The Magic Phrase I Use With Angry Kids

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Yelling, stomping, hitting, and throwing things. I don’t know about you, but my heart rate increases a little when I think about those behaviors! Why? Because it’s so hard to work with a child who is doing them! As a new teacher, I felt intimidated by these things. I wanted to be calm and reasonable, but that was hard to do when there was so much drama going on. How could I keep my composure and help an angry student calm down enough to be reasonable?

The answer came when I learned this beautiful one-line response from Jim Fay (co-author of Parenting with Love and Logic): “I’ll talk to you when your voice is as calm as mine is.” Let me tell you a little story to show you just how it works.

I lined up my class to go outside to P.E. One of my students, we’ll call him Luke, pushed another student. “Woah,” I said. “That wasn’t nice!” I didn’t want the rest of the kids to have to wait for me to work this out with him so I said, “We’ll talk about this outside.”

At the field, I explained the rules of the game for the day, and let the class start playing.

“Luke, you’ll need to stay with me for a minute. I need to talk with you”

“That’s not fair!” he yelled. He clenched his fists, stomped his feet, and glared at me. I knew that this student had some trouble with managing his anger. In the past, I had seen that seemingly insignificant situations would set him off. It was obvious that we wouldn’t get anywhere while he was so upset, so I pulled out my magic phrase, “You’re really upset right now. I’ll talk to you when your voice is as calm as mine is. You can go sit in the shade of that tree until you’re ready.”

I had used my powerful phrase with Luke, so he compliantly walked over to the tree to calm down…Ha! No way. Luke was a persistent kid. He wanted me to be as emotional as he was.

“But it’s not fair! Everyone else is playing!”

“I know. I’ll talk to you when your voice is as clam as mine is.”

“Can you just let me go play?” he whined.

“No. I’ll talk to you when your voice is as calm as mine is.”

He finally realized that I wasn’t going to give in and went to stand by the tree. About one minute later, he stomped over to me with his fists still clenched. With furrowed eyebrows, he growled, “I’m calm now.” Oh the irony. I repeated my phrase.

He marched over to the tree and kicked it. Next he went to the fence 5 feet away and kicked that too. He looked over to me to see how I was reacting. I tried my best to keep a straight face. When he realized that I wasn’t going to engage, he plopped himself down on the grass in the shade. He attempted to come talk to me at least 3 more times before he was actually calm. Each time I would let him know that he was still acting angry. Each time I gave him an idea of something he could do to help himself calm down. I told him he could try taking deep breaths or counting to 10.

Finally, he walked over, and softly said, “I’m ready to talk now.” This time, I knew he meant it. I was able to talk with him about pushing. I learned what his motivation had been and worked through that with him. He was able to make amends with the child he had pushed, then joined in the game.

Had I tried to reason with him when he was so emotional, we never would have made any progress. I’m sure I would have become frustrated as I tried to help him fix the problem. Since I used this phrase and stuck to what I said, I was able to distance myself a little bit and give him the space and tools he needed to get in control of himself.

One thing I love about this tool is that it forces me to be calm in intense situations. I can’t use it if I’m out of control. I also love that it gives kids an example of what calm looks like.

Unfortunately, there are some times when I really can’t set the example for kids because I’m too angry. Lucky for me, there is another phrase that is similar to the first one for this situation. When we are angry, we can still set a good example by saying, “I’m too angry to think right now. I’ll talk to you about it later,” (Another great one-liner from Jim Fay). I love this one, because it allows me to be human. Although I try, I can’t always stop myself from feeling angry. By using this phrase my kids will see that it’s ok to feel angry, and there’s a healthy way of dealing with it. What if the child doesn’t want to stop talking about the situation? Just keep repeating that you will talk to them later until they give up, or remove yourself from the situation.

When we are angry, we don’t act rationally. The right side of our brains, which takes care of emotional jobs is completely in control. We have to calm down and use the left, rational, side of our brains to solve problems (Whole-Brain Child pg. 15-16). When we use the phrase, “I’ll talk to you when your voice is as calm as mine is,” we are able to get to the point where both the adults and the kids are rational. Problems become much easier to solve.

To learn another skill for keeping discipline situations calm, click here.

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  • Michelle
    8 months ago

    Excellent advice!

  • This is great advice! I have a strong-willed child, so I’m going to be pinning this for later!

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