Helping Kids Learn to Deal with Anger the Right Way
As a parent, dealing with an angry child can be stressful. And exhausting. Children often struggle to cope with big emotions. And anger is certainly one of the biggest. For that matter, many adults struggle when it comes to managing anger and responding in a constructive way. I know I am guilty of the occasional angry outburst.
And some kids’ angry outbursts can be real showstoppers. I’m talking about more than your typical tantrum. Throwing things, screaming, threats, and insults, scratching, and kicking are all part of the package with some children. If this is your child, you are not alone. And dealing with them in that state is extremely draining.
If you find yourself struggling to help your child deal with anger and other difficult emotions, check out these tips for helping your child manage their anger.
And if you find your child is angry more often than not. Or acts out aggressively or in self-destructive ways when they are upset, there are a few extra tips for you too.
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Helping Your Child Cope with Anger
1. Identify the Primary Emotion Behind Your Child’s Anger
Anger is often called a secondary emotion. This is because anger is often a cover for other difficult emotions like hurt, fear, or disappointment. Anger is a very human response to pain. Anger makes us feel powerful and helps us ignore emotional pain. This may be even more true for children.
When you’re dealing with an angry child, it can be helpful to try and identify their primary emotion. Are they hurt? Scared? Disappointed? Anxious?
Anger can also be a symptom of a more serious issue. For a child struggling with anxiety or even ADHD, anger can be one of the most obvious signs. This is especially true for young children. Not knowing how to express their feelings of being out of control, they lash out.
2. Remember that Anger is Not a Misbehavior
It’s important to remember anger by itself is not a misbehavior. Feelings are never wrong. You may feel your child has no reason to be angry but they see it differently. And you won’t convince them you’re right by denying their feelings.
It’s important to distinguish between anger, the feeling, and aggression in response to anger. Aggression towards people or objects in response to anger IS a misbehavior.
A few other important things to remember. You will not discipline the anger out of your child. Anger alone is not a discipline problem. You will not talk them out of their anger with reason, sarcasm, or brilliant insights.
You will not convince your child they are not or should not be mad. So, let that dream go and stop beating your head against the wall trying to reason with an angry child.
3. Acknowledge Your Child’s Angry Feelings
We all want to feel validated. By acknowledging your child’s anger and empathizing you might be able to help them calm down. If they don’t have to defend themselves to you and feel understood they’re better able to calm down and accept help.
Sometimes this takes a little time. Acknowledging my child’s anger when she is already mid-fit is not going to calm her down immediately. It might keep her from escalating, though. And once she is calmer it gives us a place to start talking about problem-solving.
Once you acknowledge your child’s feelings you can try to identify the primary emotion behind their anger. Are they frustrated? Or anxious? What deeper emotions are you really dealing with?
I often find myself impatient with my kids’ anger. I want them to get over it, especially when it’s about something seemingly ridiculous like who got the red sippy cup or what we’re having for lunch.
And I struggle not to let my impatience show. And to acknowledge their anger without rolling my eyes. I’m sarcastic and impatient…but those things won’t help my angry kiddo.
If I expect my child to learn to control anger and aggression I better learn to control my less charming qualities as well. As a parent, you always have to be the bigger person. Because you ARE the bigger person. It’s exhausting, I know.
4. Set Limits for Kids on What Angry Behavior is Allowed
Remember when I said you need to distinguish between anger and aggression? This is where that part comes in. Anger is normal. And it’s fine to express it, within acceptable limits.
And those limits might be different at your house than they are at mine. But there are a few things we can all agree on.
The most important rule for expressing anger in my home is, “I’m safe, you’re safe.” I learned this rule from a child therapist and it has been so valuable. It’s ok to be angry and it’s ok to express it. But there are limits to what expression is allowed. Expressing anger needs to be done in a safe way.
This is where determining the difference between anger and aggression is important. You can be angry. And you can let people know you’re angry. But you can’t hurt people, break things, or otherwise behave destructively.
5. Offer Your Child Alternative Ways to Handle Anger
Angry kids sometimes throw things, break things, hurt people, and often hurt themselves. It can be a struggle to help young children manage these behaviors. The way I’ve had the most success is with teaching alternative ways to express angry feelings.
