Helping children and young people to understand and manage anger

Feeling angry is something we all experience from time to time. Anger is often viewed as a negative emotion but it is completely normal to feel it and it is very important for creating the drive needed to make positive change and progress. If it is expressed unhealthily, however, it can lead to problematic behaviours.

Recognising the physical symptoms of anger
When we feel angry, the body experiences physical changes. These include a fast heartbeat, feeling hot, quick breathing, tense muscles, and a knotted stomach. Recognising these physical signs is a good place to start with regard to dealing with anger effectively. Once a child or young person is able to recognise they’re feeling angry and label this emotion, he/she can put into place strategies for good anger management.

The anger gremlin model (Collins-Donnelly, 2012)
If children visualise their anger as a hungry gremlin sitting on their shoulder, when an event happens that triggers angry feelings, they can stop, think, and make a choice as to whether to feed the gremlin or starve it. Feeding the gremlin involves thinking negatively and irrationally about the triggering event. For example, if a child has texted their friend and the friend hasn’t responded, a negative thought would be, “He/she obviously is ignoring me.” The more the kid thinks negative thoughts like these, the more he/she feeds the gremlin and the bigger the gremlin becomes. As the child’s anger rises because of these negative thoughts, the physical symptoms associated with anger increase and the likelihood of anger being expressed through problematic behaviours, like shouting, swearing, hurting others, also increases.

Alternatively, if the child chooses to starve the gremlin by pausing, challenging these negative thoughts, and thinking more positively and logically before acting, anger can be expressed constructively in a calm way. An example of positive thoughts regarding the same situation would be, “Maybe he/she hasn’t got any reception to text me back,” or “Maybe he/she has run out of credit,” or “Maybe he/she has lost his/her phone.” By thinking positive thoughts instead of negative ones, a child is able to stay calm and communicate his/her feelings in a healthy, productive way. Whether the choice is made to feed or starve the gremlin, the triggering event remains the same. Through using this technique, children can learn that they are in control of their anger as they have the ability to choose whether to think positively or negatively when faced with a challenging situation.

What can you do to help?
There are lots of ways to help with dealing with angry feelings. Here are a few suggestions:

Little actions that can help in a big way!

  • Remind children that feeling angry is completely normal and they have the right to be angry


  • Acknowledge children’s angry emotions by reflecting back what they are saying


  • Empathise by sharing with them what you are noticing about them, for example, “You look frustrated,” or “You sound angry” but don’t tell them how they feel, eg. “You’re angry”


  • When children are calm, talk to them about the anger gremlin model. When they are experiencing angry feelings, remind them about the model and that they can choose to think positively or negatively and have the power to control their reactions


  • When children are calm, teach them some skills they can use when anger surfaces, for example, writing down thoughts and feelings, walking away, and breathing deeply