How to cope with anger in children

How to cope with anger in children

At the playground, a three-year-old gets cross and starts screaming and kicking, throwing quite a tantrum. She was trying to make a shape using a sand mould and it didn’t work out. Her grandfather is there with her and it looks as though he has also reached the end of his tether... But he takes a moment to calm himself and then slowly crouches down next to the little girl and strokes her back. “Today was tough, wasn’t it? If you want, you can stamp on the sand shapes you made, to let out all your anger. And then together we can try making this tricky one again. What do you think?” 

Where does anger come from?

These days, no one seems to have time for anger. We’ve labelled it as something bad, even forbidden. You can probably remember hearing people say to their child: Good children don’t throw tantrums. Where has my nice little boy gone? If you don’t stop that now, I'm leaving you here! What a horrible fuss you are making! Anger isn’t convenient and we need to make sure we, and especially our children, know that it’s out of bounds. Or do we?!

Anger is a basic human emotion. We have a specific relationship with each of our emotions. That relationship is — to a great extent — formed by how our parents, relatives, and teachers dealt with it when we were young. We are all quick to welcome joy into our lives, but anger is deemed one of the emotions we tend to reject, along with others like sadness and fear. There are, though, very good reasons why we get angry. In the distant past, a good dose of anger helped us defend ourselves from our enemies. People who got angry suddenly became far stronger and better able to protect their homes and families. It’s true that we don’t need to use anger for this purpose too often any more, but its key function hasn’t changed: anger warns us that someone or something has gone a step too far; something is happening that we don’t like or that could put us in danger. Anger causes an enormous adrenaline boost, creating extra energy to help us see off that threat. 

What can I do about it?

Anger is an entirely natural reaction to situations we don’t like. We must bear in mind that something that seems trivial to one person could seem like the end of the world to someone else. Some people get irritated when a car doesn’t stop to let them cross the road; others get angry when they read or watch the news. For yet another person, all it takes is for someone to bump into them as they walk past, and disaster strikes. Our children experience similar annoyances on a daily basis. So, we grown-ups need to teach them that there is nothing wrong with anger in itself, it’s the way we choose to express it that can become problematic. It is important to explain to children what anger means and what it is good for, and then show them how to handle that feeling in a healthy manner. 

A 5-step guide:

1. Accept it

Before a person can process their own anger they first need to accept it, to realise what it is they are feeling. And then they can take a deep breath and decide what to do about it. So if you want to teach your children to accept their own emotions, you must first accept their emotions yourself. That means not trying to talk them out of their anger or to persuade them they have no reason to be cross — in other words, not downplaying the problem; not making fun of it or ridiculing it. The simple fact is, when a child is angry it’s because something has happened to make them angry. Never mind whether that ‘something’ seems unreasonable to you or that you find your child’s reaction to be over-the-top. It’s important to show them that you love them even when they are experiencing uncomfortable emotions, and that you can cope with those emotions together. This is the fastest way of enabling children to learn to deal with anger themselves.

But how can you help your child when their anger so often ignites your own?

2. Name it

Begin by trying to name what is going on, from your perspective: “I can see that you’re having trouble doing up the zipper on your coat. That’s probably frustrating, isn’t it?” Try to talk calmly and not judge. Younger children, in particular, often don’t know how to describe what’s bothering them, so your observation can help them understand better what is happening. Describing the situation from your perspective also gives your child the chance to correct you if something different was annoying them: it can happen that what appears to merely be a stuck-zip problem is actually ‘the last straw’ in a series of annoyances which have been accumulating, and that that has opened the floodgates. The same happens to us as adults: we miss the bus to work in the morning, then find that the coffee machine isn’t working, followed by a client failing to turn up to a meeting… And then when our lunch comes out of the microwave cold, we explode like a pressure cooker.

So how can this meltdown be avoided? Your child has just thrown his coat on the floor and is having a tantrum — kicking and screaming, and you’re in a huge hurry to catch the bus…

3. Keep calm

The more you allow yourself to become carried away by your own emotions, the less able you will be to help your child manage theirs. When you feel your calmness slowly but surely slipping away, take a deep breath or two or three, and try to regain your composure by naming what you yourself are feeling. There’s no need to put on any pretence with your children. It’s often enough just to say: “I’m starting to get nervous now, because our bus is leaving in a few minutes and we need to catch it.” 

4. Let the emotion pass

Then again, sometimes the anger is so strong that it completely overwhelms all rational thought. When that happens, there’s not much point in doing anything except allowing your child to ‘get it out of their system’ safely. It’s important for them to avoid hurting themself or anyone/anything else. Harmless ways of letting-off steam can include screaming, stamping, punching cushions or pillows, running, jumping, ripping up paper, etc. Sometimes it can help to roar like a lion. With an older child, you might try getting them to draw a picture of their anger and then tear it to shreds. Some children find that dragon breathing helps them to calm down – breathing-in through the nose and letting all the anger out by exhaling through the mouth, like a dragon breathing fire. Others might prefer to take themselves to a quiet place, away from whatever was triggering their anger (but never send them away, as that would be perceived as a punishment). It’s important to find a means of releasing the energy that comes with anger. Bottling-up our emotions sooner or later leads to consequences that are usually far harder to handle. 

What about when your child is having a tantrum in a busy public place and you can’t get them to budge? It’s one of the toughest tests of parenting, but try to stand by your child and take no notice of any scornful looks or comments from passers-by. Maybe those individuals are having a bad day too and have unconsciously found a way of letting off some of their steam… 

5. Talk about what happened

Once the anger has died down (or completely subsided), it’s good to come back to the situation at hand and talk it over calmly with your child. You can go over what happened and discover what has been learned from it. Ask them, for instance: 

“Why were you cross?”

“Did you get annoyed by … ?”

“What do you need?”

“Would it help if … ?”

“Do you know what helps me when I get really irritated?” 

Sometimes it’s fairly clear what is troubling your child in a certain situation, but often children don’t know exactly what it was that made them so angry, and a few prompts from you can help them recover their bearings in the whole unhappy situation. Children don’t want to have tantrums any more than we do, so if we show them other ways of coping with their anger they will tend to turn to those at the next opportunity. 

With younger children especially, do keep in mind that the root cause of their irritation or tantrum can also be a physiological need that is not being met. Plenty of children get grumpy when they are hungry or thirsty or if they aren’t feeling well; or indeed, when they have been over-stimulated by being in a new place or playing with new toys. In those cases, it’s best to start by addressing the flashing signal. Afterwards (even the next day), you can revisit the issue and discuss the other aspects.

Teaching children to process their anger is not something that can be accomplished in a week, let alone overnight. And it’s a considerable challenge for every parent. Reflect on how you deal with anger yourself, what kind of relationship you have with it; and then lend some thought to how you normally respond to your child’s anger.

Be patient and kind to your child – and also to yourself. Practice makes perfect, and a desire to change things for the better is already a very good start. You can actually use the five steps listed above as a guide when working through any emotion, not just anger. You will need to do most of the work yourself, of course, but we hope we can help you a little through our stories as well as our articles about children’s emotional intelligence

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