Let your child know it’s ok to feel angry and to let that anger out in a safe way. Suggest they stomp their feet or scream into a pillow. Maybe they need to run around outside for a few minutes. Choose a couple of safe things that work for your child and fit within your family’s rules.
6. Teach Your Child to Self-Calm After an Angry Outburst
Equally important for helping your child manage anger is teaching them how to calm down. This can be one of the hardest steps. Especially if you have a child who tends to work themselves up and spiral out of control.
One of the best things I learned when I discussed helping kids calm down with a children’s therapist was using breathing techniques. She taught me some to use at home. And my kids and I have come up with a few of our own as well.
The first technique is something we call “dragon breaths”. It involves taking deep breaths and lifting your arms over your head like wings while you breathe in. And slowly lowering them while you breathe out. Ten dragon breaths can have a very calming effect.
Another breathing technique is pretending each finger of your child’s hand is a lit candle. Have them take deep breaths in and blow out each candle with a big exhale.
Finally, my kids’ favorite and one we invented at home is pretending to blow a hat off of mom’s head. I put my hand on my head and let them blow it off with ten big breaths.
You can customize any of these. Or come up with your own way of getting your child to take 10 or so deep breaths.
Breathing can work wonders. Often the hardest part is convincing an angry child to cooperate with a breathing exercise when they don’t really want to calm down. I’ll admit to offering rewards or threatening consequences for aggressive behavior if my kids won’t try the breathing.
And as an added bonus, my toddler loves these breathing games and I have successfully used them to calm even normal two-year-old tantrums. Maybe she’ll grow up an expert in self-calming. I can hope so!
7. Model Calm Behavior to Your Angry Child
The most important and often hardest step in teaching your child to manage anger is learning to manage your own. If your child sees you get mad and yell, throw things, behave aggressively, or otherwise model inappropriate ways to manage anger nothing you say to them is going to make a difference.
This is hard! Nothing pushes your buttons like your kids, bless their hearts! But pull it together, guys. Try some dragon breaths. Or screaming into a pillow. Expecting self-control from an angry child without demonstrating it yourself is a recipe for failure.
I recently read something about managing my anger in front of my children that affected me profoundly. In the amazing book How Not to Hate Your Husband After Having Kids, the author relays the advice she received from a marriage counselor on how to control her temper.
The counselor tells the author when she is about to lose her temper in front of her kids, to look at a picture of her child and say out loud, “I know what I am about to do will cause you harm. But right now, my anger is more important to me than you are.”
For most parents, myself included, that is enough to stop me from throwing my adult version of a temper tantrum. Nothing, least of all my anger, is more important to me than my kids.
But if you fail, and you will, because you’re human, apologize to your child. Demonstrate how to handle a failure to manage anger. Use the situation to jumpstart a conversation about dealing with anger and how it affects others. But this will only work if you follow it up with doing better next time. And every time after that.
8. Reconnecting with Your Child After an Angry Episode
After the storm has passed, and your child’s anger has resolved, take some time to reconnect with them. If they managed to cool down with breathing exercises, or screaming into a pillow, praise them for their success! Always, always, recognize the behavior you want to encourage!
If your child lost it, threw things, hit their sibling, or you, or the situation otherwise unraveled, chances are you took a break from each other. Once they’re calmer and ready to talk, have a conversation about what happened.
I like to ask my kids what happened, from their perspective. And what they think went wrong. Then we talk about how to handle it better, next time. Because no matter how it seems, your child WANTS to do better. They want to succeed and feel in control of their emotions.
Teach your child tools to manage their anger.
When Your Child Needs Help with Their Anger
For some kids, anger is extreme and seems to happen too often. If you feel like your child is getting angry too often, is angry all the time, or acts out in dangerous ways, there is help.
Look for warning signs like frequent explosive outbursts, threatening to harm others or themselves, expressing self-hatred or an inability to calm down.
If you’re concerned about your child’s anger and their ability to manage it, talk to your child’s doctor about the possibility of seeing a pediatric mental health professional.
These behaviors are a cry for help. Your child is hurting and they might need more than you can offer by yourself. An experienced therapist can help your child and you deal with these out of control emotions.
Check out the book The Explosive Child for expert help understanding and helping your child learn to manage their out of control feelings and outbursts. This book has made a huge difference for my family.
Do you struggle with helping your child manage anger? Have you found ideas that help? Leave a comment below!