Helping Your Child Learn to Manage Anger
All kids -- like all humans -- get angry. When we feel threatened, we move into fight, flight or freeze. Anger is the body's "fight" response.
But we don't only get angry in response to outside threats. We also get angry in response to our own feelings. So when our own fear, hurt, disappointment, pain or grief is too upsetting, we tend to lash out to keep ourselves from feeling pain. We mobilize against the perceived threat (even our own upsets) by attacking. Because kids don't have a fully developed frontal cortex to help them self-regulate, they're even more prone to lashing out when they're angry.
Sometimes attacking makes sense, but only when there's actually a threat. That's rare. Most of the time when kids get angry, they want to attack their little brother (who broke their treasured memento), their parents (who disciplined them "unfairly"), their teacher (who embarrassed them) or the playground bully (who scared them.)
When kids live in a home where anger is handled in a healthy way, they generally learn to manage their anger constructively. That means:
* Controlling aggressive impulses
By the time they're in kindergarten, kids should be able to tolerate the flush of adrenaline and other "fight" chemicals in the body without acting on them by clobbering a playmate. As we accept our child's anger and remain calm, she lays down the neural pathways -- and learns the emotional skills -- to calm down without hurting herself, others, or property. (Note: It's not unusual for kindergartners to still hit siblings.)
* Acknowledging the more threatening feelings under the anger
Once the child can let himself experience his grief over the broken treasure, his hurt that his mother was unfair, his shame when he didn't know the answer in class, or his fear when his classmate threatened him, he can move on. He no longer needs his anger to defend against these feelings, so the anger evaporates. By contrast, if we don't help kids get to the true source of their anger, they will just keep losing their tempers, without solving the underlying problem.
* Constructive Problem-Solving
The goal is for your child to use the anger as an impetus to change things as necessary so the situation won't be repeated. This may include moving his treasures out of little brother's reach, or getting parental help to deal with the bully. It may also include acknowledging his own contribution to the problem, so that he resolves to do a better job following his parents' rules, or to come to class more prepared.
Eventually, the child learns to express his needs and wants without attacking the other person, either physically or verbally. He learns to see the other person's side of the issue and look for win/win solutions to the problem, rather than just assuming he's right and the other person is wrong.
Obviously, this kind of problem solving doesn't happen until after the child has calmed down. And it takes years of parental guidance for kids to learn these skills. If parents are able to help kids feel safe enough to express their anger and explore the feelings underneath, kids are able to increasingly move past their anger into constructive problem-solving during the grade-school years.
How can parents help kids learn to manage their anger?
1. Remember that all feelings are allowed.
Only actions need to be limited. Why does this matter? Because when kids "stuff" their emotions, those feelings are no longer under conscious control. Then they pop out unregulated, and the child socks someone. If the emotions are allowed, the child can learn to put them into words instead of hitting.
2. Set limits.
Allowing feelings does not mean we allow destructive actions. Kids should never be allowed to hit others, including their parents. When they do, they are always asking for us to set limits and help them contain their anger. Say "You can be as mad as you want but you cannot hit. I see how mad you are, and I will keep us all safe."
Some children really need to struggle against something when they're angry. It's fine to let them struggle against your holding arms, if that's what they want, but take off your glasses, and don't let yourself get hurt.
Similarly, don't let kids break things in their fury. That just adds to their guilt and sense that they're a bad person. Your job is to serve as a safe "container" and "witness" while you listen to your child's upsets.
3. Don't send a child away to "calm down" by herself.
Remember that kids need your love most when they "deserve it least." Instead of a "time out," which gives kids the message that they're all alone with these big, scary feelings, try a "time in," during which you stay with your child and help him move through his feelings. You'll be amazed at how your child begins to show more self control when you adopt this practice, because he feels less helpless and alone.
4. Stay close and connected when your child is upset.
If you know what's going on, acknowledge it:
"You are so angry that your tower fell."
If you don't know, say what you see: "You are crying now."
Give explicit permission: "It's ok, everyone needs to cry (or gets mad, or feels very sad) sometimes. I will stay right here while you get all your sads and mads out." If you can touch him, do so to maintain the connection: "Here's my hand on your back. You're safe. I'm here."
