Feb 7, 2012

Posted by in Guest Posts | 3 Comments

Journaling for Toddlers and Preschoolers (one solution for anger management)

Journaling for Toddlers & Preschoolers (one solution for anger management)

By Sonya Jeffords from Sonya Writes Blog

I think anger scares a lot of people, particularly parents. That’s why it’s so common for parents to try to “shut up” their children’s anger, instead of helping them develop productive coping skills for upsetting emotions. As a parent, I don’t want to “shut up” my children’s emotions. It may be the easier thing to do in the moment, but long term, it certainly is not the solution. I don’t want to exhibit any of the common, negative reactions that many people have to other people’s intense feelings of anger (denying feelings, minimizing feelings, punishing for feelings, making fun of feelings, etc). One of my goals as a parent is to teach my children productive ways of taking control of their own emotions, coping with them, and moving forward.
So here is my mini-game plan:
1. If possible, remove her from the upsetting situation/people
2. “I know you’re (angry/upset/sad/scared) that (what’s upsetting her)”
3. “Even when you’re upset, it’s not okay to (hit/throw things/scream–if she’s doing any of these things)”
4. Offer something she CAN do when she’s upset, to help cope with her emotions
5. Logical/natural consequences for inappropriate behavior
6. Remember when I’m are angry that I’m setting an example of how to handle it
So right now I want to focus on 4: Offer something she CAN do when she’s upset, to help cope with her emotions. This is one that I really struggled with. You see, I was taught to “shut up” my emotions when I was a child. Growing up, I “acted in” with my emotions, causing some very painful and upsetting health problems. When I got upset my chest would hurt, my whole body would shake, and sometimes I would black out. I think these problems were in part because of food allergies I didn’t know about, but they also had a lot to do with the fact that I was bottling up all of my intense emotions which had nowhere else to go. When I grew up (age-wise, not mentally), I moved out of the house, as most adults do. Then, with my new-found freedom, I started to throw some adult-sized tantrums, since now no one was around to shut me up. It’s embarrassing, but it’s the truth. I had never learned how to deal with my anger, and once I was out of that suffocating environment, I started to act out instead of acting in. Neither of these was healthy, as I quickly learned.
So with that behind me, suddenly I was faced with teaching my young daughter productive ways of coping with her anger.
Whoa. Where do I start? I couldn’t teach what I didn’t know! Even after I learned ways of handling my own anger, I still struggled with the daunting task of teaching my daughter the same.
One thing I tried rather consistently was distraction. “You’re angry? Do you want to build a puzzle or read a book until you calm down?” Sometimes this worked, and sometimes it didn’t. It worked when the upsets weren’t particularly big. It backfired when they were.
Another thing I tried, that has been far more successful than distraction, was asking her the question, “I know you’re angry right now; do you want to ask me for a hug?” I worded it this way, instead of “Do you want a hug?” quite deliberately. Usually when people are angry, the response they get isn’t “Do you need a hug right now?” (though perhaps it should be) so I didn’t want to teach her to expect this kind of response. Instead, I put the power in her hands, by teaching her to ask for what she really needs at that moment. Since starting this, I have heard many times: “I’M MAD AT YOU! I WANT A HUG!” I always give her one. I believe that when she’s acting her worst is typically when she needs me the most. Sometimes after the hug, she really calms down and then we talk about it. I do my best not to “talk about it” while she’s still angry, because at that time she’s too caught up in emotion to be able to talk about it. But after she asks for a hug, and I give her one, oftentimes she’s able to calm down enough to talk about the problem.
But sometimes that doesn’t work, either. And I don’t think anything will work every time, but it’s good to have multiple tools available for handling a situation.
And that’s what led me to journaling. At first I didn’t think my daughter could really keep a diary, since she doesn’t know how to read or write. She’s had several diaries, but she basically just wrote a bunch of circles on the lines, and filled up every page with line after line of circles and other letter-like shapes, and there really wasn’t much purpose behind her writing in her diary, except that she liked to do it.
Then recently, when I was talking with one of my counselors, I casually mentioned that I’d given Acacia a new diary. She asked me what Acacia did with her diaries, and I told her. Then she gave me the most wonderful suggestion: Instead of writing circles and letter-like shapes, have her draw pictures about the emotions she felt that day. Then go back through the diary with her occasionally and show her what she’s been upset about and since then overcome.
I thought this was a good idea at the time, but I didn’t quite plan to use it yet. But then, that same evening, my daughter practically forced me to use it! We were at a discount store, and I was looking at books. Acacia started flipping through a journal, and (with the help of her 2 year old sister) one of the pages was ripped. I told her “Now we have to buy the book, because you ripped it.” Normally my policy is “We’ll buy it, but you can’t have it,” and I would give the item away to someone else. Because the book was only $2 though, ($1.69 after the coupon I conveniently had), and I already had the thought of getting her a journal to draw in on my mind, I told her she would buy it with her own money, but that she could only write in it when I said it was ok. She was happy with this.
Then we got home, and I emptied her coin-purse. She was not happy anymore. She was sad. She cried. She got a little bit angry. She wanted me to fix the book and take it back to the store and give her back her money.
So that’s when I handed her the journal, opened it to the first page, and told her, “I understand that you’re upset right now about losing your money. I want you to draw a picture here of how upset you are that you don’t have your money anymore.”
She calmed down, sat at her little table, and drew a picture of herself crying, next to a small pile of coins. When she was done, she said she wanted to draw some more pictures on the other pages. I told her the journal was for special drawings, and I gave her some blank paper to draw her other pictures on. I wrote the date at the top of her journal entry, and a brief sentence of what the picture was supposed to be (she’s 4 and you can’t always tell just by looking at her pictures). Then I put it up on the shelf. She was still a little bit upset, but drawing out what was upsetting her really seemed to help. She was able to get her emotions out, and then we talked about it. She said she doesn’t want to rip any more pages in the books we see when we go to the store. I told her that’s a good idea.

Since then, she’s drawn pictures in her journal on a regular basis. I still ask her “Do you want to ask me for a hug right now?” but I also ask her, “Do you want to draw about this in your journal?” This is one anger coping skill that has worked really well for her so far, and we’ve gone through the pages a couple of times and looked at things that upset her in the past (having my captions and the dates written in is very helpful for this). Sometimes I write in my journal alongside her while she is drawing in hers. Her emotions are real, and her emotions are strong, and I’m glad we’ve found a healthy outlet for her to release them, rather than bottling them up or acting out her emotional energy in a destructive way.
Sonya is a single mother of two young daughters.  She writes children’s stories and book reviews on her unique family – friendly website Sonya Writes.  Check it out for some great articles and discussions!
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  1. My oldest son (almost 4) has been acting out lately and I really hope this will help. I already dug out a notebook and some crayons, I am sure he will give me more than one opportunity to test this today, I really think he will respond well to having a creative outlet for his anger. Thank you.

    • I hope it helps you too! I ask people for suggestions regularly, and this is one of the best and most effective I’ve gotten so far, so I wanted to share it. I’d love to hear how it goes!

  2. Great tips – I swear my son skipped the terrible two’s he has never been any issues at all – then he turned 4 last week and it’s been hell! I’m hoping that this will work in keeping the outcries to a minimum!