When Feelings Get Too Big

The body and the brain are so interconnected. When children or adults get overwhelmed by feelings, be it anxiety, fear, frustration, anger etc. this is registered not only in the brain but also in the body. Their heart rate will increase, their hands may get sweaty, their fists or jaws may clench and their breathing will become shallow. They can use the body to calm the brain, self-regulation can be achieved and they can feel a sense of control once again. Here are strategies for achieving this.

The 4 B’s

  1. Put the Brakes On: It is important to learn ways to put the brakes on to stop these feelings from getting bigger. Putting the brakes on helps release muscle tension and decreases the excess energy produced by the feelings. Here’s how to put the brakes on. Have your child sit and press the palms of his/her hands together for 5-10 seconds. This should be repeated several times. What it does is engage the muscles of the outer arms and the shoulders which are muscles involved in containment.
  2. Breathing: Breathing helps regain a sense of body awareness and helps restore a sense of calm. It also helps to ground the body. Teach you child to breathe into the belly/abdomen. Have your child put one hand on his/her abdomen and one hand on his/her chest. Instruct your child that s/he will want to feel the belly rise and not the chest. Have your child imagine that there is a balloon in his/her belly and that with each inhale, the balloon fills and the abdomen expands. Then exhale through the mouth as if s/he was blowing into a straw. Once your child has learned abdominal breathing, have him/her calm down with “Take 5 Breathing”.                                                                            1. Have your child stretch out his/her hand like a star. 2. Child uses his/her pointer finger to trace up and down around the fingers. 3.The pointer finger slides up each finger slowly and down the other side.  4. The child breathes in through the nose and out through the mouth. 5. Put it all together – breath in sliding up and breathing out sliding down. Keep going until your child has finished tracing his/her hand. (See image here.)
  3. Activate the Brain: Have you child place his/her hands on the top of his/her hands and apply a light pressure. This calms the body and activates the brain.
  4. Use the Body: Have your child cross his/her arms in front of his/her body and apply pressure as if to hug him/herself. This increases body awareness and sense of security, calm and focus. You can include a soft toy for the hug.

Once your child has learned these activities, s/he can use them anytime s/he needs to feel calm.




We had a very interesting discussion last night at the parenting class about anger. We were all in agreement that anger was an emotion that was just as valid to express as any other. It’s just not all that comfortable for us to express or be in the presence of as most of us were brought up being told not to be mad. We grew up believing that anger was “bad”.

Now we are teaching our children that anger is okay and needs to be expressed. Anger, as one parent pointed out, was there to tell us that something was not right and that this something needs attention. This is just the same as anxiety; it’s there so that we know how to react if we see a speeding car coming toward us as we are crossing the road. But there is a useful anger and there is a useless anger and we need to teach our children the difference and what to do in the presence of the useless anger.

The anger that is useful is the anger that pushes us forward to do something about the circumstance that is causing the anger. It fuels us, gives us energy and helps us move forward. When anger turns to rage, then it is useless. It does not allow us to get to any kind of resolution about the issue at hand. In a child, this shows up as a tantrum. When the child is enraged there is not much that can be done other than to let them weather the storm.

Generally, the child gets scared when his/her anger gets this big. The child does not like this out-of-control feeling. After the storm you can talk about what happened and about what the child was feeling. Use this as an opportunity to teach about useless anger and that when we are experiencing useless anger, we need to go take care of ourselves; walk away, cool off and then go back to the issue when the raging storm has passed. Rage can be very hurtful to others as well as ourselves. This is when we are operating on pure animal instinct – in full fight mode. We need to vent this rage in a safe place and appropriate way.

What are your thoughts? How do you deal with the useless anger at your home?

A Is For Anger or Anxiety

Let’s talk a bit about the cycle of anger or anxiety because both react in much the same way.  The way I think about the reaction of these emotions is on an increasing scale of o to 10, with 10 being full blown anxiety or anger (rage).  Once it gets to this point there is no use in trying to have any conversation with your child, or anyone else for that matter.  They cannot process anything as they are operating at this point from a very primitive place in their brain (flight or fight).  Once a level 10 has been reached, it takes about 45 minutes for the whole system to calm down and get back down to a 0.

