All people, including children, experience anger which can at times overwhelm their ability to make good decisions. As with all emotions, anger is not a bad thing. It helps us to protect ourselves and do something when we feel we’ve been wronged. Although there is nothing wrong with experiencing anger, kids may choose inappropriate and unsafe ways to display that anger. If your child struggles to manage their anger safely here are some things that you can do to help.
Separate Anger from Poor Behavior
It’s common for caregivers to punish children for expressing anger in any form. This could be punishing a child for an angry face or tone of voice. Consider whether your child is simply feeling angry or if they are acting in a way that is unsafe or inappropriate. If a child is displaying anger safely, validate that feeling (“I can see that you’re angry”) and support them in choosing ways to calm themselves. Maybe they’d like to play outside, walk the dog, or spend some time alone in their room. All of these are great choices for managing anger. Then, when they are calm, come back together to discuss. Focusing on times in which a child is making good choices with their anger reinforces that behavior and increases their likelihood of making safe choices again.
Redirect to a Safe Choice
Anger creates a unique energy in the body that kids likely need help with. Behaviors like hitting, throwing, or slamming things, although unsafe, do serve a purpose in helping children to expel built-up energy. While trying to decrease unsafe behaviors, focus on redirecting kids to safer alternatives. Try saying things like "I am not for hitting. You can choose to hit your pillow or you may choose to hit a stuffed animal," "Breakable things are not for throwing. You may choose to go throw a ball outside or throw a soft toy," etc. By offering acceptable alternatives, you teach that child how to healthfully move angry energy out of their body.
Spotlight what you want to see
Children strive for connection with other people. They act in ways that get attention from the people around them. Negative attention is better than no attention. Instead of giving a child your complete focus exclusively when they are tantrumming or misbehaving, notice when they are being flexible, helpful, or considerate and give them a 30-second burst of attention. Acknowledging the moments your child makes a good choice will increase the likelihood of a child choosing similar behaviors the next time. This also means that when a child makes a choice that hurts another person, attend to the victim before addressing the poor choice with your child. This shift can help angry children improve their empathy for others.
Allow them to experience consequences
When a child chooses unsafe behaviors in a moment of anger, allow them to experience the consequence of that choice. Did they break a toy? Do not replace or fix it for them. Does their sibling not want to be around them after being hit? Sometimes even when we apologize, people don’t want to be around us when we’ve hurt them. Don’t try to force the relationship back to the way it was. Making poor choices is part of being human but feeling the consequences of that choice is how children grow and make better decisions the next time.
Consider what they are seeing
Think about the last time that you or another caregiver in your child’s life was angry. How was it handled? Was there yelling, profanity, or unsafe behaviors? Silence and isolation from others? Did you take some space to calm yourself and then communicate your needs? Kids learn from the people around them how to handle their emotions. Sometimes the best way to change a child’s behavior is to show them a new way. Consider changes you may want to make in your own anger reactions. It’s a great idea to communicate to your kids that you're making these changes and be ready to take responsibility when falling short. No one handles their emotions in the best way all the time. Showing them that growth and accountability are possible at all ages is a wonderful, lifelong lesson.
Anger in children can be exhausting and overwhelming to manage. If you feel that your child may need help to manage their anger, please don’t hesitate to reach out to Oasis Springs Children's Counseling Center at 719-407-2093 or by booking a session at the link below.