Teaching children anger management and self-control

Benjamin, age 8, was playing with his Lego when his younger brother, age 4, decides he wants to play too. Benjamin doesn’t really want his brother to play with him but he gives in reluctantly. Within a very short time, however, his brother has dismantled everything he has worked on for the past hour. Benjamin is furious and he starts to yell at and even hit his brother. His brother goes screaming up to his room and at that point his father, who had been trying to read a book, screams at Benjamin because he is “too selfish,” and “won’t share with his brother.”

There’s a lot of talk about anger management these days because there’s a lot of people, children and adults alike showing a lot of anger and in the process hurting a lot of people or at least creating a lot of fear in the world. Getting control of anger is really learning about self control. Here’s how I do this with children. It goes something like this.

I don’t talk about anger I talk about the game of baseball. Most kids know how this game is played even if they don’t actively play it. In the game of baseball there’s a pitcher and a batter. The dialogue goes something like this:

Adult: In the game of baseball what’s the job of the pitcher?

Child: To throw the ball and get the batter out.

Adult: Correct! Now, how does he/she do that?

Usually at this point there’s a little hemming and hawing, which is good. This means there’s a bit of thinking going on.

Adult: Does he/she always throw good pitches or does he/she sometimes throw bad pitches? Child: He sometimes throws bad pitches.

Adult: Correct! And does he sometimes throw a pitch that looks like it’s going to be a good pitch but at the last second turns into a bad pitch?

Child: He throws bad pitches and ones that look like good pitches.

Adult: Correct!! Now let’s look at what’s happening in your life. When other kids say mean things to you or tease you, or whatever, are they good pitches or bad pitches?

Child: They are bad pitches.

Adult: And when you end up fighting or swearing or reacting in any way, are you swinging at a bad pitch?

Child: Yeah.

Adult: So what would happen if you stopped swinging altogether? If you just let those bad pitches go by? What happens when the batter does that?

Child: He gets a ball.

Adult: Correct! And what happens if you let four balls go by?

Child: You get on base.

Adult: Correct! And that’s a pretty good thing, isn’t it?

Child: Uh Huh.

In the example given above, Benjamin is the batter and his brother has thrown him a bad pitch by intruding on his lego play. This conversation can go on and on as the analogy gets played out. The difference between the game of professional baseball and the real life of a child, for instance, is that the batter in baseball has an instant to make up his mind whether he is going to hit or not. The child has much longer than that­ at least a few seconds, but not always. We talk about smart batters, who wait for good balls, and not so smart batters, who go after bad balls. We talk about what good and bad balls look like in real life. We talk about how the pitcher tries to control the batter and what the batter needs to talk to not be controlled by the pitcher.

I have helped countless fighters become smart batters with this analogy. After introducing this framework, we talk about bad balls and the score rather than what a “bad person you are for expressing your anger that way,” and it’s a lot more fun for all of us.