How to manage your child’s anger
It’s enough to make most parents shame-faced with embarrassment: your otherwise cherubic three-year-old throwing a whopper of a temper tantrum in a busy supermarket. They scream and lash out, tiny face scrunched up in anger, with little legs pumping like pistons in the air — all under the judgemental gaze of passers-by.
Then, just when you think it’s safe to go out in public again, your child morphs into a turbulent teen seemingly overnight. And if your teen gets angry, there can be screaming matches, eye rolling, door slamming and, when they want to pull out the big guns, there’s always the silent treatment.
The reality is that even as adults we know we aren’t going to always agree with those around us. There will always be people who knowingly (or not) aggravate us and push our buttons. As family psychologist Sally-Anne McCormack points out, kids need to know that all feelings, including anger, are OK: “They just need to understand the behaviours to appropriately manage and express those feelings.”
So what is anger, anyway? It’s a human emotion, just like happiness, worry or fear, and it’s also an innate response to perceived danger. Anger is also one way kids begin their journey towards independence and learn how to express themselves.
Teaching very young children to recognise the feelings that signal anger inside their bodies is the first step in helping them learn to manage it. When most people get angry, breathing patterns change; they might feel their heart beat faster or they clench their fists. Author and educational consultant Dr Michele Borba says, once children learn to recognise these signals, parents can point them out to their children when they see them feeling anxious. Saying, for example, “It looks as though you might be getting upset. Do you feel yourself starting to get angry?”
“The more we help kids identify those early warning signs when anger is first triggered — usually when they first show signs of tension and stress — the better able they will be to calm themselves down and learn to regulate their own behaviour,” says Borba.
Unfortunately, some parents mistakenly believe that feeling angry is wrong and that any expression of anger is a sign of weakness. Teaching children to repress their angry feelings isn’t the answer. Neither is telling children that if they do feel angry, they aren’t being “nice”. Anger should, and can, be expressed in a healthy way.
Kids need to learn that we do have choices in how we react and deal with situations that make us upset and angry. Teaching your child to be the boss of their anger is about showing them how to resolve conflict in a non-aggressive manner. To help children manage their anger, parents can provide them with a flexible range of anger-management strategies. Conflict situations vary, as do personality types, and of course age and maturity levels need to be factored in. In other words, what works for one child may not work for another.
If another child is making your child angry, brainstorm ways to resolve issues by redirecting their angry energy into problem solving. For example, if your child is upset because his sibling won’t let him play with a shared toy, suggest that each child plays with it for a set amount of time. The key is to work with your child to come up with solutions that are empowering for them.
For older children, look for opportunities in everyday life to discuss non-confrontational ways around problem solving. McCormack says television is a great medium for older children. “If you see conflict between characters on screen, you can ask your kids what they thought and inspire them to see how things could be viewed or looked at in a different way,” she says.
Some experts advocate journalling, but according to McCormack this won’t work for every child. “For some children it helps them to debrief and move on; for others, writing down angry thoughts fuels their anger as they relive it and think about how they could have done things differently,” she says.
Experts suggest another way to help kids stay in control is to teach them to say simple and positive affirmations in stressful situations. Saying these out loud, focusing on your breathing, allows you a moment to pause, to focus and to gather your thoughts. Dr Borba suggests a few affirmations that kids can learn: “Stop and calm down”, “Stay in control”, “Take a deep breath” and “I can handle this.”
While anger should never be labelled as good or bad, it can be a positive catalyst for change. It’s a way of letting you know that something isn’t right within your world. Authors of How to take the GRRR out of Anger, Elizabeth Verdick and Marjorie Lisovskis, say anger is a complex feeling closely linked to feelings of guilt, frustration or grief.
“The child may need to overcome something developmentally (mastering a skill at school) or a child might need to learn how to deal with stresses in relationships (such as teasing or unfair treatment) or it could be a sign that the child is struggling with self-doubt, low self-esteem or feelings of powerlessness.”
If you feel your child has underlying issues, gently talk to them about what might be upsetting them and work with your child to resolve these.
Encourage your child to talk openly and honestly to you. If they can share their feelings, they’re less likely to let their emotions build until they reach breaking point.
Holistic counsellor and youth worker Lucinda Bowers says it’s important that your child knows you are not only acknowledging their feelings but that you accept them — without judgement. “The expression of anger in a child is often a cry for love and a need to be heard,” says Bowers. “If your child feels heard and understood, they’re far less likely to continue with reactive behaviour to get their point across.”
