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Q MY 13-year-old son had his friends over for a movie last night. He was so excited, but before the movie was over he had asked all his peers to leave the house.
He had asked them to stop talking, laughing and messing throughout the film and when they wouldn’t stop, he asked them all to leave. He says they wouldn’t listen and he blew up.
My husband and I explained that it wasn’t acceptable to treat guests like that and that his friends were enjoying themselves. We explained that with four friends it was unrealistic to expect them to stay quiet for the duration of the movie.
We also pointed out that he could have watched the film the next day in peace. We got him to send an SMS to apologise for asking them to leave.
He seems to have a short fuse with his eight-year-old brother and four-year-old sister too, so we seem to be constantly telling him to be nice to them. What advice can you give us in relation to helping our son manage these feelings of anger?
A There are many things to think about when it comes to anger. However, the two main considerations are to identify ways to regulate the angry feelings, to be able to calm down more effectively, and to identify what the source of the anger might be.
On a practical level, you can help him to regulate his anger by taking time out away from the people or situation that have annoyed him.
To know when he needs to absent himself he needs to recognise that he is getting cross.
If he can’t spot the signs that he is getting angry, you may be able to help him.
Those signs are often quite physical (because adrenalin is released when we get angry) and can include his heart beating faster, his breathing speeding up, butterflies in his tummy, his face flushing, his muscles tensing or his hands balling into fists. These physical signs of building anger are often the best indicators to use.
As soon as he notices any of these signs, he can take it as a prompt to walk away until he feels calmer. If he doesn’t walk away, then you, or his siblings, can leave him alone by leaving the room instead.
When he has a bit of space, deep, slow breathing will also help to reduce his heart-rate and dissipate the adrenalin more quickly.
Sometimes children (and adults) don’t attend to the warning signs that they are getting angry because, actually, they feel the pressure of many strong, negative feelings and being angry seems a good way of venting those stresses.
Being angry can actually be quite relieving in the short term. So sometimes children will choose to let the anger build to an outburst as a way of trying to make themselves feel better.
A longer-term solution to angry outbursts may be to identify the source of his anger. We need to differentiate between the trigger event and the possible underlying reasons why a child might be angry.
For example, in the instance you describe, your son’s enjoyment of the movie being interrupted by his friends’ messing sounds like it was the trigger for getting angry.
At other times, it may, for example, be his little brother plaguing him with lots of questions or interrupting him while he is playing a computer game.
However, the fuel that keeps anger burning may have a different source.
Other events can have occurred that caused distress, frustration, disappointment and so on. If those feelings were bottled up they can later get mixed into an angry outburst.
For example, your son might have already had a row with his friends earlier in the day, he may have had some issue in school that annoyed or upset him, or he may have fixed ideas and expectations and gets frustrated if these expectations are not met.
Knowing the trigger and the source of anger can help us to find ways to avoid angry outbursts by minimising the triggers or resolving the underlying issues.
Typically, with children and teenagers, we need to try to see past the actual outburst and wonder about other things that might be bothering them.
In this instance it sounds like your son had certain expectations of how his movie night would run and when it didn’t go to plan (including actually getting to watch the movie) he got frustrated.
He may need help then, to manage his expectations. So, you may have to talk with him, for future occasions, about what he expects to happen.
Then you can help him to look at alternative outcomes and what he might be able to do or say if his expectations are not met.
So, with the movie night, your conversation might have had prompts like, “So what’ll you do if they have all seen the movie and don’t want to watch it?”, “Say they find the movie boring, could you have another on standby?”, “Do you think the boys want to watch a movie or just hang out, in which case are you okay with abandoning the movie if everyone wants to have a laugh?”
These kinds of prompts at least will get him thinking about alternatives so that he won’t be surprised, or as disappointed, if things don’t turn out exactly according to his plan. Check in with him too about how life is going at a general level. He may feel under pressure generally that leads him to have that shorter fuse. – Irish Independent