If he yells at you to go away, say:
"You want me to go away. I will step back like this. But I am right here. I won't leave you alone with these big feelings."
5. Stay calm.
Yelling at an angry child reinforces what she's already feeling, which is that she is in danger. (You may not see why she would think she's in danger when she just socked her little brother, but a child who is lashing out is a child in the grip of deep fear.) So your anger will only make the storm worse. Your job is to restore calm, because kids can only learn and understand how to "do better" when they're calm.
If you are in the habit of yelling at your kids, know that you are modeling behavior that your child will certainly copy.
Kids need to learn from you that anger and other upsetting feelings are not so scary as they seem -- after all, Mom isn't scared of them. Your presence helps them feel safe, which helps them develop the neural pathways in the brain that shut off the "fight or flight" response and allow the frontal cortex, the "reasoning brain," to take over. That's how kids learn to soothe themselves.
6. Give your child ways to manage his angry impulses in the moment.
Most kids resist punching the pillows on the couch, which feels artificial to them, but many love having a punching bag to beat up. You can teach your child to stomp his feet when he's mad. With a child who is a bit older, you can suggest that she draw or write on paper what she is angry about, and then fiercely rip it into tiny pieces. Teach her to use her "PAUSE" button by breathing in for four counts through her nose, and then out for eight through her mouth. Grab two squishy balls; hand her one, and demonstrate working out annoyance on the squishy ball.
When your child is calm, make a list with her of constructive ways to handle emotion, and post it on the refrigerator. Let her do the writing, or add pictures, so she feels some ownership of the list. But also model using it yourself when you're mad: "I'm getting annoyed, so I'm checking our MAD list. Oh, I think I'll put on some music and dance out my frustration!"
7. Help your child be aware of her "warning signs."
Once kids are in the full flush of adrenaline and the other "fight or flight" neurotransmitters, they think it's an emergency, and they're fighting for their lives. At that point, managing the angry impulses is almost impossible, and all we can offer kids is a safe haven while the storm sweeps through them. But if you can help your child notice when she's getting annoyed and learn to calm herself, she'll have many fewer tantrums. When she's little, you'll have to know her cues and take preventive action -- offering some snuggle time, or getting her out of the grocery store. As she gets older, you can point out to her
"Sweetie, you're getting upset. We can make this better. Let's all calm down and figure this out together."
8. Help your child develop emotional intelligence.
Kids who are comfortable with their feelings manage their anger constructively. There's a whole section on this website on emotional intelligence.
Some kids, unfortunately, don't feel safe expressing their uncomfortable feelings. Sometimes they have parents who discount or even ridicule their fears or disappointments. Sometimes they've been sent to their rooms to "calm down" and never received the help they needed to handle their upsets. Sometimes the pain or grief just feels too overwhelming. They try hard to repress their fears, jealousies, and anxieties, but repressed feelings have a way of popping out unmodulated, as when an otherwise loving preschooler suddenly hits the baby. These kids live in fear of their feelings. To fend off this reservoir of fear, grief, or other pain, these kids get angry -- and they stay angry. When this happens, a child needs professional help.
How do you know when your kid needs help handling anger? Look for these ten signs.
- She can't control her aggressive impulses and hits people (other than siblings), past the age of five.
- Frequent explosive outbursts, indicating that he is carrying a full 'tank" of anger that's always ready to spill over.
- She is reflexively oppositional (and she isn't two years old.)
- He is unable to engage in constructive problem-solving and doesn't acknowledge his role in creating the situation, instead feeling constantly victimized and "picked on."
- She frequently loses friends, alienates adults, or is otherwise embroiled in interpersonal conflict.
- He seems preoccupied with revenge.
- She threatens to hurts herself physically (or actually does so).
- He damages property regularly.
- She repeatedly expresses hatred toward herself or someone else.
- He hurts smaller children or animals.
When a child has "anger management issues" it means that he is terrified of those pent-up feelings under the anger (fear, hurt, grief.) To defend against those vulnerable feelings he thinks will destroy him, he hardens his heart and clings to the anger as a defense. Therapeutic intervention can help the child work through those deeper feelings and develop more ability to manage all of his emotions.