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Posted on: Sunday, January 21, 2001

Teaching kids to manage anger

Here are some places for parents to call for advice on helping their children control anger

By Catherine E. Toth
Advertiser Staff Writer

If only children came with instructions. We all worry and ache over whether we’re raising our youngsters in the best way possible. That’s why the Ohana section is starting "How to Raise a Child," a series of stories offering advice from the professionals, resources and real-life tales from families like yours. No one claims to know all the answers, but we hope these stories can help.

How did we choose these topics? We asked experts and ordinary people about their most pressing child-rearing concerns. We invite your thoughts and tips for the upcoming stories. Write: How to Raise a Child, P.O. Box 3110, Honolulu, HI 96802; e-mail; or fax 535-8170.

Every Sunday night the DiGrazia home in Kailua is filled with two things: The aroma of Tom DiGrazia’s Italian cooking and the energy of the family’s lively discussions about everything from politics to personal problems.

The years of roundtable discussions have taught family members some valuable life lessons: How to resolve conflicts peacefully, how to listen to each other, how to speak their minds.

"If there was ever a conflict in the family, it was never left undone," said Deja DiGrazia Glover, 28, who is is Tom’s daughter from a previous marriage. She lives with her husband nearby, but still comes to Tom’s for Sunday dinners. "We never left anything in silence. . . . It was important to make sure everyone was getting along and address any issues we had. I was allowed to speak my mind."

Tom and Louisa DiGrazia, who have one child together, plus a stepdaughter and two hanai children from Tom’s first wife’s second marriage, say they have dedicated substantial time and energy to trying to raise their children to respect each other, stay aware of their emotions and live peacefully.

But such lessons are a challenge for almost every family.

Teaching children to control their anger and settle conflicts without name-calling or fist-fighting is at the front of parents’ minds right now.

With parents and teachers giving anecdotal reports of growing disobedience and angry behavior among today’s youngsters, plus the nation’s rash of school violence — as in the mass killings committed by young people in 1999 in Columbine, Colo., and in 1998 in Jonesboro, Ark. — experts and parents are scrambling more than ever for ways to teach children respect and self-control.

All agree that, no matter the age of the child, the most effective lessons start in the family.

Guiding babies, toddlers

Parents can start teaching even babies and toddlers to keep control of their anger and act respectfully toward others.

It starts with the examples parents set.

"The child lives what the child learns," said Marvin Acklin, a clinical and family psychologist at St. Francis Medical Center. "Children will behave in ways that approximate what they see around them."

Called social learning, this type of behavior is typical in babies and toddlers, who tend to imitate others around them.

But parents often don’t realize that children — even babies — see, hear and often mimic what their parents do: "People just act unconsciously, unaware that kids are watching them," Acklin said.

While modeling is a powerful teaching tool at this age, children should also be told verbally that they should keep their anger in check, and what consequences there may be if they don’t.

"It’s more extensive and complex than just (role-modeling)," John Rosemond, family psychologist, syndicated parenting columnist and author of "Raising a Nonviolent Child" (Andrews McMeel, 2000), said in a recent telephone interview.

Rosemond, himself a father of two and grandfather of four, recommends parents begin early "to teach children to control their emotional outbursts, to display good manners, which is a sign of respect, to be responsible for themselves."

Consistent and strong discipline is vital in keeping children on the right track, experts advise, to teach children that name-calling, fighting and other acts of aggression won’t be ignored. Parents should "expect the child to treat the parents in a respectable manner," Acklin said.

There is debate over whether spanking is an appropriate method of discipline. Some, such as Rosemond, consider it an appropriate consequence to be immediately followed by an explanation.

However, Lynn Yanagihara, a pediatrician at Straub Kaneohe Family Health Center and mother of three sons, said that "from a child’s standpoint, it doesn’t make sense for aggressive behavior to be punished by aggressive behavior. But that doesn’t mean parents need to give up control; they’re still the boss."

For school-age children

During the elementary school and middle school years, children learn behavior increasingly from their peers and often imitate what they see on TV. This is why parents should begin early to monitor their children’s TV-viewing and video game-playing.

