We know when we’re hungry right? But do we tune into the symptoms that tell us that we are: an empty feeling tummy, hollow grumbling noises from your stomach, feeling a bit queasy, a craving for food, a slight weakness or lack of energy, a distractibility or possibly irritability? It’s the same with emotions – we often don’t notice the impact they have on our bodies. In fact, we don’t always even recognise that we’re feeling something (which would be the equivalent to not knowing we were hungry) let alone tune into the physical sensations that arise. Many people go straight to a response and this can often be socially hazardous, cause relationship disasters and trigger retrospective shame!
My latest short video: Symptom Checker, invites children to think about which physical symptoms they have when they experience different emotions. It seems almost too obvious to be a valuable experience but a focus on symptoms serves two purposes: 1) it helps children who struggle to recognised what they are feeling by linking the physical symptoms to the emotions to give them concrete clues and 2) it can help children focus inwards when they start to feel an emotion rather than reacting in an impulsive way that might make a situation worse.
I am often explaining that a significant part of excellent emotional intelligence (see Stage 5 of Emotional Intelligence Progression) starts with recognising that an emotion has arrived, as it arrives, completely and fully in the moment and immediately! The advantage of this is that you can start to recognise the emotion and observe it with enough detachment to increase your chance of being able to manage it resourcefully. Anything that puts a gap between the trigger of the emotion and your response helps to mitigate harm done by emotional outbursts and impulsive responses. That’s where focusing on symptoms can be really helpful for children. It’s an early indication that an emotion is visiting. It’s a message that you might need to tread carefully and resist your usual automatic responses. Examples of emotions that most often need this gap include: shame, rejection, irritation, overwhelm, contempt, hurt, embarrassment, surprise (sometimes), fear (when it’s not about keeping you physically safe), frustration and anger.
For a child who often express anger as aggression, this activity is a great first port of call. Focusing on physical responses can sometimes slow things down enough for an impulsive child to resist an aggressive response. I have heard several people say (but I am not fully convinced about the precision in terms of time!) that you need six seconds for the physical and mental grip of anger to subside. In other words, if you can resist an aggressive or unhelpful response in that time, the urge will disappear. The theory is that you can then approach the situation with less primal impulse and engage more rationally. I personally have found children need a lot more than just a delay tool to manage anger resourcefully but it is definitely a solid start and a worthy aim to make children aware of.
Please subscribe to my Youtube Channel for further ideas for developing emotional intelligence. I aim to publish one activity a week over the next few months.
P. S. Other learning that supports children with anger management include:
- Increasing emotion word vocabulary for anger.
- Finding ‘cool down strategies’ that work best for individual children for creating a gap between trigger and response.
- Understanding and believing aggressive responses are very rarely helpful.
- Learning how to have needs met by being assertive (rather than aggressive).
- Knowing not everyone responds to anger in the same way (shorter and longer fuses!) and that we do have a choice with how we respond.
- Understanding that anger gives you a message and you need to work out what that message is e.g. a boundary has been affronted, someone touched on something we are sensitive about and we don’t know how to challenge this, we are really feeling vulnerable but only know how to express anger, we are upset about something so our fuse is shorter, we feel misunderstood etc.
- Reframing the thoughts associated with a situation that has made you angry (e.g. ‘they left the door open to deliberately annoy me’ or ‘oh they’ve left the door open, I do that sometimes.’)
- Engaging empathy and wondering what the situation is like for others involved.
Much of this is covered in my video: What can we say about anger?