Look at the “A” below and notice that between 1 and 2 there is a “crossing” to get from one side of the “A” to the other.  If we can catch our anger/anxiety at this point, we can walk across this crossing or bridge to get to the other side and from here it is a short distance back to 0.  This is why it is important to recognize the signs in our bodies that tell us that we are getting mad or that our anxiety is rising.  We feel many of the same sensations in our bodies, clenching and tightening, butterflies in our stomachs, feeling hot or cold, energy in our legs (to flee or to fight).  With anxiety we may also feel a shortness of breath, our hearts racing, a tightness in our chests and/or sweaty palms.

If we can recognize these signs within our bodies, then we can take action before our level reaches 2.  There are a few suggestions listed on the “A” which allow us to then walk across the bridge and stop the anger/anxiety from reaching a 10 and then having a long, long way back.  Also to note is that it is a very quick climb to 10 once we’ve hit the 2.

So, teach your children how to notice the signs in their bodies and what to do when they start so that they can take control of these emotions and keep them at a level where they are still useful energy.

See the article Angrrrrr! for more information about anger.


Anger is not something that we are comfortable with.  It is a normal feeling and it is a reaction to something that has been experienced.  Maybe your child saw something, heard something, felt something or thought about something.  Then (and here is an important piece) your child decided to react to that” something” with anger.  Being angry is a decision that we all make, nothing or no one can “make” us angry.

Another thing about anger is that the ways that anger is shown is learned.  That means that it can be unlearned and relearned.  Anger is not a “reflex” reaction, it is not uncontrollable nor does it control us.

There are two parts to anger: 1) It begins in the brain and we decide to be angry.  2) We then decide what to do with the anger (how to express it).

I think it is important to teach this to our kids early on.  We can model it everyday.  “It makes me so mad when I stub my foot!” implies that the anger is out of our control but changing it to “I get so mad when I stub my toe!” says that you have made a choice to be angry and you are owning the anger.  But let’s look at this statement closer.  Why am I MAD when I stub my toe?  Am I not hurt?  Yes, I am hurt but anger is an emotion that we often use to mask other emotions like hurt or even sadness, disappointment or frustration.

So…. we need to also teach our children the vocabulary of the whole range of emotions: happy, excited, ecstatic, delighted, mad, furious, enraged, irritated, sad, disappointed, frustrated, etc.  Go to http://www.psychpage.com/learning/library/assess/feelings.html for a complete list of feeling words.

Okay, so now our kids have the words, they need to express the emotion, in this case anger, in an acceptable way.  It is NOT acceptable to use anger as an excuse to hurt themselves or others: body, or feelings, nor is it okay to treat people, animals or property without respect.

Kids need to know that it is okay to share their anger with whomever they’re angry with in a respectful way.  If they cannot do it respectfully then they need time to cool down.  They could do something physical, like ride a bike, go for a walk or run or punch a pillow.  They could also count to 10 or 100! in order to give themselves a chance to cool down.  They could go watch a movie, listen to their iPod or write the person an angry letter that they throw away.

When channeled effectively anger provides energy to make things right that are wrong.  It also gives one courage to speak up with respect and it can give one courage to get a difficult job done.  Anger holds a lot of energy and this energy can be powerful and useful.Anger sends messages.   It may be saying, “Pay attention to me!”, “I don’t like …..!”, “Treat me fairly!” or “I am frustrated (or a number of other emotions)!”  It is up to us to try an decipher these messages for our kids so that we can give them the appropriate language for expressing these messages.  Who ever said that parenting was easy??!!!!  Now we are detectives that need to decipher messages!

*So to sum everything up, here is a list of things to do to help children deal with anger.

1. Be a positive role model.

2. Identify and acknowledge the child’s feelings. (You’re really frustrated with that Math problem!)

3. Help the child become aware of signs of trouble.

4. Teach the child to become aware of the signs of anger in his/her body (clenched fists or jaw, feeling hot, sensations in stomach, tension in the body).

5. Stop, calm down, get the facts, think it through and talk it out.

6. Set limits.

7. Use positive time outs for dangerous or destructive behaviours (positive time outs are cooling off periods).

8. Use “I” messages. “I feel _______ when ________ because ______.

9. Problem solve.

10. Role play acceptable expressions of anger.

* Adapted from Terry Lowe (1998)

See A is for Anger or Anxiety for more information on the cycle of anger/anxiety