Some children feel emotions more than others. Certain strong emotions, especially anger, can cause children to get worked up and act out from a young age. While parents may want to scream back to “stop” and then discipline them, this is only a temporary fix. Children need help learning how to manage their feelings.
Before anything else is said, it’s important to start the discussion with a disclaimer — feeling angry is not bad. Children (and adults, for that matter) shouldn’t feel shame or guilt for being angry. Anger is only destructive when it isn’t handled with care. That’s what this post is addressing.
This post focuses on how to preemptively help your child manage their emotions. For tips on what to do when a tantrum happens, click here.
The Brain & Anger
As unscientific as emotions seem, there are biological causes for any emotion a person feels. And even though your child is tiny, their body is reacting to anger the same way yours does.
Anger is your body’s response to a perceived threat and/or a response to frustration. (Remember, a threat doesn’t necessarily mean a threat to their physical well-being. Anything that threatens to disrupt their life in an undesirable way is enough to label it as a threat.)
This plays out in countless ways throughout humankind. One person’s threat is another person’s walk in the park. This is where your relationship with your child comes in. What things have you noticed they perceive as a threat? What things frustrate them?
Here is a list of a few common triggers for both.
- Parents leaving
- Loud noises
- Siblings or playmates
- Internal disruption
- Overstimulation (auditory, tactile, mental)
- Understimulation (not moving enough, not interacting with others enough)
- Inability to complete a task
- Feeling out of control
- Pain or illness
Once any of those triggering threats or frustrations happen, the part of the brain that processes fear and anger sets off a chain reaction within a child’s mind and body. Their heart starts beating faster, adrenaline starts pumping, and the part of their brain that is in charge of rational thinking and problem-solving more or less shuts down.
From a biological standpoint, they are ready to protect themselves from whatever is threatening them. The problem is that they aren’t trying to protect themselves from a wild animal. All that happened was that their older sibling took their toy. But remember that logical part of their brian shutting down? In this moment, there are no differences between the two.
Techniques for Managing Anger
Thankfully, anger isn’t an unstoppable force. If your child is easily frustrated or angered, here are some ways to help interrupt the biological process so they can get back into their emotional driver’s seat.
(Note: Even if your child isn’t the type to get easily frustrated or angered, it’s important to talk to them about what to do if they get upset. Having the knowledge will help them when they inevitably get angry and have to navigate the emotion on their own.)
- Keep talking to a minimum. A lecture or lots of words are NOT what your child needs when they feel angry. (REMEMBER: The part of their brain that can listen and think things through is shut down.) Keep your talking to a minimum and do your best to make it supportive.
- Teach them to top and breathe. It seems almost too simple to be true, but deep breathing evaporates anger. doesn’t happen when there is an emergency, so your child’s brain starts to get the message that they don’t need to be angry after all.
- Go to a calm spot. Much like calm breathing, a space that your child knows is safe tells their brains that there isn’t something trying to harm them. A calm place will look different for every child. For some, it will be their room. For others, it could be hiding under a blanket in the middle of the room for a few minutes. Work with them to find what works best.
- A word of warning on using the child’s room as a calm spot. Make sure they know that they are being put in their room to calm down and not as punishment for being angry.
- Develop a feeling vocabulary. “Like so many of the difficulties that come from being a parent, a lot of the destructive things kids can do when they’re angry happen because they don’t know how to communicate,” says educational psychologist Dr. Michele Borba. “Many kids display aggression such as kicking, screaming, hitting, biting because they simply don’t know how to express their frustrations any other way.” Even if your child can’t talk yet, help them navigate their emotions by saying the names of their feelings out loud. You could even teach them sign language for those emotions if they are old enough to learn but still can’t verbally communicate well.
- Identify where they feel angry. Anger has a physical “feeling,” and it’s different for every person. Your child’s face may feel hot, their vision may start to tunnel, or their hands clench into fists. Help them identify the signs in their body so that, when they get angry in the future, they can recognize the feeling and interrupt the anger before it turns into a tantrum.
Leading by Example
Like almost every other part of parenting, check to see if the way you deal with anger is helping or hurting your child as they deal with theirs.
The plain and simple truth is that angry language directed at a child can quite literally scar them. According to researchers at Harvard, children who experience verbal abuse from their parents and peers experience the equivalent of scarring on their developing brains that lasts into adulthood. Three areas of the brain are most affected by harsh, angry language: the area that manages language processing, the area that (when harmed) is linked to depression and dissociation, and the part that is linked to anxiety.
So be honest with yourself about how you manage your anger. If you deal with it well, stay diligent. If you do, your child will have someone to emulate. And if you struggle with managing your anger, being honest about your desire to do better is an incredibly powerful way to prompt your child to do the same. Working together to manage anger could be the thing that motivates your child the most to learn.