"I think the media plays a huge role in the modeling process," Acklin said. "I think part of the parents’ responsibility is to strictly control access to the media."

And for good reason: According to several studies, the average American child will have watched about 100,000 acts of violence on TV, including 8,000 depictions of murder, by the time he or she finishes sixth grade. The U.S. surgeon general declared last week that repeated exposure to violent entertainment during early childhood causes more aggressive behavior through the child’s life.

"Parents don’t appreciate how much kids can absorb, even at a young age," said Straub’s Yanagihara.

Discussing with your child what he or she views on TV — even educational and news programming, can help develop your child’s critical-thinking and listening skills. Ask your child: Is this real or fiction? What happened? How does this show make you feel? This is a parent’s opportunity to make sure the child is not making false assumptions about what’s on the screen.

Compared to toddlers, children in this age group generally are not as impulsive, are able to focus longer and are easier to reason with. Parents should continue to explain rules, expectations and problem behaviors to their school-aged child.

Some experts suggest that when the child encounters problems with others, parents ask the child open-ended questions about what makes respectable and nonviolent behavior. This helps the child develop an understanding about what is acceptable and what is not.

"If a parent can help them solve a problem in a positive and nonviolent manner, they’re giving them a foundation for the rest of their lives," said Paula Wyatt, pediatrician at Straub Hawaii Kai Satellite. "Parents need to be good listeners, to talk to their kids."

Rosemond encourages parents to aim for raising humble, gracious, modest and obedient children, not ones who feel "entitled."

"We live in a culture that believes in entitlement," he said. "What the research has found is that people with high self-esteem have low self-control."

Teaching teens

Despite popular belief, it may be possible to teach a old dog — or teen — new tricks.

But it’s not always easy.

If your child is a teen and you have not yet created clear rules and expectations for respectful and peaceful behavior, it can still be done, Rosemond said. The trick is to implement a new family structure and rules all at once.

"Shut off the TV, assign chores, insist upon obedience and good manners," Rosemond advised parents of teens. "Don’t phase it in. Do it all at once. If you want the child to take you seriously, you gotta pull out the rug from under them."

It may be more difficult to change a teenager, who will tend to be already heavily influenced by his or her peers and accustomed to the existing family structure.

Acklin believes the three principles of respectable behavior — role-modeling, treating the child with respect and setting up expectations — apply to all ages.

"It’s just a matter of explaining it to your child in a way they can understand," he said.

With teenagers, you should still tell them what you expect of them, but walk away, Acklin said. If the teen wants to grumble, moan and groan, ignore it.

But if he or she resorts to name-calling or open defiance, it deserves a response, he added. Parents should make it clear that they will not tolerate it, and that there will be consequences.

If a teen goes out of control ö displaying acts of serious aggression or breaking the law ö parents should seek professional help.

Living peacefully

Simone Derow-Ostapowicz moved in with the DiGrazias four years ago, when she was 18 years old. Adjusting to the new family structure — one that was heavily focused on the family and peaceful communication — was something she wasn’t exposed to when she previously lived in Arkansas.

"I’ve learned to confront issues and communicate my emotions and feelings," said the University of Hawaii art major. She is the daughter from Tom’s first wife’s second marriage, hanai-ed by Tom after her mom passed away. "That’s the greatest thing I’ve learned growing up with (Louisa and Tom) these past couple of years. They keep everything out in the open."

The impact on all the DiGrazia children is evident: Glover, 28, is a case manager and counselor for a program that helps women when they leave prison; Sara, 22, with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, plans on attending law school and graduate school in social work; Simone Derow-Ostapowicz, 23, is majoring in fine arts and has a heart for helping others. Frank, 9, is in the fourth grade in Arkansas.

They are following in their parents’ footsteps: Tom is a "peace-making" attorney involved in mediation and Louisa is a yoga instructor who teaches female inmates, senior citizens and children.

"There are cultures who focus on the family unit, on the community, on peace," said Louisa. "We have lost our way in our culture. We don’t teach those things to our children."

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