Is your child suddenly a hurricane of emotions? Does it seem that his or her mood shifts with the wind? Are you afraid that he or she is showing more anger or frustration than you deem appropriate or normal for minor incidents?
Rest assured, anger is a normal emotion for all young children to experience. While anger can cause a great deal of stress for those who become targets, such as parents and siblings, it actually plays a positive role in human development, according to Dr. Virginia Shiller, PhD, licensed clinical psychologist and author of the book Rewards for Kids! Ready-to-Use Charts & Activities for Positive Parenting.
“Anger motivates people to assert themselves and get their needs met. And over time, anger can be channeled into fighting for causes important to family, friends, and community. In the long run, if you don't have a little fight in you, you may be less likely to rise to positions of responsibility and influence,” says Dr. Shiller.
However, for anger to become a positive force, children must learn to express it in socially appropriate ways. Parents play a critical role in this socialization process. “They can both model healthy and appropriate ways of expressing anger and can intervene in constructive ways when children show hurtful anger,” Dr. Shiller explains.
Parents often have an opportunity to intervene when their children express anger, says Dr. Shiller. If children fight with siblings or friends over toys and push or hit to get their way, parents can turn this negative situation into a positive learning experience. By teaching children better ways of getting their needs met—such as taking turns and learning to share—parents guide children towards more constructive anger management. Parents can even role-play as a playmate and have children practice requesting to share toys.
If there is a situation developing between young kids, parents can step in and redirect the interaction before a struggle ensues. “Explain to the child why he can't poke the baby in her eye, while calmly and gently pulling the baby away. Try not to be angry with the child's feelings so that you both can separate emotions from behavior. Suggest other ways to deal with the situation that angered the child,” says Debra Gilbert Rosenberg, licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist, and author of The New Mom’s Companion: Care for Yourself While You Care for Your Newborn.
While the goal is to curb the unacceptable behavior, such as violence and tantrums, parents should keep in mind that they don't want to prevent the child from feeling anger at all. It further helps for parents to recognize their child’s negative emotion and verbalize what they think their young child is feeling—especially if he can’t. For example, a parent could say, "You are very angry that Joey took that toy away from you." Then follow up with a suggestion of what the child can do now, such as, "Let's go find another toy for you to play with."
“Most parents of toddlers already know that saying ‘use your words’ to an angry child will encourage him to express his feelings rather than resort to physical means, and that's a great approach,” Gilbert Rosenberg says.
Parents might also set up an incentive plan that provides modest rewards for children who ask to take turns or share instead of punching or grabbing, Dr. Shiller adds. This in the long run can help motivate children to work harder at turn-taking.
If parents really feel that their child's angry outbursts are out of control, constant, violent and/or potentially dangerous, seeking outside help can be wonderful, says Gilbert Rosenberg. “Parents may be reassured to find out that their child is perfectly normal, but they may also discover that added support and guidance are essential to the family.”
Christine D'Amico, personal coach and author of The Pregnant Woman's Companion, notes that parents can constructively help kids deal with anger by not shaming them or telling them that their anger is wrong. Children need to learn how to recognize what makes them angry and then respond constructively.
D’Amico notes that it’s futile to try to reason with your child when he or she is in the heat of anger. “Let them blow off some steam first. You can let them do that wherever they happen to be when they get mad. You can send them to their room to blow off steam. Or you can sit with them while they express their anger,” she explains. Once the child has calmed down, D’Amico suggests you talk with him about what made him mad. Help him see all sides of the situation. Try to come up with a new option together—one that meets the needs of everyone in the situation. She says parents can also discuss how the child expressed his or her anger. Tell him that what he did was not good behavior and he did not treat himself or others with respect.
Reading books about characters dealing with anger can also help children understand that they are not alone in their feelings. When I Wished I Was Alone, written and illustrated by Dave Cutler, is a good example. The book is about a boy who is very angry, and the story discusses what anger feels like and how to deal with it. Parents can use the book as a starting point to talk about anger with their own children.
Although many parents don’t realize it, they provide role models for how their children deal with anger. “If parents scream at each other, call people cruel names, yell at the kids, and throw tantrums or furniture, their children will learn that flying off the handle is an acceptable way to manage anger,” Gilbert Rosenberg says.
She suggests that parents learn to manage their own anger and, on occasion, allow their children to see how anger is expressed appropriately (however, it should be pointed out that children should not witness fights between spouses often). If children see their parents express anger without name-calling or physical violence, then they will learn to do the same.
“Parents play a huge role,” says D’Amico. “They teach their children what is OK or not OK in expressing anger or frustration. Parents do this by what they say, as well as by what they do themselves when they are angry,” she continues. “We model both how to be angry and how to respond to anger. Our children often copy us in their own angry behaviors.”
“It's rare to see children whose anger is uncontrollable in families where anger is shared in constructive, non-hurtful ways,” Gilbert Rosenberg concludes. “Parents can show children that they love someone and still disagree with them or get angry with them in a loving way. This is an invaluable lesson.”