When Case Western Reserve University psychologist Diane Tice asked 400 people about how they manage their moods, she discovered that they had the most trouble with anger (Goleman, 1997).

Anger in both children and adults comes from a feeling of being in danger—either physical or emotional. When you’re insulted, treated unfairly, or thwarted in reaching an important goal, your self-esteem or dignity feels threatened (Goleman, 1997), and the body’s first response is to gear up for fight or flight. Then, thanks to the adrenocortical system, the body remains in a state of arousal, ready to convert any new offense into more anger. Even mulling over the original provocative incident—for instance, thinking “That makes me so mad!”—has the effect of escalating anger (Goleman, 1997; Novaco, 1975). This is why venting anger or hitting a pillow doesn’t calm a child down or teach her to regulate her feelings. On the contrary, it can actually increase aggression (Bandura, 1973; Berkowitz, 1993; Mallick and McCandless, 1966).

The world of a child with challenging behavior seems to be filled with threats and potential sources of anger. Because she can’t process social information correctly, she misunderstands others’ actions, and she is frequently rejected by her peers, excluded from activities, or frustrated by the task at hand. When she has a math problem that’s too difficult, she will probably get angry—angry at her parents for making her go to school, angry at the teacher for giving her such a hard problem, angry at her classmates for being able to solve it. To keep this anger from blowing up, it’s important to intervene early in the anger cycle, while it’s still possible to interrupt it. That is precisely what anger management programs teach children to do.

The best time for children to learn is when they’re calm. They aren’t listening when they’re in the middle of an angry outburst; and talking may actually add to their frustration and anger. Instead, map out a strategy ahead of time for situations where tempers flare, such as when a child doesn’t get what she wants; a child is frustrated, hurt, or called a name; or another child takes away a toy.

The first step is to learn to recognize and label anger, usually by becoming sensitive to body cues: a hot face, clenched fists, a frowning mouth, a wrinkled forehead, crossed arms. Children also need to learn that it’s all right to feel angry, that feelings—even feelings that make them uncomfortable, such as anger and frustration—are natural responses to events or actions, and that learning to understand, accept, and label feelings is crucial to managing them and solving problems.

They must also learn that feelings are signals, and feeling angry is a signal to stop and consider what to do next. Anger management programs teach direct techniques, such as those used for impulse control—self-speak (“Stop,” “Calm down,” “I’m getting angry; I’m not going to lose my temper”), slow breathing, relaxation, and counting slowly to five (Coie and Koeppl, 1990; Kreidler and Whittall, 1999; Moore and Blaxall, 1995; Wittmer and Honig, 1994). One preschool teacher asks children to put their hands over their hearts to check out how they feel. “I point out that a wildly beating heart is a sign of being out of control,” he says (Bauer and Sheerer, 1997). The Turtle Technique (Robin, Schneider, and Dolnick, 1976; Greenberg and Kusche, 1998) teaches children to go inside their “shell” when they feel angry or upset. It, too, emphasizes bringing arms and hands toward the body—behavior that helps to inhibit physical action.

A teacher can also help children reframe their anger by using empathy to look at the situation from a different point of view (perhaps realizing that Emma spilled the juice because she hurt her hand yesterday) or by suggesting possible explanations for the event (Maria bumped into Emma and she wasn’t actually trying to spoil Jessica’s lunch). Another way to reframe anger is to externalize it. One teacher talks about a temper monster who makes children lose their tempers and helps them figure out how to stop the temper monster from controlling them (Milne-Smith, 1995). A different frame for older children (who reacted angrily because they felt their honor was at stake) convinced them that when they were provoked into losing their tempers, the other party in the dispute came out on top (Coie and Koeppl, 1990; Coie, Underwood, and Lochman, 1991).

Once the child’s anger is under control, it’s time to apply problem solving to the original problem. At that point the child can say, “I’m angry because the math problem is too hard and I don’t know what to do,” and with the teacher’s help, she can begin to brainstorm ideas to solve the problem—asking for help, teaming up with a classmate, breaking it down into smaller, more achievable steps. Throughout this process it is necessary to ensure that the child understands that feeling angry is all right but that pushing Diego or throwing her math book across the room is not.