Teaching Kids To Control Their Anger Teaching children to control their emotions, especially anger, is difficult. We look at how another culture accomplishes this and learn about a powerful tool that American parents may be overlooking.

Teaching Kids To Control Their Anger

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It's the weekend, as you know, which means spending time with lots of family. Chances are the kids are misbehaving - if they're mine. And maybe you're starting to get angry and yell a little. These past few weeks, NPR has been exploring anger. And today in the last story in this series, we're going to talk about a way to get kids to behave that's the complete opposite to the punishment approach. NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff tells us more about the strategy.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: Back in the 1970s, the late anthropologist Jean Briggs was living in the Canadian Arctic, studying Inuit culture. One day, she took a walk and saw...


JEAN BRIGGS: A young mother sitting on the gravel beach with her 2-year-old son.

DOUCLEFF: Young woman picked up a pebble, gave it to the little boy and said...


BRIGGS: Hit me. Go on, hit me - harder.

DOUCLEFF: With the rock - the kid did, and the mom replied...


BRIGGS: Ow, that hurts.

DOUCLEFF: Jean was stunned. It seemed like the mother was teaching the child the opposite of what parents want - right? - to hit, to throw rocks, to act in anger.


BRIGGS: I thought, what is going on here?

DOUCLEFF: That's Jean talking to the CBC back in 2011. The mom's actions also seemed to contradict everything she knew about Inuit culture, a culture that greatly values gentleness and even-temperedness. In fact, Inuit are incredibly good at controlling anger, even when it comes to disciplining kids.

MYNA ISHULUTAK: When you're shouting at them all the time, they tend to kind of block you, I guess. So that's saying never shout at them.

DOUCLEFF: That's Myna Ishulutak. She's a language teacher and filmmaker in Iqaluit, Canada. She knew Jean well. Myna met her when she was just about 3 years old. At the time, Myna's family was living a lifestyle similar to the way her ancestors did thousands of years ago, in a hunting camp, eating...

ISHULUTAK: Just from the animals like seal, fish, caribou.

DOUCLEFF: Myna's family welcomed Jean into their home.

ISHULUTAK: Jean was living out on the land with us.

DOUCLEFF: Jean wanted to live with them because she was interested in studying how Inuit raise young children - in particular, how they taught young children to control their emotions, especially anger. What she documented is one of the most intriguing parenting strategies I've come across. When a child acted in anger, like hit someone or had a tantrum, there was no scolding, no punishment, no time outs. Instead, the parents waited for a calm, peaceful moment and did something that Shakespeare...


DOUCLEFF: ...Would be envious of.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Jaques) All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players.

DOUCLEFF: They put on a play - a little drama. The parent would reenact what happened when the child hit or had a tantrum, including the consequences of that behavior. Now, this is critical. During the drama, the parent always had a playful, fun tone. And the drama typically started by trying to provoke the child, like the young mom did that Jean saw on the beach. She said...


BRIGGS: Hit me. Go on, hit me - harder.

DOUCLEFF: Then in this play, the child has to think, what should I do? Should I hit mama? If the child chooses to take the bait and hits the mom, the mom doesn't yell or scold but acts out the consequences.


BRIGGS: Ow, that hurts.

DOUCLEFF: It doesn't stop there. The parent then asks a question to keep the child thinking about the consequences, like, don't you like me? - the implication being that hitting hurts people's feelings. The parents keep putting on these little plays from time to time until the child learns not to hit. Myna grew up learning from these types of dramas. She says these plays also teach kids to keep their cool.

ISHULUTAK: Teaching you to be, I guess, strong mentally and emotionally.

DOUCLEFF: To not react and be...


DOUCLEFF: ...Provoked easily.


DOUCLEFF: In other words, these dramas give kids a chance to practice controlling their anger. And this practice may be key because here's the thing about controlling anger. Once the anger has already erupted, stopping it is not easy for anyone.

LISA FELDMAN BARRETT: When you try to control your emotions in the moment and you want to change the feeling, that's a really hard thing to do.

DOUCLEFF: That's Lisa Feldman Barrett, a psychologist at Northeastern University who studies how emotions work. She says there's a big misconception that you can easily stop yourself when you're already mad. But, she says, if you practice cultivating a different emotion or a different response when you're calm and peaceful, you have a better chance of managing your anger in those hot-button moments.

FELDMAN BARRETT: That practice is, essentially, helping to rewire your brain to be able to make those emotions much more easily.

DOUCLEFF: This practice may be even more important for little children. Laura Markam is a psychologist in New York City. She says kids' brains are still developing the circuitry needed for self-control.

LAURA MARKAM: Children have all kinds of big emotions. They don't have much prefrontal cortex yet. And so what we do in responding to our child's emotions actually shapes their brain.

DOUCLEFF: She specializes in peaceful approaches to disciplining and recommends a strategy similar to the Inuits. When the kid misbehaves, wait until everyone is calm and then go back over with the child what happened.

MARKAM: That develops cognitive capacity. And it develops self-control, self-regulation.

DOUCLEFF: You can do it with a drama, a story or grab two stuffed animals and act it out. She says just make sure you keep the tone fun and playful. She says many parents forget how powerful play is in disciplining and sculpting kids' behavior.

MARKAM: And, of course, for children, play is their work. That's how they learn about the world and about experience.

DOUCLEFF: Now, at this point, I need to come clean. I have a personal stake in this story. You see; I have a little girl named Rosie.

ROSIE: I'm 3 years old.

DOUCLEFF: If she's angry and I pick her up, sometimes, she slaps me. So I thought I'd give this playful approach a try. Each time she hit me, no matter how hard it was and how infuriated I was, I didn't get angry. I just said...

Ow, that hurts. Goodness, that hurts.

I immediately saw a difference. The tension between us melted away. So I started putting on a lot of little dramas. The first few were really rough. She would wallop me. But I stuck to the script. And every time, I asked her this one question.

Don't you like me?

After about a month, this happened.

Why don't you hit me?


DOUCLEFF: No. Why not?

ROSIE: Because I love you.

DOUCLEFF: Because what, Rosie, love?

ROSIE: Because I love you.

DOUCLEFF: Because you love me. Oh, that's very nice.

Nice and also a testimony to the power of not being angry but instead teaching kids through play and practice. Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR News.

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