After all, anger can be a frightening and scary emotion. When your child is feeling overcome by powerful feelings of anger, they need to know they are safe with you. Bowers says this allows the child to shift their focus from feeling out of control to being able to think more clearly to apply problem-solving strategies.
It also helps to use imagery to help your child to control these powerful feelings. “Compare their anger to a cloud and ask your child to imagine it dissipating, floating away; this allows the child to feel empowered — not powerless — when they’re angry.”
Sometimes when your child is overwhelmed by their feelings, however, the best course of action is to simply hug them close. “The hug has the effect of water to a flame; it can be more powerful than any words in extinguishing their anger,” adds Bowers.
Encouraging your child to look at the other person’s point of view can help to resolve battles. Bowers suggests asking the child what they think the other person might be feeling or thinking and how they’d feel if they were in the same situation. “Building feelings of empathy in your child can change their perspective in a situation,” she says.
On occasion, through observation, parents may be able to stop an angry outburst from occurring. McCormack says that, sometimes, if you can see the volcano about to erupt in young children, you can use distraction as a technique. “Try an activity they enjoy, such as painting, or take them outside to run around in the sunshine to burn off their angry energy,” she says.
Children are products of the hearts and minds that have nurtured them in this world, yet each and every one of them is also uniquely individual. Some are easy-going, their internal barometers rarely rising in response to situations that would have others rapidly reaching boiling point.
Regardless of your child’s temperament, kids need to know they aren’t being naughty if they feel angry about something or with someone. If they have lashed out in anger, show them how they could have handled the situation differently. Let them know everyone makes mistakes and that you can learn from them.
McCormack says lessons learned at home about anger management equip children with valuable tools they’ll need to navigate conflict situations throughout their lives. “Conflicts with siblings allow children to learn about managing conflict and feelings of anger in a safe environment,” she says. “Even though it drives us parents crazy at times, it’s healthy and helpful for them to work through conflict with brothers and sisters at home,” she says.
Dealing with anger
Keep your cool
Look at your own responses to stress and anger. Ask yourself, “How do I react when I get angry?” “What did I learn about anger when I was a child?” According to the experts, remaining calm in difficult and anxious situations is one of the best things you can do to model effective anger-management strategies to your children. Kids will mirror parents’ emotional responses: if you’re calm, your child will see that as the right way to manage anger.
McCormack says if you do lose your cool in front of your child, acknowledge what you have done. “Look at it as a perfect teaching opportunity,” she says. “Say you got angry and yelled at another driver for cutting you off; talk about how you could have handled the situation in a more positive way. You can even ask your child for input,” she says.
Don’t let it escalate
There may be times when a child’s anger escalates into physical fighting. If squabbles or taunts have led to blows, after you’ve separated the fighting children, give them a chance to calm down, let them know that their actions won’t be tolerated and that there will be a consequence if it’s repeated.
Praise the positives
Part of teaching your child about what’s acceptable and what isn’t is praising their positive behaviour — giving them a pat on the back when they get it right. Look for opportunities every day to “catch them while they are good”, says McCormack. “We often point out when the kids are misbehaving. Try praising their positive behaviour when you observe them interacting with each other in a positive way: ‘Love the way you guys are playing together so well.’ It really pumps them up,” she says.
Slay your own childhood dragons
There’s good reason to help your children learn to deal with their feelings of anger: unresolved anger issues from your childhood can stick with you. Anger issues are a heavy burden to carry throughout your adult life. They can affect relationships and contribute to stress, anxiety and illness. If you are having trouble dealing with your feelings of anger and think you may have unresolved anger issues, talk to a counsellor.
Tip on tantrums
According to the experts, there’s one hard and fast rule: never, ever give in to a tantrum. McCormack says if your child throws tantrums, whether they are a toddler or a teen, giving in is a sure-fire way to guarantee repeat behaviour. “If we eventually give in to the child’s tantrum, we’ve reinforced the behaviour that if they yell and scream long enough it will lead to success — they’ll get what they want,” she says.
Need to sidestep a meltdown fast? Here are some proven techniques to help your child learn to keep their cool.
Carrol Baker is a freelance journalist who writes for lifestyle and health magazines across Australia.