It's one thing to write about helping kids make smart choices when it comes to expressing anger -- it's another thing to watch an emotional situation play out right before your eyes and hope that your own child will make a good decision! Last weekend, I took my daughter and her friend to a pizza-n-games type of place. For them, making time for the delicious pizza buffet is like "having" to eat their veggies before they can enjoy dessert; wobbly crane machines and spinning prize wheels are the true delight of the restaurant.
My daughter brought two weeks worth of allowance to the restaurant, hoping beyond hope to win enough tickets to redeem for a quarter's worth of plastic toys. Okay -- that was my cynical adult perspective sneaking through. What I meant to say was that my daughter set a goal, helped around the house for two weeks to earn money, and saved it all for a valued (if not valuable) prize. Her single-mindedness was admirable and her hopes were peaking by the time she downed her requisite two slices of pizza.
First game -- lose. Second game -- lose again. Third game -- the charm? No -- near miss! Fourth game and last set of tokens -- victory! She won 35 tickets -- 10 more than she even needed to win the nickel-sized plastic crab of her dreams. She and her friend walked to the prize redemption machine, filled with giddiness and glee. My daughter carefully threaded her tickets through the narrow slot and watched the digital reader tally her score. She triple-checked the machine for the right code for her chosen toy. She entered the first digit, then -- one button-press away from her coveted prize -- her friend leaned into the machine and pressed the entire panel of buttons at once! Out came a round, grape lollipop -- just the prize my daughter never wanted!
I watched the whole scene unfold from about 10 feet away. From high hopes to dashed emotions, it was a roller coaster ride before my very eyes. I held my breath to see how my daughter would respond. What choice would she make to express the anger over what, in her world, was a major wrong?
First, came the tears. Then, there was a foot stomp. I'm pretty sure I saw steam come out of her ears next. She buried her head in my stomach, walked with me out of the game room, and like a true therapist's daughter, started talking her way through the situation. Her stream of emotional consciousness flurried through four basic choices in expressing her angry feelings:
Screaming & Shouting
Her first instinct was to stomp, scream and shout. She wanted to yell, "You ruined my game and you did it on purpose! I hate you! I'm never bringing you here again. You have to give me all of your tickets so that I can get a new prize!"
This type of verbally aggressive behavior is a common impulsive response by kids. Whether verbal (calling names, threatening) or physical (hitting, grabbing, kicking), aggression is destructive to relationships and never the best choice for expressing angry feelings.
Holding It All In
Talking her way through the aggressive options helped her drain off some of her angry steam. She then began to consider a much different course of action. "It's okay if I don't get the crab. The kids will like me more if I don't say anything else. I can always earn more allowance and come back in a few weeks."
In this passive frame of mind, my daughter tried to convince herself that her needs were not as important as the needs of her friend or of being liked, so she considered allowing her needs to go unmet.
Where my daughter spent the most time debating her choices was in the revenge category. "I'm gonna press all the buttons on the machine when she is picking her prize next time. When she puts her tickets down, I'm going to rip them all up and say it was an "accident" like she said to me. Next time I go to her house, I'll hide her piggy bank so that she knows what it feels like to lose all your money for nothing!"
In the moment, her ideas for passive aggressive revenge felt justified. Knowing that aggressive actions would immediately get her in trouble and passive behaviors wouldn't feel satisfactory, she stayed stuck in this more socially acceptable, but emotionally dishonest way of expressing anger.
Tell It Like It Is
With a little coaching to get over the seemingly sweet prospect of revenge, my daughter ultimately steered her own course toward telling her friend honestly and directly how she felt about the button-pressing incident. The whole decision-making process took about 10 minutes of discussion, a quick role play, and a long, cool drink of water, but then my daughter was able to assertively say, "I felt so mad when you pressed those buttons while I was entering my code because I had my heart set on winning that crab. I want you to be very careful when I am redeeming my tickets from now on. I don't want you to touch any of the buttons next time."
In the end, the real outcome my daughter was hoping for was to go home with the crab. She did not get exactly what she wanted, but she did achieve something bigger on that playdate. She ran through a series of choices in her own mind, used me as a supportive sounding board, and ultimately made a choice that demonstrated emotional-control, strengthened her friendship, and made her mama proud!
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