National Youth Violence Prevention Week; Helping Kids Build an Anger Management Toolkit

Preventing Youth Violence By Managing Emotions #MLTVkids

It’s National Youth Violence Prevention Week. Considering that youth violence is the second leading cause of death for most youths ages 10-24, according to the CDC, I’m not sure a week is long enough. As a parent statistics like that are frightening and overwhelming, but we can’t hide from it we just have to dig in and deal.

Chicago has been in the news a lot of late for the vast amount of street violence that our young people are falling victim to. But the need for violence prevention is not new. When I first moved to the city in 1993 I joined a theatre troupe that was charged with addressing violence prevention in the Chicago Public Schools. We toured an original musical in elementary schools and engaged in talkbacks with the students while accompanied by social health professionals. Our goal was to help children begin to understand the consequences of their choices and explore nonviolent answers to stressful situations. Stress, that was what really struck me during the shows and talkbacks. So many of the children I encountered while touring the program for three years were under incredible amounts of ever compounding stress. That stress begets fear, which begets depression, which begets despair, which begets violence.

But the violence that children across the country are facing these days is not just on the street, it’s in their homes, in their schools, in their own minds. Cyberbullying, harassment, racism, abuse, rape, suicide. The base of all violence is anger, hurt and/or stress. Our children are battling these emotions more than ever before, and even earlier than they possess any real comprehension of how to deal with iron their own. Which is why parents more than ever before need to help their children amass a toolbox of skills to help them manage and communicate their feelings to the world.

From an early age children need to be given skills to deal with their emotions. By “deal with” I don’t mean suppress. Pushing hurt feelings down deep doesn’t make them go away it only makes them build up even more, expanding in tight quarters until your child explodes. We want our children to learn how to express their anger, frustration and pain outward, not inward, but also to do so in a manor that doesn’t hurt either themselves or people around them. Keeping the stress level down.

Having a strong support network, people that not only provide living examples of good behavior but are available as sounding boards when young people are struggling with the stressors of growing up, that’s key. The phrase “It takes a village” isn’t just a slogan, it’s the truth. But having a personal toolkit for dealing with stress is what our kids need to use throughout their life, because let’s face it, stress is something that comes with living.

When my kids were little I gave them PlayDoh and clay to squeeze and pummel. It helped them physically knead out their frustrations while also channeling those emotions into something creative and pleasurable. I also encouraged them to draw. I have a song that I wrote called Colors of My Heart. I was inspired to write it because of my youngest daughter was struggling with a chronic illness since before she had the words to fully express her issues. She would use her crayons to draw me a picture of her feelings. I told her she had “a box of crayons inside her heart and whatever she was feeling she could turn into art”. It empowered her and made her feel safe.

When words were available in their arsenal I encouraged my kids to journal their feelings. Another option I gave them was to write a letter to the person or persons who hurt them, expressing how they felt. I’m not talking about a tweet, or a Facebook post, but an actual hand written letter. The idea wasn’t to send the letter, but to get the thoughts out in order to gain clarity and focus.

As my kids got bigger, literally, it became obvious that nutrition needed to be added to their kit. This was really evident with my son at the end of sports games. Whether he lost or won he would be inconsolable. He was just too depleted physically to deal with even good emotions, but anger in particular was the worst. Coping requires fuel. This does not imply that you should eat your sorrows away, but a growing child who is “wigging out” may not have the fuel inside of them to handle the feelings they are encountering. I learned to get him some protein stat.

I think the best stress relieving skill I have given my children is the encouragement, room and permission to cry or yell out feelings of hurt and anger. It’s very cathartic. But I had to be taught that just like my kids. When my brother died my then boyfriend took me to a forest preserve and handed me a thick branch and told me to break it. It took me a while to get into it but once I did I was able to unleash the torrent of pain and anger and despair that I was holding inside from the untimely death of my brother. I had been working so hard to hold it together for my family, but with my friends I was snappish and quick to erupt.  I was making myself sick. Going into that forest preserve, allowing all of my feelings to come to the surface and be freed from my pained soul, was the most powerful release I have ever experienced. It was honestly life saving. Take your child outside some place where their screams won’t alarm anyone, and encourage them to yell out their feelings with a scream. It’s primal. Teach your child where and how they can do this as a stress reliever, not in the aisle of a grocery store, but somewhere where they can express their feelings privately without judgment or unnecessary repercussions.

I’m sad to say that my kids have had to face more than their share of stress over the years, but I am really proud of how they have handled the hands they were dealt. I’d like to take the credit for their coping skills but the truth is I just got their toolkits started. As they have grown they have cultivated their own skills to pad their kits. Some of them I have even appropriated myself.

My 12 year old daughter handles stress by engaging in a rigorous fantasy life. When she was little she created an imaginary world that we would make plans to travel to in our dreams. It helped especially when I was out of town. Our scheduled slumber trips to her special world made her feel less upset when I was away and they gave me comfort too. She tells me, “Everyone needs a break. It’s not babyish to retreat to a safe place, whether it be an imaginary world, a favorite rock peak in the park, or even the comfort of a special book. If it soothes you and helps you re-energize to face your reality then it is a good thing.”

My 14 year old daughter likes to read inspirational quotes or look at beautiful pictures of babies or dancers when she is stressed. “I remind myself that things are going to be okay and that whoever hurt me doesn’t deserve to have power over me and I let it go. I also like to make myself a good meal or even bake. The aroma of good food makes me feel a lot better. Healthy nourishment is a powerful elixir. Lastly, I like to get some physical exercise. Moving my body helps me purge hurt or anger and then get some sleep.”

My 17 year old son agrees with his sister about getting physical. “For me, I have to go work out. Sometimes competitive play is the answer because it distracts you from your problem. But sometimes you just need to be alone with your thoughts so a hard workout or in a gym or on a cardio machine is the way to go. Sweat away your frustration. If you are exhausted it’s hard to care about what ails you. You can’t go wrong with a punching bag either for the really tough stuff.”

We always want to protect our children but empowering them can actually be the best protection of all. This week, arm your kids against the seeds of violence by checking in on their tookit for dealing with all of the emotions of life. Help them decrease their stress by increasing their coping skills. And above all make sure they know they are not alone…and neither are you.

SMILE On!

Miss Lori

 

If you were inspired by this article please read What Does The Sports illustrated Cover Teach Our Kids, 7 Things Parents Should Know About Heroin,  The Vanderbilt Verdict Proves How Much Further We Have To Go, and 7 Ways To Help Kids Cope With Tragedy.

 

 

 

 

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