’ll want to try to match their body posture–this mirroring effect breeds connection faster.

4. Give Simple Instructions & Listen

Stop talking. Seriously. You want to make one and two-word requests. “First, sit.” The language part of their brain is shut down during times of crisis which is why it is imperative that you use fewer words. That’s why “Eliza, Feet floor.” is a million times better than, “Honey, I’ve told you we can’t be up on the chairs. You don’t need to be up there.” That’s too many words and the message gets lost.

When the time is right and you are attempting to bring the person in crisis back to calm, you’ll have to keep it simple. Reflect their emotions and statements and occasionally ask open-ended questions. They don’t want/need a lecture or some non-sense about “back in” your day. Hush. Let them talk and then listen. Show them the greatest kindness imaginable, give them your time and attention. Let them know you hear them.

Please, for everything good in this world, do not ask them, “Why?” they did anything. I can assure you that they don’t know because when someone is escalated, they can’t access that part of their brain to tell you “why” they did anything.

5. Lower your voice.

Initially, you’ll want to match their tone and then slowly bring it lower. Kids are curious creatures. They want to hear what you have to say, if you’re speaking in a low tone, they will have to work to hear you which takes their mind off of whatever mayhem they were engaged in previously.

6. Say what you notice.

In my earlier example, I said, “I noticed that you yelled at your teacher.” I didn’t ask “Why?” or make a judgment evaluation with the assessment, such as, “That wasn’t very nice that you yelled at your teacher.” I simply stated what I knew to be true…nothing more and nothing less.

7. Stay in your personal space bubble.

This probably goes without saying, but don’t crowd someone who is angry. I worked in-home counseling years ago for students who were at risk of being removed from their homes and placed into the foster system. One of my clients was in the program because he had attacked a faculty member at his school. The student had felt unsafe and lashed out physically when a staff member smelled smoke and cornered him into a bathroom stall trying to force out a confession. Give someone who is angry space–don’t try to touch them or make them feel boxed in. This is for your own safety and theirs.

8. Don’t take it personally.

This isn’t about you. Seriously, please don’t let your ego get in the mix. If the kid calls you a name or says something hurtful, they are trying to protect themselves and clearly that tactic has worked in the past, or they wouldn’t be doing it now. There is something deeper underneath that anger, and if you do it just right, they might share with you what is troubling them.

9. Let them lead the conversation.

When you are debriefing following the event, ask for permission, “May I ask you a question?” or “May I make an observation?” Give them power! This is not the time for you to launch a campaign about the importance of calm bodies or homework. Let them guide where the conversation goes. They might not know what they need, but I will tell you that asking the question goes a long way toward developing trust. (This should not be done until the child has regained composure following an outburst.)

10. Remember, it takes time!

Please remember, don’t be hard on yourself if you don’t get it right every time. You are human and bound to make mistakes–just do your best and if you mess up–apologize.

The fact that you care enough to bother reading this to learn how to help kids tells me that you’re going to be just fine.