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“Anger And Frustration Are Not Flaws; They Are A Reality Of Life For Everyone”

With the best will in the world, working with young children can be a frustrating business. Here's how to keep your emotions in check

Sarah Ockwell-Smith
by Sarah Ockwell-Smith

“Never work with children or animals,” the saying goes. I don’t think that’s true and I’m sure you don’t either.

Working with children, or indeed animals, can bring great joy and satisfaction. There’s no doubt, however, that it can be stressful and frustrating at times too. How you manage this stress and frustration is as important as anything else you do in your role.

Why do your emotions matter so much? Aside from professionalism, you have a huge effect on the children in your care. The way you feel and act around children will have a direct impact on their behaviour. Right from birth, children are learning from us.

If a mother is stressed and anxious, research has shown that her baby is more likely to suffer from colic and more likely to develop sleep problems. It could be argued that colicky, non-sleeping babies are the cause of the mother’s stress and anxiety, but it appears the opposite is true: if the mother is calm, her baby is more likely to be calm.

This effect continues throughout childhood. When I work with parents in a coaching capacity, the first thing I’m interested in when they tell me that their child’s behaviour is difficult, is their own behaviour.

Changing the parent’s behaviour is the key to changing the child’s. If the parents are calm and taking care of their own needs, it’s likely their children will be calm too. Sometimes you don’t need to change anything with the child at all; changing the parents’ behaviour is so powerful.

These effects are not unique to parents and their own children, however; they apply to any adult working with children.

I once had a parent-teacher consultation. The teacher was tightly wound, stressed, short-tempered and quite disrespectful in her interaction with me. She told me my son didn’t listen to her and was poorly behaved in class, something that hadn’t happened with any other teachers.

I took a deep breath, considered my response and told her: “I’m finding it hard to have this consultation with you right now; you are making me feel very frustrated and angry, and I’m finding it difficult to listen to you as a result. Perhaps this explains the difficulties you are having with my son?”

The sad irony is that for many adults who work with children, the frustration and stress they experience relating to behaviour can, if not managed well, actually make the behaviour worse. They may find themselves in a vicious cycle of stress, poor behaviour and anger, from the children they care for as well as themselves. This is a cycle you must avoid.

So how do you prevent the stress, poor behaviour and anger cycle? As ever, prevention is better than cure. Finding a way to keep all staff members as calm as possible in the first place, so that the cycle never has chance to take hold, is the best place to start.

Finding solutions

Circle sharing It may sound terribly cheesy, but ‘circle sharing’ is perhaps the most effective way to diffuse anger and frustration in any social situation.

What does it look like in practice? At the end of each day, or session, staff gather together for 10 minutes, sitting in a circle, and share what they’ve found challenging that day. Others may empathise, share advice or just listen. All are equally helpful. Knowing that you’re part of a shared experience, whether it’s going well or badly, can really help.

Team building This follows on from circle sharing. The bonds between staff members are crucial when we think about anger, stress and frustration. Poor bonds can add to the problem, while good bonds can lessen it dramatically. One or two days away from work per year, in team-building exercises, can make a big difference to staff bonds.

Relaxation sessions There’s a growing body of research showing that practising relaxation, or mindfulness, has positive effects in almost all walks of life. It helps children to focus, adults to work more effectively and reduces stress and tension for all.

My recommendation is to start the day with a 10-minute relaxation session, for both staff and children. It might sound a bit ‘new age’, but in reality it’s quite normal and easy to integrate, and is usually loved by all.

An escape area When I write about coping with difficult behaviour in children, I always advocate ‘time in’, rather than ‘time out’, and a ‘calm-down corner’, rather than the ‘naughty step’.

My ideal setting would have a quiet corner filled with sensory objects (soft furry cushions, fairy lights, stress-releasing toys, soft music and calming scents) to help angry children calm down and unwind, slowly removing the frustration behind their behaviour. This result is amplified if a calm and caring adult spends time with them, hence the ‘time in’, rather than ‘out’.

This approach appreciates that there are feelings behind the behaviour that need to be released for better behaviour in the future, but it’s not only relevant to children. Having a calm area for adults to retreat to for a few moments is a great idea to help with ‘grown up’ anger and frustration. Once again, it’s even better if a calm, empathic adult joins them too.

Anger management This may sound like something out of Hollywood movies, but actually we could all benefit from some anger management training. Many large organisations incorporate it into their staff training. If an actual course is too difficult, you can find lots of programmes online, some even for free.

Ultimately, there is no right, or wrong, way to calm down. The solution, and indeed prevention, will look different for everybody. The first step, however, is to recognise that we’re all human, and that anger and frustration are not flaws; they’re a reality of life for everyone.

Once we admit how common they are, we can drastically reduce the impact they have upon our lives and perhaps most importantly, the children that we care for.


There will always be times when you lose your temper, but there are steps you can take to help yourself manage your emotions

1. Accept your feelings We spend far too much time ignoring and burying feelings. This is the wrong approach. When you feel frustrated or angry, the best response is to note how you are feeling. Stop for a moment and think, “What am I feeling and why am I feeling it?” Remember, it’s okay to be angry, there are just problems sometimes with how we manage it.

2. Find a calming response Once you’ve recognised and acknowledged your feelings, it’s time to move on to help diffuse them. This response may be psychological, physical or, for the best outcome, a mix of both:

Psychological – take your pick from practising mindfulness, gratitude, slow breathing, visualisation and positive affirmations.

Physical – can you take a break, get a drink, play with a stress ball, go for a quick walk, or if you’re feeling really bad, head home early? We take a lot more care of our physical health than our mental health, which is very wrong.

Sarah Ockwell-Smith is a parenting expert, author and mother of four.

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