Recently, I received the following note from a participant in one of my Its Pure Magic workshops:
“The Sunday after your workshop, we were having dinner with our son’s family. At the table, our Asperger grandson flew into a rage last week because his sister appeared to “get credit” for a comment the two of them made at the same time. My wife had listened closely to my description of your teaching and she said to our grandson, “You feel you haven’t been listened to.” He immediately affirmed her statement, and then she said, “That makes you feel bad.” Within 10 seconds, the micro-intervention you taught us restored a normally escalating set of circumstances into a calm that might otherwise have taken hours to achieve.”
Notes like this affirm the vital importance of every parent knowing how to calm an angry child. The skill is simple to describe, although counter-intuitive. I developed the techniques as a means of de-escalating intense emotions during mediations and perfected it in the Prison of Peace Project, co-founded with my colleague Laurel Kaufer.
Here’s how to calm an angry child in seconds:
- When dealing with an angry child (or adult), ignore the words. In this moment, the words are not important.
- Guess at the emotions and feelings the child is having right now. Anger and frustration are usually the most obvious, but there are many other emotions hidden behind them.
- Label the emotions for the child by simply saying “You are angry.” “You are frustrated.” “You are sad.” “You don’t feel listened to.”
- Do not use “I” statements, such as “I sense that you are angry.”
- Do not ask questions, such as “Are you angry?”
- If you guess wrong, the child will correct you automatically. When that happens, reflect back the corrected emotion immediately.
- Name emotions as they come up and don’t worry about interrupting. You are not interrupting, even though you think you are.
- Continue labeling and naming the child’s emotions until you get a head nod, a verbal response (“Yeah!” “Yeah, yeah!”), a relaxing of the shoulders, and a sigh. These are all unconscious indicators that you have connected. Stop when this happens or after 90 seconds of labeling emotions, whichever comes first. Generally, you will not have to name a child’s emotions for more than 30 seconds.
I have taught this technique to teachers to de-escalate angry students, to mediators to calm angry disputants, to family law practitioners with emotional clients, to family therapists to deal with high conflict emotions in family settings. It is the single, most powerful skill I have ever seen or used as a professional mediator, peacemaker, and trainer.
If we can practice deep, emotional listening with our children, we help them grow into whole and healthy adults. By modeling this skill to other adults, the contagion of empathic listening will spread. We will all benefit.
Douglas E. Noll, JD, MA is an award-winning peacemaker, author, speaker, mediator, and teacher. His website is www.dougnoll.com.